The Line Between Ethical and Legal

Growing up, it seemed like my mom criticized my every move. Every time I did something “wrong,” I would receive the same disapproving lecture from her, like clockwork. Her scolding sticks with me to this day: “Just because you’re not breaking a law doesn’t mean you’re not doing something wrong”.

At that time, my mom’s reaction to my “wrongdoings” seemed like a sheer overreaction. I rolled my eyes when I received this lecture for forgetting my water bottle at school. I plugged my ears and hummed as I was berated in this way for missing a call from her. I was irked; why was I getting chewed out as if I had just done unthinkable, illegal things! Why was I getting yelled at so intensely!

Each time, as I got a stern talking-to about the dire consequences that I would endure as a result of my irresponsible behavior (wearing mismatched socks or not replying to an email immediately), I would, in teenage fashion (aka a sassy nightmare) shriek something along these lines: “Mom! Stop overreacting! It’s not like I’m breaking the law or anything!”

In hindsight, these interactions seem humorous. Our ridiculous quips were nothing more than spur-of-the-moment, emotional responses. Obviously packing an unbalanced lunch or forgetting my dance uniform was not ethically equivalent to breaking the law! And, obviously refraining from illegal behavior (ex. robbing a bank) is not ethical or laudable behavior! It’s just not bad.

If for no reason other than hearing it on a repeated basis, the sentiment my mom expressed haunts me to this day. As I make decisions, especially when I am tempted by the more ethically ambiguous or questionable options, her moralizing echoes through my head – that doing good and being good are not necessarily synonymous with just refraining from breaking the law. More practically, it encourages me to see ethical behavior as more than just a question of legality.

I was reminded of this tenet in my work at SAS this week. My position in the legal department, specifically the Ethics and Compliance Division, forces me to reconcile the nuances of corporate ethics daily. Specifically, I struggle to understand whether, for corporations, following the law and conducting business legally is the same thing as conducting business ethically

In my own decision-making, as an individual, this question is far less confusing or unsettling. This doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with maintaining a commitment to ethical behavior, it just means I have an easier time categorizing and labeling my behavior. I don’t have many questions about what constitutes what – I can distinguish between my 3 “levels” of behavior – legal,  , and altruistic.

I recognize this is an oversimplified analysis, but it’s a clear way for me to organize and understand my behavior. To me, acting legally, means complying with laws (ex. choosing not to murder someone or commit identity theft). Acting ethically means evaluating and choosing among alternatives in a manner consistent with ethical principles that I deem important to me (ex. Accepting that I did not contribute equally to a project, because I value honesty, instead of taking credit for someone else’s work). I perceive acting altruistically as holding the impact of your actions on others above all other considerations, often at a cost to yourself (ex. I am in debt, but I know a friend needs help paying their medical bills, so I help despite digging myself into deeper debt).

In considering these levels, I expect myself to adhere to most legal and ethical standards and view altruism as somewhat situational and optional, but I think I should engage in it. In my perspective, it’s not good enough to simply not do x illegal thing, because there is a pressure (whether self-imposed or internalized or otherwise created) that drives me to be ethical, sometimes in a way that is also altruistic.

But, when it comes to corporate behavior and actions – I am so much more confused in these three levels in terms of expectations, definitions, etc. In light of the justified outrage following George Floyd’s murder and increased coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have been struggling with several questions. Upon reflecting, it seems like that leaders, allies, and activists agree that it’s not enough to simply not be racist (and I agree!). One must actively engage with subverting racism, confronting their own ignorance and beliefs, and partake in educating themselves and listening to black voices – essentially, one has to do more than just not engaging in “explicit” racism (ex. Using derogatory language towards black people). This makes sense to me; not being racist is not passive neutrality (or indifference or inaction), it’s about taking an active role in engaging in behavior that confronts one’s biases and tendencies.

In this way, as I was contemplating what to write about this week and everything seemed so insignificant in light of what is going on, I attempted to draw parallels between these two realms. In this regard, I am pondering whether it is enough for businesses to simply not be unethical or not engage in illegal practices. Shouldn’t we also expect them to engage in ethical practices (ex. Is it enough that a company adheres to the global standards of wages for labor or should we expect them to realize that paying workers the bare minimum (as legally outlined) is unethical and expect them to engage in practices that are actively toppling unsettling and harmful institutions and practices (ex. discriminatory practices that marginalize certain demographics). This is something I am going to continue to grapple with and my thoughts on the matter are far from complete. I look forward to gaining new insight over the next couple of weeks.