Ethics versus Law


Ethics versus Law

The confusion between ethics and law has been a subject of much dispute and argument. The conflict between law and ethics has been a subject of wide discussions from the epoch of traditional Greek philosophers. In the contemporary world, individuals assume that law and ethics are similar concepts. However, the two issues are different and advance a different discourse. Throughout the history, the two subjects have been in conflict, and interest to study the relationship between the aspects has been intensifying (National Council of State Boards of Nursing, n.d.).

Law is a rule of behavior or action agreed or officially documented as obligatory or imposed by a governing authority. Laws are neither relative nor abstract. They do not conform to people or cultural practices and values. In addition, an individual cannot opt out of law by the rationale of personal belief. Laws apply to all individuals despite ethical or moral objections (National Council of State Boards of Nursing, n.d.).

On the other hand, ethics refers to the philosophical ideals of right and wrong behavior. Ethics is subject to understanding in relation to societal, religious, and personal values. Principles of ethics include the status of harmlessness, working to make things good, compassion and mercy, and fairness. Most ethical standards in the universe originate from these ethical principles. Ethics also involves declaration of what is right and the desired situation. It is a formal method of making consistent and logical decisions with a basis on moral beliefs. Ethics does not have a system of enforcement (National Council of State Boards of Nursing, n.d.).

The conflict between ethics and law emerges when individuals must decide between what is legal and right. For instance, there is no legal obligation for a nurse to extend a hand of help to patients who cannot afford a given medication. However, it is unethical to decline offering assistance to a patient. In another setting, some laws have loopholes for unethical behavior. This puts the actor in a dilemma because while it is essential to develop the ethical code of conduct, it is equally valuable to be legally correct.

There are different conflicts between law and ethics that nurses encounter in their line of duty. Nurses have the responsibility to practice with ethical, moral, and legal considerations. However, in moral uncertainty situations, nurses come in a position where they are unsure of the moral principles to apply, or even the problem in hand. Nurses become unsure of the direction of action because of moral, ethical and legal conflicts. Nurses should consult to establish courses of action in negotiating out of the conflict. The decision of many nurses could be used as the right decision in such case (National Council of State Boards of Nursing, n.d.).

Another conflict is when nurses find themselves in a position of moral distress. In this situation, nurses are aware of the right direction of action but organizational rules prevent them from taking the right decision. For instance, hospital organization may require a compulsory deposit of a certain amount of finances before conduction an operation to a patient. On the other hand, the operation may be urgent to restore the health of the patient. In such a situation, the hospital regulations limit the nurse from carrying out the action in a right direction.

In such situation, nurses should negotiate the conflict through the use of a right-based decision. The decision they make should protect the basic right, the right to life. The decision that protects the rights and respects the moral rights of those affected will overcome the conflict of moral distress.

Another situation of ethical conflict with the law is related to instances of moral outrage. This refers to the environment when nurses witness an immoral act by another professional, but they are powerless to stop it because of professional ethics. In such conflicts, nurses should negotiate the conflicts through professional condemnation of inappropriate actions in healthcare. This condemnation can be done through the nursing professional associations.

Conflict situation between law and ethics may exist in circumstances of moral or ethical dilemmas. These circumstances may happen when two or more ethical principles apply, but they support inconsistent courses of action. Nurses can negotiate out of the conflict through the use of the principle of bringing good rather than harm. Nurses can apply the utilitarian principle in such circumstances to evaluate the principle that produces the greatest good and least harm (Potter & Perry, 2009).

In legal and ethical situations, nurses should be guided with an ethical framework in making their decisions. These can help them to negotiate and overcome such conflicts. Some ethical frameworks that nurses can apply to different situations include self-awareness. This framework advocates making a decision with the best mind that can give considerations to issues of humanity. Nurses should also consider the utilitarian principle that advocates foregoing for the action that does more good than harm to the greatest number of people and over the time. Nurses can also negotiate legal and ethical conflicts through the application of rights-based approach in decision-making. This framework begins with an idea of human dignity and freedom of choice. The nurse has the right to make the decision.

Nurses can also apply a duty-based approach framework in negotiating legal and ethical conflicts. This approach advocates the duty to do or to refrain from doing something. In addition, nurses can make decisions on the basis of the common good weighing what is best for the community. In such instances, nurses make decisions based on what brings benefit to the whole society rather than an individual. Nurses also use the virtues framework where they ensure that activities are consistent with certain ideals. Decisions should be directed at maintaining virtues of courage, honesty, and compassion. Nurses using this approach may ask themselves the ratifications for their actions (National Council of State Boards of Nursing, n.d.).

Nurses have traditionally handled conflicts between ethics and law in different ways. Firstly, nurses have outlined a code of ethics that puts patients as their primary responsibility. Nurses should demonstrate respect and mercy for clients despite their status. They should enhance the wellbeing of their clients.

Nurses should practice with respect and mercy. They should show dignity, appreciation, and concern for all patients. They should avoid prejudice on the basis of race and social or economic orientation. In addition, nurses should not consider character or nature of a disease in rendering their services (Marquis & Huston, 2009).

Nurses have traditionally negotiated ethical and legal conflicts through improving their knowledge base on different aspects. In addition, they improve health care environment for providers and patients (Potter & Perry, 2009).

Nurses have also used their international code of ethics to negotiate ethical and legal conflicts. The international code seeks nurses to prevent diseases, enhance and restore health, and alleviate suffering. Nurses should ensure that their client receives quality healthcare.

Nurses have the privilege to decline participation in the provision of care to patients disagreeing with care on the basis of ethics. They also enjoy the right to discharge duties in goodwill for the patient. These rights have recognition even in the American Nurses Association (Potter & Perry, 2009).

Traditionally, nurses have taken responsibility and accountability in individual nursing practice. They determine the appropriate delegation of tasks consistent with the nurses’ mandate to discharge appropriate care to patients. Nurses should render high quality services as if they were caring for themselves. They should maintain the safety and integrity of the patient. They should also safeguard their professional expertise, and professional development.

Nurses may also use an approach to ethical decision-making based on objective rules and principles. In this ethical justice principle, decisions are autonomous. Nurses take time to make autonomous decisions without pressure of influence. For instance, nurses have used human rights as a tool to decline government regulations that have proscribed nurses from treating certain people. Recently, nurses have advanced the issue of delivering better healthcare for all in negotiating some ethical and legal conflicts (Lachman, 2007).

In conclusion, nurses find themselves in different ethical and legal conflicts. This puts them in moral dilemmas that require making decisions that may contradict law or ethics. Moral uncertainty, moral distress, moral outrage, and ethical dilemmas are instances where ethics and law challenge nurses. However, nurses can use a variety of different ways to negotiate such ethical and legal conflicts. Nurses can make use of different ethical frameworks such as the utilitarian principle, rights based decisions, duty based decisions, common good decisions, and virtual actions to negotiate from conflicts. Traditionally, it is evident that nurses have used different approaches to handling conflicts between law and ethics. Common for these approaches is the code of ethics of nurses that outlines the rights and principal roles of nurses. This guides the nurses to maintain their mandate and uphold it in their decisions. Nurses make daily decisions that require ethical and legal considerations. Therefore, to make appropriate decisions, nurses need to understand the relationship between law, ethics and nursing.



Lachman, V. D. (2007). Ethics, law and policy. MEDSURG Nursing, 16 (4), 275-277.

Marquis, B. & Huston, C. (2009). Management functions and leadership responsibilities in nursing (6th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.

National Council of State Boards of Nursing. (n.d.). Professional boundaries; A nurse’s guide to the importance of appropriate professional boundaries. Retrieved from

Potter, A., & Perry, G. (2009). Principles of Nursing. Canada: Mosby.


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