Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Law & Morality - Counter-Point

by Conroy

I felt compelled to respond to The Man's latest post where he argued that the law and morality are not co-extensive. Instead, the two systems can be modeled as a venn diagram where there is some overlap between what acts are covered by law and what acts (and attitudes) are covered by morality, and some exclusive regions of both, actions that are immoral but legal and actions that are moral but illegal. The Man's conclusion is that law and morality while addressing many of the same activities, are very different systems. I'd like to explore this argument further.

I agree that there are clearly activities that would be considered immoral but are not illegal. The Man provided an excellent example of adultery. Adultery in its starkest form, betrayal of a spouse, is immoral but generally not illegal. However, adultery may not always be immoral. What if a married couple are no longer in love, legally separated, or willfully engage in extra-marital affairs with the consent of their spouse? Is adultery immoral in these cases? Maybe, or maybe not.

Why isn't adultery illegal? First, isn't adultery grounds for divorce? Meaning that it is a violation of the marriage contract? Viewed this way, adultery could be considered illegal, just not punishable by imprisonment or government fines (though it could be costly through divorce). The terms immoral and illegal when applied to adultery are not as clear cut as it may seem.

Another activity that The Man sited is lying when not under oath. Is lying immoral? Certainly my Catholic upbringing taught me that lying is a sin, and must be confessed to unburden the soul. I think we can agree that lying is immoral when it is conveyed with malicious intent, but what about when a lie is given to protect someone? Is it immoral to tell someone that they look great when they don't? Is it immoral to be friendly to someone you don't like? One can argue the wisdom of "white lies" like these, but how strict do we have to be to label them as immoral?

To go to the other side of the spectrum, let's consider actions that are illegal but moral. The Man sited white collar crime, such as insider trading, as an activity that few of us would consider immoral. That said, I doubt we would call financial activities of this sort moral, non-moral would be a better term. What about when a homeowner cannot pay the mortgage and defaults on their contractual agreement. Legally this action has repercussions (foreclosure), but can we call this activity immoral, especially when the failure to pay was due to circumstances other than willful negligence of the borrower?

How about when an activity reveals the truth but violates the law? The recent Wikileaks or the past Pentagon Papers revealed classified information about the United States government's conduct in Iraq and Vietnam, respectively. Ostensibly, the exposure of classified information is illegal, but is revealing the truth in these cases moral?

So what conclusions can we draw? Are there significant portions of human activity that fall outside the bounds of moral consideration (financial activities, contractual agreements, use of personal property, etc.)? Are there significant activities that fall outside the bounds of legal consideration (inter-personal relationships, spirituality)? Fundamentally, law defines what activities are permissible and not permissible, morality defines what activities are good and bad. These are different, even if in practice there is more overlap than exclusivity.

1 comment:

  1. Conroy,

    Great post! I almost used that particular Venn diagram myself in own post, but I thought that the area of overlap should have been greater. I'm going to go ahead and respond to your post with a counter-counter-point post addressing a few of your arguments.