Law and Morality

Law and morality are not the same but they are connected. The nature of the connection is controversial. Some people think that there is a very close connection particularly in the area of human rights and what is called natural law. But even those at the opposite end of the argument - who see law as simply an organisational mechanism with no intrinsic connection to morality - would have to concede that legislatures, when enacting laws, whatever selfish or party-political motives they may also have, are also motivated to some degree by moral considerations, so that even if law as an organisational mechanism has no theoretical connection to morality the actual specific laws enacted, or at least some of them, do have some connection with morality.

Some things which are unlawful are not immoral or, at least, there are some things which are only immoral because they are unlawful and would not be immoral if they were not unlawful. Take the rule that you must drive on the left hand side of the road. There is nothing intrinsically immoral about driving on the right hand side of the road - most people in the world do - but in each country or territory it is important to have a rule which everyone follows. What the law is is essentially arbitrary - it could be driving on the left, or it could be driving on the right - but once the law has been enacted it is the moral duty of everyone to follow it for the safety of other road users.

It goes without saying that many things which are immoral are not unlawful. It may be immoral to say things which are untrue or unkind but in the United Kingdom, and in other liberal democracies which place a high value of freedom of speech, simply saying things is not normally unlawful. Of course there are limits. Obtaining property by deception is both a crime and unlawful under the civil law. A doctor will be in breach of the civil law if they communicate information about their clients (patients) without consent. Untrue statements which seriously damage someone's reputation may be covered by the law of libel. And extreme abuse in public which is likely to provoke a breach of the peace is also prohibited.

This illustrates a more general principle that where, as is often the case, specific laws align with moral values, the law's prohibition will often be of more limited scope than the moral prohibition. There are good reasons for this. A lawsuit is coercive. A defendant who does not immediately admit the claim is obliged to engage with the legal process, which involves time, expense and worry, and if they lose they then have to pay the money ordered (assuming it is a money claim). So it would actually not be moral if the full force of the law were employed against every moral misdemeanour. The use of the coercive technique of law is morally justified only if the behaviour complained of goes beyond a certain threshold.

Particularly because a lawsuit is a coercive process it is important that cases are decided by impartial judges, after hearing both sides, in accordance with a fair procedure. This takes time and money and the more that has to be considered, the greater the time and money. Consequently the law imposes certain limits on what the law considers to be relevant in any dispute. If it were a question of considering who is morally in the right in a dispute between two people, all manner of dealings between them might be considered, but the law has to draw a line if the legal process is not to become open-ended. If two people or organisations are in dispute about a contract it is generally only that contract which will be considered. What happened with a previous different contract is another matter, which might itself be the subject of a different lawsuit but is not generally relevant to the current lawsuit over the current contract. But there are exceptions. If parties have regularly entered contracts which have certain general conditions and the latest contract is silent about some usual condition, the law may imply a term in the latest contract because it is a term which the parties have always agreed in past contracts. So the width of what can be and might be considered can vary from case to case but there must be some limits if legal costs are to be kept to a reasonable level.

This means that whilst your moral instinct as to what is wrong might well prompt you to consult a lawyer to see if you may have a legal remedy, there will not always be a legal remedy and, if there is, you may be surprised to find that some things which seem important morally are not (or are less) important legally and that some things which seem to you less important can be of greater legal importance.


The above explanation of the law is only an overview and in order to be reasonably concise I have had to leave some details out - details which are likely to affect what the law would say about your own situation. So please do not rely on the above but contact me for advice

This page was lasted updated in February 2019 Disclaimer