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Are legality and morality synonymous?

  1. ilmdamaily profile image92
    ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago

    Been grappling with this one for a while now. Can't seem to find a way out of it.

    Is what is "legal" equivalent to what is "moral"?

    The question is raised because the justification for the enforcement of many laws these days seems to be that it is "the right thing to do." I'm not really the law-abiding type, and so I generally choose to ignore any laws which violate my moral sensibilities.

    If morality and legality are synonymous, you find yourself having to provide justification for all sorts of legal absurdities - from the banning of gay marriage, to the outlawing of abortion.

    Though if we accept that morality and legality are independent of each other, then on what basis do we owe alleigence to laws which infringe on our own moral beliefs?   

    The authority of legal systems seems to derive from a moral position. That is, we accept the rule of law for various reasons, such as the greater good etc, and not just for its own sake. Though where morality and legality diverge, which should overrule the other: our own morality? Or the law?

    The choice seems to be between defending the indefensible, or neutering my own moral beliefs in deference to an authority (legality) based on...force?

    Neither of which sounds appetising.

    Is there a way around this? Or am I destined to spend the rest of my days living around the system rather than in it?


    1. 0
      Brenda Durhamposted 6 years ago in reply to this

      You have the term morals confused with immorality.

      1. ilmdamaily profile image92
        ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago in reply to this

        Thanks for the contribution Brenda.

        To what extent are the two terms different, or exclusive?

  2. Rochelle Frank profile image88
    Rochelle Frankposted 6 years ago

    Legality and morality are quite often, but not always, the same thing.
    The thing with legality is-- if you break the law in favor of your moral principles, you need to accept the legal penalty.

    Do you have something specific in mind?

  3. ilmdamaily profile image92
    ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago

    ...and if I violate my own sense of morality, then I must live with my conscience.

    I guess that's the point i'm getting at here: can we live in a state-controlled world while simultaneously honouring the law and our own morals?

    You are correct - morality and legality often correlate quite strongly. Though where they don't, this question of priority - between legality and morality - arises. Even if a legal system is *mostly* moral, the degree to which it is not - however minor - tends to eliminate the moral claim to authority of the remainder of the system.

    An example? Iraq or Afghanistan. Morally, I believe it is wrong to kill. Happily in most (all?) nation states killing is considered a crime. However, Iraq and Afghanistan were both invaded - and by countries which claim me as a citizen. I did and do not agree with their course of action, on the moral basis of an opposition to killing. The apparent moral basis for both invasions (and thier inconsistencies) - ie, eliminating terrorism, supporting democracy etc - is not, in my view, morally contigous with the legal (and moral) position that killing is wrong. Moreover, the law does not permit my moral position in this instance to influence the legal circumstances - the invasions continued. 

    At work in this instance is a morality of force: authority dervied not from any moral basis, but from pure, overwhelming physical violence. My own inability in this instance to reconcile my moral position with the legal circumstance is confounded by the fact that I am not legally permitted to prevent this violation of moral standards. If I obstruct the depolyment of troops or equipment, I will be legally reprimanded. Further, I have no recourse to simply "walk away" - my status as a citzen, and the accompanying obligations of adherence to the laws of my country - were imposed on me at birth, and presently there exists no way for me to relinquish my citizenship. Between the legal obligations of citizenship, and the responsibility to my conscience of maintaining my morals, I am placed in a lose-lose situation. Either live with my own conscience and my inability to live and act morally, or to act morally, and live with the legal consequences. One violation of a moral standard infects the remainder - and the edifice crumbles.

    Of course, any example I provide will vary in controversiality and specifics, but the central issue remains: I can't see how to resolve my moral convictions with my apparent legal obligations.

    It's a pickle:-s

    1. Rochelle Frank profile image88
      Rochelle Frankposted 6 years ago in reply to this

      OK -- Now I understand your struggle a bit better. One thing I believe is that morality is personal, legality is social.
      Since we live in a society, it is something we sometimes must struggle with.

      I appreciate your reference to conscience, as that idea seems to disappearing in the modern world. Your query deserves a better answer which  I do not have time to do right now (I am morally bound to pay some attention to my family) smile but I will think about it some more and come back later. I think you will get some interesting input on this. I appreciate your sincerity.

      1. ilmdamaily profile image92
        ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago in reply to this

        Thank you Rochelle - I appreciate your input on this...it's something i've genuinely gotten stuck on, so everyone's input is welcome - and necessary! I'm thinking out loud the whole way through this thread...

        The more I think about it, the deeper the hole i'm digging for myself. Eventually i'll make it to China - I wonder what they'll have to say. If that whole Tiannamen Square thing is anything to go by - probably not much:-)

        That's an interesting point you make about the division of morality and legality being between individual and social obligations. Implicit in that is the acceptance that moral positions between two people may be divergent - even contradictory - which we know to be perfectly possible due to the diversity in ethical standards around the world. What's moral for me may not be moral for another.

        Insofar as two moral positions may be mutually exclusive, legality seems - in this instance - to be the force that can reconcile opposing moralities.
        That is, if those two moralities require the elimination of other moralities to maintain thier consistency, which I guess is a whole other bucket of worms:-s Though all legality draws authority - to some degree - from a moral position. And so we are then presented with the additional problem of reconciling not only the competing moralities, but the discrepancy between the moral positions of the individual "moral" parties, and the moral positions of the collective "legal" party.

        Is the social obligation of legality - and its accompanying moral basis - greater than the individual obligation of morality? Which morality would take precedence? I don't know.

        Though this still does not eliminate the problem of acting morally in spite of the obligations that legality puts upon us.

        Oh dear, i'm in a cul-de-sac again.

  4. Ralph Deeds profile image70
    Ralph Deedsposted 6 years ago

    Wall Street banks have engaged in a variety of deceptive practices which many critics consider immoral but which may not be illegal. My dim recollection of a college ethics course is that the standards or theories for what is ethical are not synonymous for what is legal. Too many CEOs don't bother worrying much over what is moral. Instead they ask their lawyers only three questions--

    "Is it legal?"

    "How likely are we to be caught?" and

    "If we get caught, could I go to prison, or will we get off with a fine?" (A fine paid by the company's stockholders, not the CEO.)

    Similarly, the Bush administration didn't appear to worry about the morality of torture but rather tasked their lawyers with constructing cynical legal justifications for actions that were contrary to most moral and religious belief systems.

    1. ilmdamaily profile image92
      ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago in reply to this

      Ralph, that's exactly the type of thing that gets me thinking about this issue.

      In the past, the disconnect between morality and legality was generally small enough that we could get by without having to think too hard about it. Ignorance was a workable solution.

      Now though, the problem has assumed such gargantuan proportions that it cannot go unresolved. Wars are started, and nations are bankrupted - based on this very issue.

      The system's broke. If we can answer this question, then we'll know if it can be repaired, or if we'll have to tear it all down and start again.

      I'm leaning towards the "tear it all down" option - but that's just the anarchist inside me:-)

  5. goldenpath profile image80
    goldenpathposted 6 years ago

    The Framers intended and included in the Constitution the safety of having moral issues in the hands of the states and not the federal judicial system.  Part of our downfall occurs when the federal judiciary invokes precedence on moral issues which, by Constitutional right, should be under the jurisdiction of the states.

    Poopy on the Supreme Court and their stances on moral issues!

    1. ilmdamaily profile image92
      ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago in reply to this

      That's a very interesting point goldenpath.

      I'm not from the US, so I can't speak on the specifics, but the principle that you raise here - that morality is linked in some way to a notion of scalability - bears pondering.

      Without attempting to mind-read the intentions of the framers of the US constitution, implicit in their desire to retain moral control in the hands of the states is an assumption of the moral ability of smaller, localised entities to act with a higher degree of moral "intelligence" than larger, less localised entities. Taken to its extreme, one could draw comparisons here between the inherent moral compatability of individualism vs. collectivism. If a state government is better suited to govern issues of morality than a federal government, then by deduction it stands to reason that individuals are better suited to govern issues of morality than collective entities - like governments.

      Does this mean that morality is in some way linked to individuality? Is collectivism inherently immoral? Is individualism inherently moral?

      I can't say i've got an answer. But my own political views are of an anarchist bent, so I do note with interest the relationship you've raised here between morality and individuality.

      It feels instinctively correct that a society based on the principles of individualism will encroach less on the moral positions of its members than a society based on collectivist principles.

      Glad I posted this thread - I wouldn't have thought of this angle without your input:-)

      1. Ralph Deeds profile image70
        Ralph Deedsposted 6 years ago in reply to this

        Seems to me that ethical systems judge moral issues on a combination of communitarian and individual values. Certain actions are deemed wrong because they harm the interest of the community although they may be in the interest of the individual. Others are believed to be inherently wrong, in the absence of exceptional circumstances--killing, lying, stealing, torturing and so forth. Some believe they are wrong under virtually all circumstances. Philosophers have offered a variety of theories for determining right and wrong--utilitarianism, natural rights, the effect of an act if everyone took the same action and so forth and of course various religious laws and rules.

        1. ilmdamaily profile image92
          ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago in reply to this

          Good point Ralph.

          I'm probably getting way ahead of myself here - I haven't really even attempted to define morality in the context of this discussion.

          Pulling something out of my hat, without too much consideration, i'd attempt to define morality in the context of this discussion as a "principle of authority." For, questions of morality are often bound up in the issues of what is objectively good or bad, and for something to legitimately exist objectively (independent of everything else), it must have recourse to authority in some fashion. There's probably a ton more that could be added to that, but it's what comes to mind most imediately. Maybe i'm way off. 

          In terms of ethics though, i'm not so sure...is ethics a subset of morality, or vice versa? Or are ethics and morality synonymous? I really don't know...so if you have a "hard and fast" definition for ethics and the way in which it differs from morality?

  6. Cagsil profile image83
    Cagsilposted 6 years ago

    Morality is directly tied to your individual rights.

    Your rights are directly tied to your own individual actions.

    Law(s), some are tied to "Morals" attributes. The over-indulgence of Government to create so many laws that which are unenforceable is absolutely ridiculous.

    1. 0
      kimberlyslyricsposted 6 years ago in reply to this

      and I must add unjustified

  7. Cagsil profile image83
    Cagsilposted 6 years ago

    I made that call a few months ago. Throw them all out and start fresh. wink

  8. Jeff Berndt profile image92
    Jeff Berndtposted 6 years ago

    "Is what is "legal" equivalent to what is "moral"?"

    Absolutely not. It's illegal to drive without wearing a seat belt in my state. Is it immoral to drive without wearing a seat belt? I don't see how.

    It's illegal to buy beer before noon on Sunday in my state. Is it immoral to buy beer before noon on Sunday? Why Sunday? If buying beer is immoral before noon on Sunday, why isn't it immoral (and illegal) after noon on Sunday? Or on Monday?

    It is (or was) legal for your credit card company to suddenly jack your interest rate up for no reason. Was that moral? I don't see how.

    There's overlap between legality and morality, but if it's legal, it's not necessarily moral, and if it's illegal, it's not necessarily immoral.

    1. ilmdamaily profile image92
      ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago in reply to this

      All good examples Jeff.

      I'm inclined to agree with you - morality and legality are often completely divergent.

      The question then is, how do we reconcile the obedience demanded of us by a system which acts in contravention of our morality? Can the two co-exist?

      1. Ralph Deeds profile image70
        Ralph Deedsposted 6 years ago in reply to this

        Utilitarian Moral System--430 B.C.

        c. 430 BC: China

        JUST SAY NO

        It is the business of the benevolent man to seek what is beneficial to the world, to eliminate what is harmful, and to provide a model for the world. What benefits man he will carry our; what does not benefit men he will leave alone. Moreover, when the benevolent man plans for the benefit of the world, he does not consider merely what will please the eye, delight the ear, gratify the mouth, and give ease to the body. If in order to gratify the senses he has to deprive the people of the wealth needed for their food and clothing, then the benevolent man will not do so. Therefore Mozi condemns music not because the sound of the great bells and rolling drums, the zithers and pipes, is not delightful; nor because the sight of the carvings and ornaments is not beautiful; not because the taste of the fried and broiled meats is not delicious; and not because lofty towers, broad pavilions, and secluded halls are not comfortable to live in. But though the body finds comfort, the mouth gratification, the eye pleasure, and the ear delight, yet if we examine the matter, we will find that such things are not in accordance with the ways of the sage kings. And if we consider the welfare of the world, we will find that they bring no benefit to the common people. therefore Mozi says: making music is wrong!

        Now if the rulers and ministers want musical instruments to use in their government activities, they cannot extract them from the seawater, like salt, or dig them out of the ground, like ore. Inevitably, therefore, they must lay heavy taxes upon the common people before they can employ the sound of great bells, rolling drums, zithers, and pipes. In ancient times the sage kings likewise laid heavy taxes on the people, but this was for the purpose of making boats and carts, and when they were completed and people asked, "What are these for?" the sage kings replied, "The boats are for use on water, and the carts are for use on land so that gentlemen may rest their feet and laborers spare their shoulders." So the common people paid their taxes and levies and did not dare to grumble. Why? Because they knew that the taxes would be used for the benefit of the people. Now if musical instruments were also used for the benefit of the people, I would not venture to condemn them. Indeed, if they were as useful as the boats and carts of the sage kings, I would certainly not venture to condemn them.

        These are three things the people worry about: that when they are hungry they will have no food, when they are cold they will have no clothing, and when they are weary they will have no rest. These are the three great worries of the people. No let us try sounding the great bells, striking the rolling drums, strumming the zithers, blowing the pipes, and waving the shields and axes in the war dance. Does this do anything to provide food and clothing for the people? I hardly think so. But let us leave that point for the moment.

        Now there are great states that attack small ones and great families that molest small ones. The strong oppress the weak, the many tyranize the few, the cunning deceive the stupid the eminent lord it over the humble, and bandits and thieves rise up on all sides and cannot be suppressed. Now let us try sounding the great bells, striking the rolling drums...and waving the shields and axes in the war dance. Does this do anything to rescue the world from chaos and restore it to order. I hardly think so. Therefore Mozi says: if you try to promote what is beneficial to the world and eliminate what is harmful by laying heavy taxes on the people for the purpose of making bells, drums, zithers, and pipes, you will get nowhere. So Mozi says making music is wrong....."

        Mozi from "Against Music." Born a few years after Confucious' death, Mozi professed the doctrine of undifferentiated love:  "When everyone regards the states and cities of others as he regards his own, no one will attack the others' state or seize the others' cities." His disdain for music was part of a larger critique of the aristocracy's lavish banquets and theatrical performances.

        Lapham Quarterly, Spring 2010

        Unemployment is 20 percent in Michigan, yet Bentley's, BMWs, Mercedes, Cadillacs and Lincolns are selling like hot cakes. I wonder what Mozi would say?

        1. ilmdamaily profile image92
          ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago in reply to this

          That's an extremely interesting example Ralph.

          I like the "just say no" approach. Though in the context of this discussion, I think it's worth modifying:

          "Just Say No To Thugs." :-)

      2. Ralph Deeds profile image70
        Ralph Deedsposted 6 years ago in reply to this

        Try not to get caught or reconcile yourself to martyrdom.

      3. Doug Hughes profile image60
        Doug Hughesposted 6 years ago in reply to this

        "I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice."

        Dr. Martin Luthor King Jr.

        1. ilmdamaily profile image92
          ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago in reply to this


          That is a principle I am a huge proponent of. Moral obligations cannot be fulfilled when viiolated, simply by ignoring the violation.

          My first exposure to this idea was in Islamic teachings, which encourage the principle of "enjoining good, and forbidding evil."

          It is not enough that we do good, and ignore bad, We must also actively attempt to prevent the commission of "evil."

          There is a quote I believe that is attributed to Confucius, which touches on a similar idea:

          "The best among you are not those whom all men love. The best among you are those whom good men love, and bad men hate." (paraphrase).

  9. prettydarkhorse profile image62
    prettydarkhorseposted 6 years ago

    I didnt read through the forum, yet I think that legality is based on morality because the people who make laws have values and they vote and they decide based on their values,

  10. Doug Hughes profile image60
    Doug Hughesposted 6 years ago

    Is what is "legal" equivalent to what is "moral"?

    The best way out of the quandry is with examples.

    Slavery in  the colonial United States was 'legal' - written directly into the original US Constitution.  Was it therefore 'moral' at that time? Did it then become 'immoral' when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation?

    Something may be 'legal' by virtue of it being on a piece of paper with the appropriate authority. But that doesn't make it 'moral' at any time.

    In the American Civil War, 600,000 soldiers died - a number that dwarves the death toll of any foreign conflict before or since. Approximately half were from the South - absolutely convinced of the 'moral' right to own African slaves. The other half of the dead were from the North, just as convinced that the natural rights of man included African men and women in America. That's the answer to your quandry. How much are you willing to 'pay' for your 'moral' convictions in writing and rewriting what's 'legal'.

    1. ilmdamaily profile image92
      ilmdamailyposted 6 years ago in reply to this

      "How much are you willing to 'pay' for your 'moral' convictions in writing and rewriting what's 'legal'."

      I like that definition, Doug. It sums up the situation well.

      It seems like a zero sum game. Where legality and morality diverge, one must win at the expense of the other.

      Which is a shame.

      I'd like to find a third way, if possible. At least, that's what i've been holding out for. It's heartbreaking to realise that, at your core, you have no place in the modern world. I'd like to live a "normal" life as much as the next person - but not at the expense of what I feel is right. If I can find this "third way" it would be great...but right now it looks like i'm destined to live away from and beyond the centres and reaches of conventional authorities.     

      What would a society where legality and morality were synonymous look like? How did we fall so far, to have such a huge disconnect between morality and legality?

      1. Doug Hughes profile image60
        Doug Hughesposted 6 years ago in reply to this

        "What would a society where legality and morality were synonymous look like? How did we fall so far, to have such a huge disconnect between morality and legality?"

        To the first question - I don't think any civilization has ever existed where legality and morality were synonymous. In most cultures the inequality has been institutionalized to the point where the 'immorality'  was not questioned.

        To a large degree this is an inherent objective of conservatism - to discourage the propagation of new ideas that challenge the old order. Thus there is a desparate attempt to stigmatize homosexualtiy as deviate behavour - to deny a woman authority over her own body - and to prevent non-white races from becoming the majority -particularly the voting majority - in America.

        The answer to the second question - how did we fall so far, presupposes that we have fallen. The chaos we are in - is comparable to the chaos of the American Civil War - a  violent clash of ideals that led to a better -not perfect -  American society. A lot of issues are getting dragged out into the open. It's not pretty or fun, but it may yet take a Global Society to a higher plateau of greater equality and justice. If it happens, someone will have to 'pay' for the progress.

      2. EmpressFelicity profile image83
        EmpressFelicityposted 6 years ago in reply to this

        I'm intrigued - what has made you come to this conclusion about yourself?

        Funnily enough I sort of feel the same way about my own life, except that from reading your profile, I suspect that I'm probably a lot more willing to compromise than you are. 

        There would be far fewer laws, I think.

        Because there is a large percentage of people who either believe that the end justifies the means, or who have a sense of entitlement. 

        I also think that most of us (myself included) are *reasonably* moral when it comes to the immediate future and the people close to us.  For example, I know it's wrong to play loud music late at night and keep my neighbours awake, so I don't do it.  However, we're not so hot at considering the long-term and long-range consequences of our actions.  For example, I'm an animal lover but I have the suspicion that if I really wanted to prove my love for animals, I'd be a lot more rigorous about excluding factory farmed meat/meat products and animal-tested drugs from my life, possibly even to the extent of going completely vegan.  (Unfortunately I love bacon sarnies too much, so it's not going to happen.  I do try and buy "freedom food" meat when I see it, but I'm aware that my shopping choices are often less than ideal.)

        1. Doug Hughes profile image60
          Doug Hughesposted 6 years ago in reply to this

          EF - Which conclusion by which hubber?

          1. EmpressFelicity profile image83
            EmpressFelicityposted 6 years ago in reply to this

            Er... the person I was replying to?  You're not reading this in the ghastly "thread view" are you?  Switch to "chronological view", then you won't need to ask.

      3. Ralph Deeds profile image70
        Ralph Deedsposted 6 years ago in reply to this

        In the U.S. everyone between 18 and 35 who was physically fit was subject to being drafted to serve in the military. However, exceptions were made for "conscientous objectors" who were morally opposed to war and for those who were morally opposed to killing. I don't recall exactly how it worked. Either they were excused from serving or given non-combat assignments. During the Vietnam War quite a few people who opposed the war went to Canada to avoid serving.

      4. mrpopo profile image87
        mrpopoposted 6 years ago in reply to this

        I also hope there is a third way, but unfortunately I just don't see it...

  11. thisisoli profile image71
    thisisoliposted 6 years ago

    Not necessarily, for instance a burglar in england fell through the roof of a warehouse he was robbing, he then sued the company for his fall, even though he was illegally there.

    Morally wrong, legally right.

    Also, morality would lead you to help a beggar on the streets, legally he should be locked up, logically he should be placed in an opportunity to work, rather thna letting him leach off others.

  12. liber profile image60
    liberposted 6 years ago

    Absolutely not.  The simplest counterexample is free speech.  Not all speech is ethical, but we can't make unethical speech illegal.