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Morality and the Law

 
 
Reply Sun 9 Jul, 2006 08:43 pm
A question that I have been thinking about for a while....

When is it moral to break the law?

It seems obvious to me that at times breaking the law is the only moral choice. The brave people who hid the Jews from the Naz's is a good example of this. The law mandated cooperation in their arrest but compliance would clearly (to me at least) be an immoral act.

There are also clear examples where breaking the law is immoral. Murder, for example is both illegal and immoral.

But there are also acts that are legal... but immoral-- Adultery for example.

And there are things that are illegal... but just don't matter as they do no harm to anyone. Smoking an occasional joint for example.

Here are my thoughts toward a way to resolve this.

1. Being a moral person is more important than following the law. If I ever have to make a choice like the first example I gave, I hope that I will have the courage and indpendence of mind, to do the right thing according to my values.

Even in less stark issues, Being true to one's core values is more important than doing what is legal.

2. There is a clear value in living in a society with laws. The system of enforcement and the penalties that are part of this is benficial for society and in the vast number of cases in my society (modern US) I support them.

3. In our society of laws which functions very well-- people break laws all of the time, often with no penalty. When an American gets a penalty, often they fight it as unfair and this is true for Congressmen to corporate executives to drug dealers.

This process is messy-- yet somehow it results in a very well working economy and a society that is structured and safe nearly all of the time.

4. The concept of "social contract" doesn't address the issue. The social contract is never defined, but it is clear that you can act to the benefit of society while breaking the law. No one would suggest that breaking the speed limit violates the social contract. Accepting point 3 seems a big part of what a well articulated social contract would include, but I don't know if defining the social contract (that everyone would agree they signed up for) is even possible.

------
To start a hopefully interesting discussion... let me throw out my initial stab at a statement of the solution...

Morality has little to do with following the law since a moral person will do moral things regardless of whether the law says to or not. If you are not a murderer the laws against murder are irrelevant.

A Moral person will respect the needs for rules dictating society and will support resonable controls (and penalties). But, then they are deciding whether to do an illegal act, they will need to weigh the effect on society with the moral reasons to do this act.
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ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 Jul, 2006 08:48 pm
... anticipating one point (that has been made elsewhere)...

The concept of "Civil Disobedience" as put forward by Thoreau is a compelling one. Thoreau's civil disobedience is a pubically defiant act. The idea is that the person breaking the law does so in an obvious way and is willing to take the consequences (and perhaps wants to take the consequences as part of their protest). Rosa Park's is a good example of this.

But not all people who broke the law for moral reasons have done so publically and at times this is not only inappropriate-- but impossible.

The people who helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad did so in secret. They all risked the consequences if they were caught... but none of them volunteered. This was an illegal act that was done privately and I believe that many people never were punished.
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Tino
 
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Reply Sun 9 Jul, 2006 09:12 pm
This is actually a recognised phenonem in the Psychology lessons I took a year or so ago.

"How does change come about?" the syllabus setters ask us to define this.

The answer is that change usually begins with a vocal minority getting news headlines by bucking the trend, refusing to accept the norm etc...

Gradually the dissenters gain credibility as more people think that well the lawmakers have made this rule for bad or outdated reasons, I don't agree with this either, like making marijauna illegal because they think it's difficult to tax or because it relaxes people out of the "work ethic" mode that is in the interests of the state to promote and more and more people discover how sweet such a letting go of these values can be, [which is Bollox, as Holland [Duechtland] proves] or something like making bigamy an automatocally custodial offence although - human nature being what it is - maybe we have met somebody who should have been the first and true love so there is a temptation to pretend to that person [in the interests of true romantic idealism] that we have no past. Is it right to criminalise someone who really isn't hurting anybody?

The point is that laws have to be broken by a majority of people until they reach a point where they are no longer enforceable before any change can come about. It's just a shame for the people who have to go to jail for their beliefs [like those enabling slaves to escape, although they may be regarded as heroes in a later era] in the meantime. In Psychology lessons this is an accepted answer.

Hope this helps.

Laughing
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fishin
 
  1  
Reply Mon 10 Jul, 2006 06:41 am
Re: Morality and the Law
ebrown_p wrote:
------
To start a hopefully interesting discussion... let me throw out my initial stab at a statement of the solution...

Morality has little to do with following the law since a moral person will do moral things regardless of whether the law says to or not. If you are not a murderer the laws against murder are irrelevant.


There are, IMO, two sides to this coin. A moral person will generally follow the laws but at the same time, the laws are generally based on the majority's determination of what is or isn't moral. As you say, if you aren't a murderer then the laws against murder won't directly affect you. At the same time, even those who aren't murderers support laws that prohibit murder and enforce their concept of morality on others who are murderers. (This is why I think the concept that "You can't legislate morality." is silly. Of course we can! We do it all the time.)

Quote:
A Moral person will respect the needs for rules dictating society and will support resonable controls (and penalties). But, then they are deciding whether to do an illegal act, they will need to weigh the effect on society with the moral reasons to do this act.


Well stated.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Mon 10 Jul, 2006 06:49 am
Re: Morality and the Law
ebrown_p wrote:
When is it moral to break the law?

As an abstract matter, I don't have an answer to this, because people disagree what the moral thing to do is in a different situation. As a pragmatic matter, I'd say breaking the law for you is moral if the pain to your conscience when you follow the law imposes greater than the pain the state imposes on you for breaking it. I don't think there's any more general answer than this.
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 10 Jul, 2006 10:56 am
Re: Morality and the Law
ebrown_p wrote:
A question that I have been thinking about for a while....

When is it moral to break the law?

That is a very easily answered question.

One is morally entitled to break a law when a particular action is moral but illegal, and one's obligation to act morally in a given situation outweighs one's obligation to act in conformance to the law.

Of course, that raises a series of questions:
(1) how does one decide what illegal actions are moral?
(2) how does one decide if one has an obligation to act morally?
(3) how does one decide if one's obligation to act morally outweighs one's obligation to act in conformance with the law?

ebrown_p wrote:
To start a hopefully interesting discussion... let me throw out my initial stab at a statement of the solution...

Morality has little to do with following the law since a moral person will do moral things regardless of whether the law says to or not. If you are not a murderer the laws against murder are irrelevant.

Morality may have a great deal to do with following the law, if following the law is also a moral imperative.

ebrown_p wrote:
A Moral person will respect the needs for rules dictating society and will support resonable controls (and penalties). But, then they are deciding whether to do an illegal act, they will need to weigh the effect on society with the moral reasons to do this act.

Only if morality requires them to do so.
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Cyracuz
 
  1  
Reply Mon 10 Jul, 2006 11:06 am
ebrown wrote:
Quote:
Morality has little to do with following the law since a moral person will do moral things regardless of whether the law says to or not. If you are not a murderer the laws against murder are irrelevant.


Yes, if you are not a murderer the laws against murder are irrelevant.
But what if you are a murderer?
Does that give the laws any more relevance? You are a murderer by virtue of breaking the laws against murder.

Laws are not something we have to prevent crime. They are the rags we use to clean up the mess after a crime has been comitted.

So, in the same way faith has inspired us to create religions over the years, our sense of morality has inspired us to create laws that reflect the attitude of the general population.
To follow the law is not automatically an act of morality, but in a perfect world, an act of morality would always be well within the boundries set by law.
0 Replies
 
Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Mon 10 Jul, 2006 11:15 am
I crack up when someone brings up Thoreau's "civil disobediance." His oppostion to the Mexican War was so well shared by those around him in New England, that there were no consequences for him to have suffered. He began withholding the church tax, and it was paid for him. He then requested that he be removed from the church taxs rolls, and he was. He then refused to pay the poll tax. He was finally jailed for that, spent the night there, and was released the following day when someone else paid his taxes for him. That was in 1846, and had nothing to do with the Mexican war. His later insistence that he was civilly disobedient because of slavery and the Mexican war is pure hooey. He went out of his way to offend over the church tax and the poll tax, and eventually made enough of a stink that he was arrested--once, overnight, for not paying the poll tax since 1842--long before the Mexican War.

If you wish to discuss the principles embodied in his essay, that's fine. Don't try to hold him up as an example, though, because he was a fraud.
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USAFHokie80
 
  1  
Reply Mon 10 Jul, 2006 07:09 pm
The obvious problem here is that not all people have the same moral ideals. For instance, ALF. The Animal Liberation Front thinks that it is immoral to perform medical tests on animals. So they often attack labs, bombing them or burning them down. Sometimes, they manage to kill a few people in the process. There are many laws that I do not agree with and that are contrary to my moral compass, but they protect me from the other crazy people whose compass points south.
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Ray
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 Jul, 2006 01:59 am
Quote:
Laws are not something we have to prevent crime.


Actually, yes they are. They're meant as deterrents.

Quote:
The obvious problem here is that not all people have the same moral ideals. For instance, ALF. The Animal Liberation Front thinks that it is immoral to perform medical tests on animals. So they often attack labs, bombing them or burning them down. Sometimes, they manage to kill a few people in the process. There are many laws that I do not agree with and that are contrary to my moral compass, but they protect me from the other crazy people whose compass points south.


If you are simply talking in terms of your protection, then consider that the extremists are set on using any means and that the laws bear precedence.

I would weigh the thing out. Is it a serious ethical matter? If it is, then I would, like e_brown, hope that I do find the courage to break the immoral law.
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ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 Jul, 2006 08:58 am
My philosophical query is focused on the individual moral person. I accept as a given (at least for the purposes of this discussion) that laws play an important role in any modern functioning society.

The question is how I, an individual who wants to be moral, interact with laws that exist in my society.

There are many laws that I follow because I consider them morally right (and I would follow the moral precept even if the laws didn't exist). Perhaps these aren't very interesting.

There are a few that I follow because they are the law and don't go against any of my moral principles.

A couple people have raised the fact that moral principles are a personal thing, and that people hold very different ideas about what is moral.

I don't find this is a problem in this discussion because the question specifically deals with the interaction between an individual and her society.

The person who accepts the morals of society at large (as expressed in its laws) without question is perhaps more dangerous than any extremist. This was the true reason that the most barbaric actions of humanity take place. When an extreme idea takes hold in a society... it only succeeds with the acquiescence of the society at large.
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cBroiton
 
  1  
Reply Fri 21 Jul, 2006 05:53 pm
This depends how you define "moral" and "the law".

Like I understand it, every person has it's own moral system, and unless "obedience of the law" is a part of it, both are absolutely unrelated.
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Kara
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Jul, 2006 06:24 pm
ebrown,

There are two different issues here. There is the law and then there are your moral principles.

The law is there to create order in society, and we must observe it as best we can. We fall short many times, but we must try.

Our moral principles are another thing.

Here is an example I heard on NPR today.

A woman has had a housekeeper for three years, whom she finds now is an illegal immigrant. The question she must decide is whether to fire this person (employing her is against the law) or to take some other action.

The employee is the sole support of her family and would be desperate without her current employ. The woman whom she works for does not feel she can let this person go, in light of the consequences that would follow.

This question was put up to the panel, and the outcome was that the employer had involved herself in this employee's life, which is why she is so reluctant to let her go. The employer should find out how to make this person legal, which will involve hiring an immigration lawyer to help in the process.
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ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Sun 23 Jul, 2006 09:09 pm
Quote:

The employer should find out how to make this person legal, which will involve hiring an immigration lawyer to help in the process.


Thanks for you input. Unfortunately life often doesn't provide easy answers-- and dealing with "illegal" immigration is one of these times.

If you read some of the other threads I post to, you will know that I am involved in the immigrants rights movement. This is because I have been personally confronted with a very similar situation where someone close to my family is undocumented.

It is almost impossible for people who have lives here illegally to become legal. The very act of attempting to become legal puts one at risk of being deported. Lawyers (whose duty it is to advise their clients what is best for their interests) will tell "illegal" immigrants to do nothing (that is not to try to change their status).

This is is the core of the current political debate on immigration-- wether to provide a way for undocumented immigrants to become legal. The current law makes this very difficult.

I wasn't intending to discuss this specific issue in this thread... but I want to point out that the solution given in the housekeeper example is not a good one.

The housekeeper (if she understands her legal situation) will probably wisely refuse the help (especially after the lawyer explains the situation) and the moral dillemma-- whether to keep the housekeeper (in violation of the law), or to force her to put herself at risk of deportation is still there.

Of course in the other less current examples there are also no easy answers... hiding slaves, or resisting war. It is often the case where the stark options are breaking the law or holding to one's moral values.

Life doesn't always provide an easy way out.
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Kara
 
  1  
Reply Mon 24 Jul, 2006 06:01 am
ebrown,

I did not mean to imply that there was an easy way out. Actually my first Reply post was longer and more nuanced but vanished into cyberspace.

Even the panel agreed that the employer had only Hobson's choices.

I will look for your thread on the immigration issue, a topic that I am interested in.
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 24 Jul, 2006 08:39 am
ebrown_p wrote:
It is often the case where the stark options are breaking the law or holding to one's moral values.

As I mentioned before, there is a very simple solution to this dilemma.
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raheel
 
  1  
Reply Fri 28 Jul, 2006 09:04 am
i dont know much about law and legal systems etc but can you not have laws which lay down a command and also circumstances under which the command can be broken so that there is no need to break the law at all?
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