The difference between right and wrong
14th September, 2013

Some major corporations were recently in the spotlight because of their stated failure to pay taxes and were questioned by the Public Accounts Committee of the English Government. One representative stated that their actions were legal, to which the Chair made a distinction between morality and legality. The representative said that it was a matter of choice……. Really?

It struck me that this is one of the core problems in obtaining sustainability. There should be no distinction whatsoever between morality and legality in any walk of life. However, somehow, we have permitted a culture and situation that enabled that executive to feel he could say that morality was a matter of choice.

The core of business has been to make a profit for its shareholders and this still holds true even when speaking of the newer models such as shared value. Some are making significant changes, e.g. ensuring that their products are created in a sustainable way. However, time and time again, there is a news story of how a global organization failed in terms of being responsible.

 So what happens? What guides individuals and organisations when they make these decisions? I suspect that they ignore core values and work from the business premise of profitability and consider sustainability as something to sell their brand. Some may simply feel that being moral in their sustainability initiatives means that they can continue business as usual in other parts of the organisation.

I suspect that part of the problem is that the way in which we judge current efforts in sustainability is too simple. It is no longer sufficient to ask what is being done but we need to ask what underpins the action. 

Is it moral and legal?

Is it immmoral and legal?


Is it immoral and illegal?

Is it moral and illegal?


(Morality: principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior; a particular system of values and principles of conduct

Legality: the quality or state of being in accordance with the law

(Oxford English Dictionary))

We need to judge current initiatives by considering how moral and legal they are and who benefits from them. I suspect that if we looked at the majority of initiatives, most of them would fall into the Moral/Legal/I benefit category or the Immoral/Legal/I benefit grouping. Ideally most initiatives should be in the Moral/Legal/We benefit category.

And what has happened to lead to this sad state of affairs? Our own greed and selfishness: nothing more and nothing less. These days we are more inclined to be selfish and protect our own because of the uncertainty of the economic climate. Environmental damage and social inequalities are no longer headline news that lead to us making a difference, and little will change unless and until we are prepared to be more moral and less selfish.

What actions would organisations take if they had to judge their intended actions in terms of morality, legality and who benefits? I suspect that they wouldn’t take half the actions they have. The bottom line is that we have to return to core morals and human rights to keep ourselves on the true path for sustainability.

Do we know them? Yes. Do we live by them always? No. What would happen if we decided to step up and be much more ethical and responsible in all parts of our life?

©Civitas Vera, 2013