Published On: Fri, Nov 1st, 2013

Dont confuse what is legal with what is morally right

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Most people think of themselves as being “law abiding” citizens.  They admonish those that break the law and feel that it is reasonable that if you break the law you should pay the consequences.  Broadly speaking, this makes sense.  In most Western countries there is a strong correlation between what is legal and what is morally right.But make no mistake.  What is legal or illegal, is not necessarily the same as what is morally right or wrong.  Here are three good examples of laws that we now find morally wrong:

Slavery. It was legal to have slaves in parts of the United States all the way up until 1865.  Today there is no doubt that banning this practice was the right moral thing to do.  At the time, however, the southern Confederate states seceded from the Union rather than abolish slavery.  The northern States then went to war in order to keep the Union intact – which was also an illegal act and a breach of the sovereignty of the southern States. The North had no interest in making slavery illegal in the South, they just did not want it to spread beyond the South.  It was only later in the Civil War that Lincoln explicitly tied the war effort with slave emancipation in the South. So the South seceded to maintain a morally repugnant system in place and the North went to war in violation of the legal right of the South to secede.  Breaking the law was the right moral thing to do.


Buying and selling men, women and children was morally wrong, but widespread.

Buying and selling men, women and children was morally wrong, but widespread.

Women’s right to vote.  Women were deliberately excluded from voting in 1832 and did not get the right to vote in the United Kingdom until 1928, 96 years later.  Today there is no doubt that women should be treated as equals to men and that allowing women to vote was the right moral thing to do.  At the time, however, women needed to break the law many times in order for their voices to be heard and for them to get the right to vote.  Breaking the law was the right moral thing to do.

It was illegal for women to vote, but morally wrong

Interracial marriage.  Blacks were not allowed to marry whites in most part of the United States until 1967.  Today, race is becoming increasingly blurred in much of the United States with combinations of black-white-asian-hispanic becoming relatively common.  Yet this change in legislation was extremely controversial and whites believed that allowing blacks to marry whites would ruin the white race.  Today the thought of banning two consenting adults from marrying each other on the basis of their race seems absurd.  Fighting to change the law was the right moral thing to do.

So herein lies a big question. Who, or what, should be the arbiter of what is legal or morally right?

Laws are written by legislators.  Legislators are elected by the general public.  Thus the general public have a clear, albeit indirect, impact on what is legal and illegal.  The problem is that when the general public elects a legislator they are typically voting for an individual who may vote on dozens of laws that may be contrary to what the electorate actually wants.

But what is morally right? It used to be that Christianity in the West used to the the arbiter of what was morally right.  Yet Christianity is full of “laws” that are quite questionable in the modern world.  It provided a lot of the moral “cover” needed to justify slavery, for example.

The reality is that moral convictions change over time.  This explains the change in attitude over homosexual marriage, for example.  In 1983 21% of Britons believed that homosexuality was rarely wrong or not wrong at all.  By 2012 57% of people felt the same way.  

The law is generally out of sync with moral convictions.  There is a lag between what is deemed morally acceptable and what is deemed legal.  If enough people think that something is morally acceptable, over time you can expect legislators to catch up and pass laws allowing that behaviour.

But in the meantime, you should expect the early adopters of new standards of what is morally right to be on the fringes of society.  Their views will not be deemed acceptable and what they propose will frequently be deemed illegal.

As a free society it is important that those people are protected from unnecessary persecution and that their often illegal behaviour is not excessively repressed.

While we may not agree with them today, they might be providing the moral guidance that we need to change the laws tomorrow.



About the Author

- Tristan Fischer is the author of all the articles on History Future Now. He is the Chairman of Lumicity Ltd, a company developing renewable energy infrastructure projects, Chairman of Fischer Farms Ltd, a vertical farming company using hydroponics, and a board Director of Fish From Ltd, an onshore salmon company. He previously worked for Camco International, Shell Renewables and Citigroup. He was educated at Cambridge University. To find out more click here:

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