Legality vs. Morality in the Make or Break Century


In the ethics classes I teach, we discuss the difference between that which is legal and that which is moral. It is often the case (perhaps most of the time) that what is legal is also moral, but that is not the same as saying that which is legal is also necessarily moral. Sometimes doing that which is illegal is the moral thing to do (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Hitler, and Martin Luther King’s and Gandhi’s civil disobedience come readily to mind). Laws and interpretations of laws have a variety of origins, and it may be the case that laws express the cultural norms of the time or the views of the majority group or the group that is most able to express its political power in a society rather than that which is moral.  An obvious example is that for years slavery was legal in the United States even though it was always immoral. Most examples, unlike slavery, are not quite as obvious, but nevertheless one may not simply rely on laws of a society to dictate one’s moral choices. Moral choices involve a careful analysis of the values present in a particular context and thoughtful reflection about what is the most morally fitting thing to do. Making one’s moral choices solely on the basis of laws and/or legal interpretation is not morally responsible. For example, former U.S. President George W. Bush’s claim that it was appropriate to use water boarding to interrogate terrorism suspects because lawyers told him that it was legal to do so does not make it moral to do so.  Also, the claims by the Obama administration that the National Security Agency is acting within the law to collect and store the content of all of our digital communications does not make this a moral program. Legal does not equal moral.

If we are to meet the challenge of working together to take care of our one world house, we will need to move beyond merely asking what is legal and focus on doing that which is moral in relation to each other and all of life. It is also important to work to make our laws be expressions of both social and ecological responsibility as it should be our goal to have moral laws.  In the moral sense, as Augustine reminds us, an unjust law is no law at all (On Free Choice of the Will, Book 1, § 5) Many of our social and ecological practices may currently be legal, but they are immoral if they contribute to an unjust and unsustainable future.  As we look at our policies and practices in relation to the major social and ecological challenges of our time, let us not merely rely on that which is legal, but let us continue to seek for that which is moral and that which will contribute to a just and sustainable future for all life on earth. Let us be intentional about developing our cognitive and moral capacities in order to be more nuanced in our ethical reflection so that we not confuse that which is legal with that which is moral.

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