Legal vs. Moral: Written vs. Right


Imagine you are taking a walk one night in your city. You come to an intersection with a traffic light. The pedestrian light says stop, but the entire road is empty. You wait and wait before finally deciding to cross the street. No cars come, and you go on with your walk. Technically, what you did was illegal. But, if you asked an average person if what you did was immoral, they would probably say no.  

Now imagine that a friend of yours has just gotten a terrible haircut. When they ask for your opinion, you lie and say, “It looks great!” When they leave, you gossip with another friend about how bad the haircut really is. In this case, nothing that you did was against the law, but most people would say you were in the wrong. 

The Explanation

What is legal and what is moral are similar in many ways, but very different in others. Both provide social organization, meaning that they shape how people behave and what is considered socially acceptable. Also, they help people interact more cohesively and aim to protect individuals from harm. Lastly, they accept or discourage many of the same actions. For example, from a legal and moral standpoint, drunk driving is unacceptable. 

However, law and morality are not the same. For one, the law is binary, which means that an action is either legal or illegal. But, morality is full of gray areas. For example, stealing bread is unlawful regardless of motivations, but most people are more sympathetic if it was done to feed starving orphans than as a random act of robbery. Additionally, the law is enforced by government actors like the police and the courts, and there are set punishments for offenders. Morality is not formally regulated, though there certainly could be social consequences for immoral actions. Finally, the law is the same for all citizens, but morality depends on who you are asking because everyone has a different perspective and set of experiences. Keep these similarities and differences in mind as we define exactly what legal and moral mean.  

Definitions: Legality vs. Morality 

The law is a system of rules that a state enforces to regulate behavior through penalties. Legal principles are based on the rights of the citizens and the state expressed in the rules. An action is permissible if it does not violate any of the written rules. 

Morality is a body of principles that attempt to define what is good and bad conduct. Moral principles can be based on culture, religion, experiences, and personal values. An action is considered moral if it fits within those standards, though everyone has different standards. 

The History

The first legal code, the Code of Ur-Nammu, was developed in Mesopotamia in roughly 2000 BCE. The code listed prohibited acts and the associated punishments. The law had the backing of the ruling power and was enforced throughout the empire. The Code of Ur-Nammu was remarkably modern with a mix of physical and monetary punishments. Current laws are still inspired by the structure of the Code of Ur-Nammu. 

Morality is thought to have existed since the beginning of the human species. However, it is widely agreed that religion cemented morality as an essential social construct. Through shared faiths, it became common for people to hold behavioral standards that carried serious consequences. Thus religion and morality were passed between generations and locations, and though it was different for different people, morality became central to society.     

Why Care?

As society evolves and opinions shift, what is thought of as moral changes as well. Looking back at history, there are many examples of laws that were unequivocally immoral according to the standards of today. The United States has stolen Native American lands, enslaved Black people for generations, and discriminated against homosexuals among many other examples. As society becomes more informed and open, citizens demand their laws reflect their new definition of what is moral. While not everyone agrees with the decisions, changing the laws is a big step towards shifting overall social views. By altering the law, society is told the new definition of what is acceptable. Law and morality interact together and often cause the other to change. The bottom line is that when laws are unjust or outdated, the people need to stand up and fight for what is right. 

Think Further

  1. What is the goal of law? What is the goal of morality? 
  2. Describe your own morality with some traits that you try to emulate. What influenced your sense of morality?   
  3. Which is more important, following the law or following your own moral compass? Defend your reasoning. 


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Learn More

  1. Huang, Bert I. “Law and Moral Dilemmas.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 130, 2017, pp. 659–699.  
  2. Koch, Peter. “How Should We Balance Morality and the Law?” Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, Baylor College of Medicine, 19 Dec. 2019.
  3. Machan, Tibor R. “Law vs. Morality.” Cato Institute, 21 Mar. 2002.