Law versus ethics – a visual approach: Part 1 Venn diagrams / Set theory

When teaching business ethics – especially when using moral dilemmas from business life -, the class discussions often touch the topic of the relation between law and ethics. Even when I explicitly ask for moral/ethical arguments, many participants respond with references to legal frameworks. In the last few months I have repeatedly used this topic for a short visual exercise. I have asked my students/participants to draw a picture to illustrate their understanding of the relationship between law and ethics. And the results are just great!

From now on, I will post every once in a while a few pictures that I collected during these exercises. Today I will start by sharing the broad set of responses that use some sort of Venn diagram, i.e. that would roughly fall into the set theory, i.e. all those visualizations that use circles, squares etc. to put law and ethics into a relation by referring to their relative dimension.

The classic visualization, that typically about 20% of all participants will develop, roughly looks like this:

Set theory 1 - ClassicThe basic point of this illustration is usually the overlap. As explanation for such illustrations, participants will typically mention, that there is an overlap between law and ethics, but that both of them can also be isolated. Accordingly the picture allows for:

  1. actions that are legal but not ethical
  2. actions that are ethical but not legal
  3. actions that are legal and ethical
  4. actions that are neither legal nor ethical

Sometimes the same idea is brought into slightly different forms, such as this squared version:


Set theory 2 - squared and proportionalThe artist of the picture above did two important modifications compared to the classical version: (1) He drew the law box to be significantly smaller than the ethics box. (2) He positioned the two boxes in a way, that the law box is almost completely included within the ethics box (only a small portion of law is not ethical to his understanding), while the ethics box has lots of space outside of the law box.

And very much in line with this last point there are often quite a few variations of the classical picture that either rather focus on the overlap or on the discrepancies between law and ethics. One participant brought this into the following nice picture:


The three different variants are supposed to illustrate differences between different countries (law) or societies (ethics) – different being understood as different in history or geography. The participant explained that in some countries/societies there is/was more overlap than in others.

Quite often I also see two clearly opposing variants of the classical version: More often law is being embedded within ethics:

Set theory 4 - Law in ethics

Much more rare is the following illustration, where ethics is embedded in law:

Set theory 3 - Ethics in law

It is worth noting that these two concentric models implicitly assume that there is either:

  1. nothing legal that is unethical (1st picture)
  2. or nothing ethical that is illegal (2nd picture)

Another interesting picture was designed by a student who wanted to express his conviction that law can be perceived as the common ground within a society between very different individual ethical belief systems:


Interestingly you could also think about an exact inversion of this model, so that Ethics would bee seen/understood as something universal whereas law would be country specific, multifold and only partially overlapping with Ethics and/or the law in other countries.

The following picture is already a bit of a preview to other versions that I will share in later posts:

Set theory 5 - Law as foundationThis picture also shows two overlapping forms, but has two important differences compared to the classical version:

  1. Ethics is shown as circle and law as triangle: The implicit connotation is that law is more edgy/sharper than ethics.
  2. The ethics circle is shown on top of the law triangle: Law seems to have a certain character as basis for ethics.

In order to provide some structure and stimulate the thinking process, I sometimes also draw a picture that is fairly close to the classical model:

Set theory 6 - matrixThe basic idea of this 2×2 matrix is to not to show relative size of the boxes, but to allow for a conceptual discussion with my participants. The South-West and the North-East corner of this matrix don’t require a lot of imagination. So I typically divide the class into two groups:

  1. one group searching for examples of ethical behavior that is illegal (North-West);
  2. the other group searching for examples of unethical behavior that is legal (South-East).

Re 1: Frequent business-related examples include:

  • whistle-blowing in all variants,
  • stories like the German government buying CDs that were stolen in Switzerland and contain information about German tax evaders,
  • some types of legal violations done by investigative journalists,

or non-business examples such as:

  • parking in a non-parking zone in medical emergency situations,
  • mutiny against oppressors,
  • tyrannicide.

Re 2: Frequent business-related examples include:

  • higher levels of pollution than technically feasible but within legal framework
  • some forms of discrimination in international contexts
  • decisions to shut down mobile telecommunication services during demonstrations/revolution

or non-business examples such as:

  • marital infidelity in Western Europe,
  • private waste of resources such as water/energy/food.

When explicitly asking for drawings/visualizations for the relation of law and ethics one shouldn’t be surprised to get pictures such as the ones above. They all have clear messages and important lessons, but in future posts you will find that some participants come up with totally different ways of illustrating this relationship.

Stay tuned and/or send me your pictures!