The Key Distinction Between Moral And Legal
Something we need to clear up to kick this off is the distinction between moral and legal behavior. I think this is especially important because if you look at elected officials right now (*coughcoughBluntdebaclecough*) they tend to be blurring the line there.
Moral judgement is a subjective system of defining actions as “good” or “bad,” and is primarily influenced by social, religious, and cultural values. For example, if a culture values its elders, that culture’s moral behavior approves listening to and obeying one’s elders and disapproves ignoring or disobeying them. Morality varies widely between individuals, however, even those who share a background.
Legal judgement is (ideally, at least) an objective system of defining actions as permissible or punishable based on the interests of maintaining order within a society and protecting the rights of its citizens.
While legal and moral evaluations often reach the same conclusions, they are not always equivalent. Some examples of where they do and do not overlap:
- It is both illegal and immoral to murder in cold blood.
- It is both legal and moral to give money to charitable causes.
- It is illegal but morally neutral to jaywalk.
- It is legal but may be considered by some immoral to view pornography that features consenting adults.
Before waxing poetic about how great morality is, let’s remember that human history is filled with wars over morality. In Europe during the Renaissance, Catholics and Protestants died in huge numbers duking it out over whose morality was “right,” and that’s just looking at two moralities with deep similarities.
The problem isn’t morality itself, but moral absolutism - the attitude that”I’m right on everything, you’re wrong on everything, so therefore you are a bad and unworthy person.” Even more so when that comes with the corollary that “and because you are a bad, unworthy person, I no longer owe you respect or decent treatment.” that kind of thinking is what lead for actual persecuted people to look for homes in the American colonies, and, later, the US. It’s tat kind of moral absolutism from which the writers of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights sought to protect the citizens of the US. Over and over through our history, pitched moral battles have been answered by the US government in legal rather than moral terms.
- The old fight coming over from Europe about whose morality was more right was ended with the establishment clause, essentially saying “The government is not refereeing moralities, just protecting the right of each citizen to make his or her own moral decisions without interference.”
- The conversation about abolition was a similar battle of moralities, with one side cherry-picking pro-slavery bible quotes and the other doing the same with abolitionist quotes. The triumph of abolition, however, wasn’t about either morality, but about the right of black Americans to autonomy trumping the “right” of white Americans to free labor. (Yes, I know, this is WAY oversimplified, but this is a bullet point and the point was too important to just skip.)
- Legal distinction cut through morality again for Brown vs. BOE: the right of students to a public education trumps the “right” of parents to be 100% cool with who sits near their kids.
Are you seeing the pattern here? The system of legal justice in the US does not make having moral prejudices illegal - only applying those prejudices to infringe upon the rights of other people. It doesn’t step in to resolve every single moral disagreement its citizens have, but instead says that our society has many moralities and those living here have the right to choose any of them, as long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others to do the same. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, my right to swing my bible ends at your personal life.
A little bit about us
GNRFO is the joint effort of multiple people, focusing on the intersection between politics and morality in America. The three main posters are a public relations specialist, a writer, and a soon-to-be college student. The three of us are Christians, but we are not evangelicals and we’re making the case for keeping religion well out of politics, hence the title. We welcome input, submissions, and guest posts from all corners. So stay tuned, kiddos, because we have some great stuff in the pipeline.