The debate about the relevance of morals when it comes to the definition of the law has been a subject of controversy over the years. While some people believe that the law and morals are closely intertwined, others believe that they are two separate entities that should be treated as such. The definitions of these two terms clearly show that they are indeed two distinct entities, whose relationship is negligible. The law is defined as the set of rules that regulate the conduct of the members of a given society, whereby such rules are enforceable by the courts. Morals on the other hand refer to the principles of right and wrong, which are set by a particular society, but which are not enforced by the law. While people are obligated to comply with legal rules, compliance with morals is usually voluntary. In view of this, though different societies have set moral rules, few are regulated by the law. Some of the moral actions that are universally considered both legally and morally unacceptable are rape and murder. Accordingly, the aim of this paper is to show that morals are irrelevant when it comes to the way that the law is defined.
Morals contradict the law
Morals are not relevant to the definition of the law in so far as they contradict the purpose of the law, as set out in its definition. The law has been defined as the set of rules that govern a particular society, which means that it applies to all subjects in equally. Further, the main purpose of the law is to preserve the rights and freedom of its subjects impartially. This applies to freedom in choosing and exercising one’s moral beliefs. Settling on a moral code that applies to all individuals uniformly is almost impossible. Moreover, morals are constantly changing to reflect the changing attitudes of the members of a given society. As modern societies become increasingly diverse, it is common to find that most modern societies consist of individuals with different cultural or religious affiliations. Consequently, acts which may seem immoral to one person may seem perfectly moral to another person in the same society. In sanctioning what is moral or immoral therefore, there is a risk of infringing on the rights and freedom of some people in the society, which the law should uphold. There is danger that any moral order sanctioned by the law may only conform with the moral views of a specific group of the population, which in most cases is the ruling group. This clearly shows that morals are irrelevant as far as the definition of the law is concerned. Indeed, they suppress rather than enhance the purpose of the law, which is to govern the conduct of its subjects equitably (Shavell 2002).
The law is universal
Morals can also be considered irrelevant as far as the definition of the law is concerned because while the law is universal to all, morals are relative, changing from man to man. The law applies equally to all the subjects in a given society regardless of their moral affiliations. The law safeguards the rights of all people in the society and is aimed to enhance the common good of all. In view of this, a person whose morals may not be acceptable in a society will still be protected by the law. The law can therefore act as a check against moral extremism in the society by safeguarding the well-being of individuals who are not considered morally upright. This is particularly relevant in societies that result to physically harming or even killing those who are perceived to have violated the society’s moral code. In this case, the law is more superior to morals, since it is not constrained by any moral biases that may exist in a given society. It is for instance illegal to murder or to steal. Regardless of any moral justifications one may have for committing such crimes, the law is clear that perpetrators of such crimes will face the penalties for such crimes. In this regard, one’s morals are irrelevant as far as the definition of the law is concerned, since it deals with all its subjects impartially (Lyons 1993).
The law is explicit
Morals are also irrelevant when it comes to the definition of the law because unlike the law, they are ambiguous. The law usually has explicit, unambiguous rules that apply to different situations. If for instance a person is caught stealing, there are specific rules that apply to this situation. Morals do not have this precision since they are relative in any given society. When it comes to morals, moral judgments are usually handed down intuitively. Justification for such judgment is not usually explicit, since it is dependent upon people’s perceptions. The lack of specificity in morals may easily lead to errors if adhered to in some circumstances. A person may for instance fail to report the undesirable behavior of a friend to the authorities, owing to a moral duty of loyalty. This may not be socially undesirable because the bad behavior may continue, probably causing harm to other people.
With regard to the law, legal judgments are usually made as a result of careful deliberation, and are rationally justified on the basis of the rules that have been established. All laws have specific origins, which can be traced to particular cases or individuals. The law has no ambiguities whatsoever, thus is not relevant to morals (Green 2003).
As a result of the explicit nature of the law, the consequences ensuing from violating the law are very specific. Unlike with morals, the law is usually very specific regarding the consequences that follow any violations of the law. In this regard, each violation of the law has distinct penalties which have been established in the law. This differs with morals, in that the consequences of immoral actions are not usually definite or certain. In most cases, they depend on the community’s perception of an immoral person or his reputation. This will in turn affect the way people will interact with such a person. People of high social standing for instance may not be easily ostracized in any given society, since they hold considerable influence and power in the society. People are therefore likely to overlook their moral indiscretions, especially if they benefit from their associations with such a person. A person with a lower social standing may be treated differently, thus morals in any given society tend to be relative. In this way, morals become irrelevant as far as the definition of the law is concerned since violations have similar penalties for all (Jackendoff 2010).
The law regulates external conduct
At the same time, the irrelevance of morals is further revealed by the fact that the law regulates conduct which is publicly observable. In this way, the law differs with morals which are primarily concerned about a person’s inner character. The law’s emphasis on observable conduct is facilitated by the fact that they are easier to enforce, as opposed to inner conduct which cannot be regulated. The law will never take any action as long as a person’s inner conduct is not translated into action that harms someone else. In cases where individuals breach moral principles, such acts are not illegal, though the society may consider them immoral. Most of these actions are usually private hence they are difficult to observe without invading individual privacy. Consequently, trying to enforce morals could actually violate the privacy laws of the subjects that the law is supposed to uphold. This clearly shows that the law does not regulate the people’s morals in any way, thus morals are irrelevant when it comes to the definition of the law (Nathaniel 1993).
One of the ways in which morals are irrelevant as they relate to the definition of the law is in the way that morals are enforced. As seen from their definition, they are standards that are set by a given society to govern the behavior of its people, whereas compliance with morals is voluntary. Morals are usually enforced by the society rather than the courts. They are usually enforced by social pressure, whereby the society may ostracize someone who does not adhere to the accepted moral standards. This contrasts with the law, which is normally enforced by specially appointed authorities such as law enforcement agencies. As a result, morals have no bearing on how the law operates, since they are not enforced by the law. At the same time, the law is not usually concerned about people’s morals, as long as they do not infringe on the rights and freedom of other people. Murder for instance is both legally and morally wrong; thus a person who murders another will be judged by the law. Adultery on the other hand is considered immoral in the society. However, it is not necessarily illegal and does not require legal action. This clearly shows that morals are not relevant as far as the definition of the law is concerned (Glover 2009).
The law is backed up by facts
The irrelevance of morals as far as the definition of the law is concerned is further revealed by the fact that while the law is fully backed up by logic, morals are not always logical. In most cases, people adhere to morals because that is the way things have always been done. As a result, they will adhere to societal morals, not because they understand or fully agree with them, but to earn societal approval. The law on the other hand is based on logical facts which are specific to every violation of the law. People need to be specially trained in order to implement and interpret the law. This ensures that there is an explanation for everything that happens under the law since it is based on logic. With morals however, people tend to do things they do not understand in the name of morals. Morals can therefore be restrictive since they demand people’s conformity to moral standards without any explanations. In view of this, morals are not relevant as far as the definition of the law is concerned. This is because while the law has its basis on logic, morals are dependent on people’s unfounded opinions for the most part (Dyzenhaus et al. 2007).
The law can function in the absence of morals
The law can effectively function in the absence of morals but morals cannot function in the absence of the law. This is based on the premise that the law is necessary to control people, since not all people can think or act rationally even in with the existence of morals. Consequently, morals are not relevant as far as the definition of the law is concerned. The law is based on legal rules that are very specific, since they have been deliberately fashioned by people. In view of this, it has the capacity to promote conduct that is socially desirable even in the absence of morals, while discouraging conduct that is not socially desirable. In the absence of the law, morals can become repressive to certain segments of the society since they depend on individual perceptions. It is therefore possible that stronger groups in the society may impose their moral standards on the weaker members of the community. The case system is a good illustration of a moral system, which for a long time has been used to oppress lower castes. However, in the absence of morals, people can be guided by the rules and regulation of the law, which apply equally to all people. Based on these facts, morals are not relevant as far as the definition of the law is concerned (Glover 2009).
There are some people who have claimed that the relevance of morals based on the definition of the law cannot be ignored. Such people have claimed that the set of legal rules that make up the law are based on the morals of a given society. However, this need not be the case, given the inflexible nature of the morals. The set of rules that make up the law can easily be changed as circumstances may require, thus any undesirable conditions in the society can be remedied by changing the rules. Morals on the other hand always tend to be inflexible, since they are usually inculcated in childhood and are not usually based on any specific rules. As such, they can not be changed as easily as the rules of the law, and may take years to change. This clearly shows that morals are irrelevant based on the definition of the law (Shavell 2002).
The debate on the relevance of morals as far as the definition of the law is concerned has been a source of controversy for years. While some people claim that morals are not relevant to the law, others claim that the law actually has its basis on morals. However, based on the arguments that have been advanced in the paper, it is clear that morals are irrelevant as far as the definition of the law is concerned. The law for instance dwells on observable conduct, while morals on the other hand deal with internal conduct, which cannot be enforced by the law. At the same time, while the law tends to be explicit with regard to its rules and regulations, morals are usually ambiguous and are thus open to many interpretations unlike the law. The inflexibility of the morals further makes them irrelevant to the law, since they take years to change, unlike the law which can be changed when necessary. These facts clearly show that morals are indeed irrelevant when it comes to the way the law is defined, having no bearing on the law whatsoever.
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Jackendoff, R 2010, ‘The Natural Logic of Morals and Laws’, Brooklyn Law Review, vol. 75, no. 2, pp. 383-407.
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