Right, Wrong, and the Law

In my continuing effort to understand morality, I’ve done some thinking about the relationship between morals and laws. Far too often people confuse the two. I don’t know if it’s because of the tight relationship between them, or if people are too lazy to consider the differences, but I think it’s useful to put some thought into the distinction between morality and legality.

This may seem plainly obvious to some, and it may seem crazy to others: the law should flow from morality (our understanding of right and wrong) not the other way around.

Laws are made to encourage people to do the right thing and discourage them from doing things that are morally wrong. We also create laws to set standards, like which side of the road to drive on, to help our society function smoothly. To put it simply, we create laws to make our lives better.

Sometimes laws reflect our morals, sometimes they’re absolutely arbitrary, often it’s somewhere in between. Laws aren’t perfect. Why else would we spend so much time and energy writing and rewriting them? This doesn’t mean that it’s morally right to break the law, though it certainly can be. It also doesn’t mean that we should throw out all of our laws and live in a state of anarchy. Laws can be useful, and as long as we’re careful about which laws we keep, we are better off.

Because laws can be both arbitrary and misguided, it’s important to not use them as a basis for our morality. To do so would be entirely backwards. Instead, morality should be based on ethics, not the law. Otherwise we risk holding arbitrary, and useless morals.