We all have to make decisions in life before we can act. I suspect everyone has one’s own way of making decisions. So do I.

A long time ago, I realized that in order to minimize mistakes and regrets about making mistakes, I must have a checklist. Before making any decisions, I just ask myself a simple question, “Does this decision pass the ‘SMEL’ test?” 

SMEL is an acronym in which S stands for Sustainable, M stands for Moral, E stands for Ethical, and L stands for Legal.

The term “Legal” is relatively straightforward because the laws are all written down. They are supposed to be self-evident, although they can be interpreted differently by different people. However, the terms “Moral” and “Ethical” are not very straightforward and do need some explanation. 

The following reference provides a comparison between ethics and morals in a very concise and precise manner.

Ethics vs Morals

Ethics and morals relate to “right” and “wrong” conduct. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different: ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong.

Comparison Between Ethics And Morals

What are they?

Ethics—The rules of conduct recognized with respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group or culture.

Morals—Principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct. While morals also prescribe do’s and don’ts, morality is ultimately a personal compass of right and wrong.

Where Do Morals Come From?

Ethics—Social system – External

Morals—Individual – Internal

Why Do We Do It?

Ethics—Because society says it is the right thing to do.

Morals—Because we believe in something being right or wrong.


Ethics—Ethics are dependent on others for definition. They tend to be consistent within a certain context, but can vary between contexts.

Morals—Usually consistent, although can change if an individual’s beliefs change.

Gray Matters

Ethics—A person strictly following Ethical Principles may not have any Morals at all. Likewise, one could violate Ethical Principles within a given system of rules in order to maintain Moral integrity.

Morals—A Moral Person although perhaps bound by a higher covenant, may choose to follow a code of ethics as it would apply to a system. “Make it fit.”

Ethics—Greek word “ethos” meaning”character”

Morals—Latin word “mos” meaning “custom”


Ethics—Ethics are governed by professional and legal guidelines within a particular time and place

Morals—Morality transcends cultural norms

Source of Principles

Ethics are external standards that are provided by institutions, groups, or culture to which an individual belongs. For example, lawyers, policemen, and doctors all have to follow an ethical code laid down by their profession, regardless of their own feelings or preferences. Ethics can also be considered a social system or a framework for acceptable behavior.

Morals are also influenced by culture or society, but they are personal principles created and upheld by individuals themselves.

Consistency and Flexibility

Ethics are very consistent within a certain context, but can vary greatly between contexts. For example, the ethics of the medical profession in the 21st century are generally consistent and do not change from hospital to hospital, but they are different from the ethics of the 21st century legal profession.

An individual’s moral code is usually unchanging and consistent across all contexts, but it is also possible for certain events to radically change an individual’s personal beliefs and values.

Conflicts Between Ethics and Morals

One professional example of ethics conflicting with morals is the work of a defense attorney. A lawyer’s morals may tell her that murder is reprehensible and that murderers should be punished, but her ethics as a professional lawyer, require her to defend her client to the best of her abilities, even if she knows that the client is guilty.

Another example can be found in the medical field. In most parts of the world, a doctor may not euthanize a patient, even at the patient’s request, as per ethical standards for health professionals. However, the same doctor may personally believe in a patient’s right to die, as per the doctor’s own morality.

The term “Sustainable”  requires some explanation. A decision could be moral, ethical, and legal, and yet may not be sustainable from the perspective of the available finances, impact on human health and health of other species, environment, impact on the family, impact on the community, impact on the society at large, global impact, and the like. Ecological footprint is one such factor that we all need to be cognizant of.

Infidelity May Be Legal, But Is It Moral?

An important point to make is that what is legal may not be ethical or moral. For example, infidelity may not be against the law in many societies these days, but most people would agree that it is definitely unethical and immoral. Not too many people support the law of the jungle anymore.

Another point I would make is that if someone has a crystal clear conscience, then that person intuitively knows what is the right thing toe do in any given situation because that person is used to listening to the still small voice of the conscience but such individuals are few and far between and that’s where the SMEL checklist would be of enormous help.

The last point I would make is that in many, though not all, cases, the problem is not that people don’t know what is the right thing to do. It’s just that they lack the courage to do the right things. Bribe taking and other corrupt practices, when they become a mainstream phenomenon, are hard to resist unless one is bold enough to swim against the current, figuratively speaking. In those cases, it may make sense not only to utilize the SMEL test but also to listen to one’s conscience and resort to some common sense by asking oneself a simple question, “If what I decide to do somehow gets into the traditional media and/or the  social media, would my family members, relatives, friends, coworkers, and neighbors be proud of me or ashamed of me?” If the answer is the former, do it; if the answer is latter, don’t do it!

So, my final advice is, “Adopt whatever strategy is most likely to work for you because you know yourself better than anyone else!”

Pradeep Srivastava is a retired engineer, who currently lives in Albany, California. He has been writing for more than three decades. Column: A Grandpa’s Guide To Getting By - Our grandpa-in-residence...