Margie O'Driscoll: Legal But Unethical

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Just because something is legal doesn’t mean its ethical. Margie O’Driscoll had to wrestle with that distinction recently. Here’s her Perspective.

I’m a consultant, a 21st century gig worker in the culture and design world, which might be the last place you would think anyone could have an ethical dilemma.

And, it’s true, most of my daily decisions are choices between good options, focusing on how to create a better world for all. But recently, a client asked me to give someone unfair advantage on a project. I refused and told him what he was asking me to do was unethical.

I asked him to talk to others about his request. And, to his credit, he did. His lawyer told him: Margie is right— this request is indeed unethical but it is not illegal.

My client held his ground and demanded I do what he asked, offering to take the blame if anyone discovered what he asked me to do.


For me, this client’s request wasn’t about who would accept blame, rather it was about trying to do the right thing— which I knew would be refusing this request.

So I fired my client.

It got me thinking about the differences between obeying laws and ethical behavior.

Laws are a base level of the conduct of a society, identifying behaviors a culture finds unacceptable: like murder, rape and not paying your taxes. But beyond this threshold are the many grey areas governed by ethics.

I think of ethics as a system of moral principles focusing on what is good for individuals and society.

Or as Spike Lee might say: doing the right thing.

Yet we live in a time where leaders are glorified for dancing on the edge of law and focusing on personal gain at the expense of the betterment of society. Isn’t it time for a reconsideration of how we define success?

And you might be wondering about that former client of mine.
Well, about a month later after I fired him, he publicly posted a reversal of his demand, agreeing to the ethical path I had proposed. Under pressure from others, he relented, so maybe there is hope for ethical practice after all.

With a Perspective, I’m Margie O’Driscoll.

Margie O’Driscoll is a San Francisco based strategist who works globally with nonprofits and government agencies on design and public policy issues.