On Ethics, The Law and Moral development.

Over in the Pit there has been a rather interesting discussion going on that touches on vigilantism and, to my way of thinking, the difference between The Law and Morality. I thought that it would make for an interesting debate.

In essence, in the linked thread, the OP links to a story in which a crowd of Catholic School girls chase down and pummel a flasher that had exposed himself to them.

Now over in that thread, there were several posters that seemed to be expressing the sentiment that because what the girls had done was illegal, it was therefore immoral. That the act itself has some absolute value of (for lack of a better term) right or wrong and that it is for The Law to determine which.

My stance is that The Law is simply a human construct that is intended to codify Morality. I also believe that humans are constantly refining and (I hope) improving our concept of right and wrong. Because of this, I believe that The Law, by it’s very nature, will always be in reaction to changing morality and for the most part lagging behind current concepts of right and wrong.

Therefore, as The Law has this built in limitation it is possible to commit an illegal act that is none the less moral.


In a way, you’re right. The basic laws of our society (against murder, robbery, etc.) do come from Judeo-Christian values. But it is important to remember that they have been rationalized and are thus not implemented in the way that they would have been in Biblical times. People have recognized the need for law in establishing order. Otherwise, there would be no equality. Demagogues would be controlling the masses for their own benefit.

Those girls should be charged with assault. If they actually “refused to be victimized,” they would have called the police and, if necessary, restrained the man. But that’s it. Beating him is assault, plain and simple. He did not attack them; they were not defending themselves against him. Nowehere in that article is it said that they used reasonable force. Rather, he was “pummelled by Catholic girls” and “who kicked and punched him” while the neighbors watched. So, even if it was difficult for them to restrain him–something which is not mentioned in the article–the neighbors just stood by and let it happen, rather than help them hold him down. Clearly, there was no need for violence. I sincerely hope that none of the people who expressed such sentiments ever become lawyers. The punishment for exposure is not a beating.

This is a joke, right? In the USSA, it is illegal to grow peanuts, sugar and wine grapes without a gummint license. Likewise it is illegal to drive an NYC cab, open a liquor store, or sell prescription drugs without a gummint license or to drink, smoke or have sex as a minor.

What’s immoral is the gummint itself!

I don’t think there is a license for that, “gummint” or otherwise.

In any case, I think you have the wrong thread. Maybe you were going for the FTAA thread?

I would just like to point out 2 things.

Any particular moral code or set of values is also a “human construct”. And you are right the law should be an attempt to codify Morality to the best of our understanding.

Unfortunately, mistakes can be made on both sides. It is possible for an imoral law to exist which could make obeying it immoral. I am reminded of a student who loaned his inhaler to his friend who was having an attack and who could not get to her inhaler. He is in trouble for distributing a controlled substance. (I know, not a law, but the principle is the same.)

Meanwhile, it is possible to misunderstand or incorrectly apply a particular moral code. (Al-qaeda)

However, assuming that we had a perfectly correct moral code, and a primarily self consistant set of laws, then it sahould be very difficult to find situations were disobeying a law would be moral.

I think you’re overgeneralizing the law as too amorphous. I would say that what is right or wrong is unchanging, but that our sense of it, as expressed in statutes and common law, is continually seeking precision.

Think of it this way: we can come up with a general rule for human behavior. However, that rule won’t necessarily cover every situation, because we can’t foresee everything. When such a situation does arise, we go back and refine the rule, or make an exception or a defense.

Consider tort law. A short, succinct rule might be “it’s wrong to hit somebody,” and so we invent the rule of battery and say that one who does one is liable for injuries. Fine. What about somebody who trips and accidentally hits someone? Ok, then we go back and refine: it’s wrong to intentionally hit somebody. Fine. What about improper contact–if somebody pinches my posterior without permission? Ok, then we change “hit somebody” to “offensive contact,” which includes hitting.

Over time, battery eventually developed into the definition of “the intent to cause harmful or offensive contact that results in such contact.” Defenses based on, say, consent or legal justification, have resulted. The law of battery probably isn’t going to change anytime soon. At best, a lawyer would rely on the common law at this point: he’d look at several battery cases to say that his client’s actions are more or less like particular cases where something was held to be a battery. But the rule isn’t going anywhere.

On second thought, that’s pretty much what you said in the paragraph I copied. Ah, well, carry on.

Well, a legal system, any legal system (indeed any system of justice) is driven by the biological drive for revenge, which itself is just a defense mechanism.

(Our laws against murder, rape, etc do not come from Judeo Christian values by the way, or they would be unique to our society. They are not.)

“Justice” is merely revenge, which again is biologically motivated, taken in appropriate measure against the appropriate people. Thats what it all boils down to.

Systems of justice, and thus legal systems, are organized constructs or methodologies we use to 1. find the appropriate persons(s) to take revenge upon and 2. gauge what level of revenge is suitable for the offense committed.

I mean, if someone breaks into your house and you call the police, its an act of revenge just as suredly as if you had called the chief/warriors of your tribe; the only real practical difference is the level of organisation.

In the situation the OP is talking about, one could argue that we allready have a set amount of revenge for the crime the person committed, and we allready have a set methodology for determining that this is the correct person to take revenge upon. So these girls were stepping out of bounds by taking their revenge in the way they did when we have an agreed upon system of revenge allready.

But it could also be argued that if people, or women to be more specific, start taking their own revenge in these situations more and more often as time goes by, then that is an indication that in this area our organised system of revenge is not meeting its #2 responsibility of making sure the level of revenge is appropriate to the offense; that the populous no longer trusts the system to inflict revenge appropriate to the crime. This, of course it goes without saying, can only be the systems fault as the system exists only for the sake of peoples confidence.

Personally, the only real problem I have with what the girls did was that they took revenge twice. Not only did they attack him, but they called the cops as well. Usually in these types of situations, and I have been in more than a few though not in this type of crime, its an either-or thing; one takes ones revenge oneself and so there is no need to involve the police, ~or~ one lets the police and justice system handle the revenge for you. Its rather bad form to do both, but theyre young and in highschool so its not as gauche as it would be if they were older.

I’m not so sure about that. Biologically speaking, sexual drives and drives for power make sense, but I wouldn’t say revenge is at the root of everyone’s actions.

No, they aren’t unique, but that doesn’t contradict what I said. Western popular morality is based on Judeo-Christian principles. Those principles might coincide with those of other cultures, thus indicating that they are not the fundamental motivators, but that doesn’t mean that our laws aren’t based on them.

Or maybe justice is simply fairness.

Yeah, but you can’t make everyone happy all the time. That’s why we have majority rule. It’s an easy way out of the dilemma. So if these girls accept the other laws we have, and use them to their advantage, why are they justified in violating them?

This reminds me of the times my sister and I fought and I was really pissed off when she hit me back and called our mother. It didn’t seem fair.

Why should they be held to a different standard? Especially when they have refused the laws we now have.

I’m not a legal scholar or historian, but it seems to me that vengeance is not really the fundamental rationale for the justice systems of the world. There is in addition:
[li]Deterrence — persuading law-abiding citizens to stay that way, even when they’re tempted otherwise. After all, you can’t be watching everyone everywhere all the time, nor would you want to.[/li]
Therefore, we widely publicize the existence of laws, courts, police, fines, and prisons, so that everyone knows the serious consequences of breaking the law, at least for those who are caught doing it.

[li]Segregation — separate the criminals, especially violent ones, from the rest of society. We do this because people demand to be safe to go about their business reasonably free of fear and risk. They will not tolerate anarchy for long.[/li]
Confining criminals inside a prison is the most popular method to separate them from law-abiding society. The death penalty is another, more extreme method for achieving the same thing.

[li]Rehabilitation — convincing the law-breaker that he would be better off, and we would really really appreciate it, if he behaved himself from now on. To help with this, we provide the criminal with useful knowledge and job skills that he might have lacked up to this point. Then we cross our fingers and hope for the best. Sometimes it seems to work.[/li]
Rehabilitation is a more modern notion of the justice system’s utility, I would bet. Probably it wasn’t a common practice before the 20th Century. (Some historian should step in and correct me though.)
These are all just my opinions of course. I look forward to reading more of this discussion.

You’ve touched upon a pet peeve of mine, people who equate legality and morality.

I’d also say it is possible to commit a legal act that is immoral. Case in point, the Clinton deposition. I believe that it’s immoral to swear to tell the truth then not do so. In my moral opinion, he was very deceptive in his response, so I would say he committed an improper act. IIRC, it was argued that he was not legally in the wrong, because of how carefully his responses were crafted in relation to the questions asked. The ability to craft a lie legally does not make it less of a lie.

This also comes up with respect to the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ statement. Just because the state hasn’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a person committed a crime, doesn’t mean that person is ‘innocent’. Innocence and guilt, in the moral sense, exist without courts, and are not affected in any way by a trial outcome.

I also believe that morality and legality are not necessarily the same – some actions are legal but not morally justified, some illegal actions are morally good or at most neutral.

However, I would also say that, at least in a democratic country, following the law is a moral good in itself even when you don’t personally agree with it. After all, a democratically created system of laws is a kind of agreement between the citizens of the country, including those citizens who lost the vote. If I voted with the majority for a certain law, I would want everybody including the minority voters to respect that law – so I try to do the same with laws where I lost the vote.

In other words, even when I don’t respect the law I still respect the process that created it. For example, I usually keep to the speed limit, mostly because I don’t want to be ticketed of course, but also because I feel that the speed limit is something which I am implicitly agreeing with by living in this country, having a driver’s license etc.

Of course, you then get into discussions like whether there is such a thing as a ‘social contract’ which you automatically accept by entering (or being born in) a country.

I guess in deciding my own actions, I keep a kind of score (informally and unconsciously): if something is against the law, it gets a fairly stiff penalty right away, but if it is otherwise justified according to my personal ethics, it may still end up with a positive score.