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Austin L. Browne
Dr. Allen
February 27, 2015

One cannot arrive at a simple, clear definition of what each term means. The meaning of the terms
is often is dependent upon who is defining them.
Many people who write about ethics use the term when referring to the most general codes
by which humankind lives; that is, those codes of behavior that, for the most part, transcend time,
culture, and geography. In simple terms, ethics is the study of peoples concept of right and wrong.
Therefore, we use the word ethical when we are speaking of that general code of right and wrong
recognized by enlightened civilizations from the beginning of time. When we ask the question was
that act or decision ethical? we are asking of it meets the test of what is accepted as universally
right. Writers suggest that we consider such basic concepts as honesty, fairness, and compassion as
universal ethical values. (Josephson, 1989, 42)
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The term moral speaks the issues that concern a community of people rather than
humankind in general. The study of morals also concerns itself with right and wrong but more

directly in terms of specific groups of people. One may consider morals as specific rules of right and
wrong based on universal ethical truths. Thus, we use the word moral when we refer to behavior
that may be acceptable for one society but not for another. Some people consider as moral issues
such things as treatment of children, the aged, animals, and the environment along with questions
about marriage and other human relationships. (Purple, 1989, 66)
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Just as moral can be seen as more specific than ethical, legal is seen as the most specific of
the three terms. Laws are codified behaviors for members of a society enacted by a specific lawful
authority. (Gifts, 1991) the law may have as its foundation moral rules and ethical truths, but it is
closely allied with politics. As a result, it suffers from greater subjectivity than do ethics morals.
What is legal in Los Angeles, for example, may be punishable in Portland. Laws are more temporary
than morals or ethics, often changed by simple majority vote or by decree. We use the word legal
when judging an act by the most specific set of local laws that have been codified by local authority.
Issues as universal as theft and as specific as jaywalking are subject to local law. (Elliott, 1992, 2835) The terms ethical, moral, and legal are similar in the sense that each refers to the
interpretation of right and wrong. Their differences depend upon how explicit and specific a
description we use to interpret a set of behaviors.