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The word "ethics" is derived from the Greek word ethos (character), and from the Latin word mores (customs). In the legal context, ethics defines how individuals choose to interact with one another. In philosophy, ethics defines what is good for the individual and for society and establishes the nature of duties that people owe themselves and one another.

Though law often embodies ethical principles, law and ethics are far from co-extensive. Many acts that would be widely condemned as unethical are not prohibited by law -- lying or betraying the confidence of a friend, for example. And the contrary is true as well. In much that the law does it is not simply codifying ethical norms.

Most professions have highly detailed and enforceable codes for their respective memberships. In some cases, these are spoken of as "professional ethics," or in the case of law, "legal ethics." For example, the American Library Association has a Code of Ethics, the American Medical Association has the Code of Medical Ethics and the American Bar Association has the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Other professions with codes include dentistry, social work, education, government service, engineering, journalism, real estate, advertising, architecture, banking, insurance, and human resources management. Some of these codes have been incorporated into the public law. All are likely to have some effect on judgments about professional conduct in litigation. Generally, failure to comply with a code of professional ethics may result in expulsion from the profession or some lesser sanction.

Additional Resources:

  • Online Journal of Ethics
  • Institute for Business and Professional Ethics

[Last updated in December of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team