It seems in most cases which laws are adopted depends on what ethical views legislators hold. There might be counterexamples when a lawmaker does not adopt laws reflecting own moral views. But I do not think it is common at all, otherwise we can call such a lawmaker a dummy, in fact. At the same time moral responsibility is assumed to be distinct from legal responsibility. There is seemingly a contradiction here.

Elaboration on the first sentence: Indeed, we can think that morally someone ought do something. Same thinking goes for legislators. But they have more power in their hands and they can make others act how they want. If you think other people are doing something bad, you could use some kind of force too. If you think someone is cruel to animals, you could use force to stop him do it. And it seems, lawmakers merely have more force, while anything else seems to be the same. A considerable part of lawmakers thinks some kind of action is bad and they produce means to reduce these actions. So, laws are a product of ethical values a small part of people (which is not even large enough to be representative and someone might argue against democracy) holds. And you are simply liable to their moral values.

There often are justifications for laws like "patriotism", "national values", "preventing moral fall", etc. Cannabis sometimes is prohibited because it is bad. Bad means whatever they want, they won't respond to arguments that it is not worse than alcohol. Porn sometimes is prohibited for children because otherwise it would cause moral fall. If reasoning is the case it usually rests on moral values, like rights, kindness, empathy, etc. That human life is valuable is moral position. And driving rules are created in order to lessen death rate from car accidents.

How is this issue resolved? Or where am I wrong?

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    "Therefore" suggests a logical relation between the first sentence and the second, but I do not see it. Ethical views legislators hold are not identical with ethics, and for that matter they have no ethical views as a group, so what they end up adopting is not what any of them holds. Ethics applies to how people should behave individually as well, and it is not enforced by a justice system, etc. So the answer to the title question is trivially yes, beyond that I do not know what is being asked, maybe read Law versus Morality as Regulators of Conduct.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 21:19
  • @Conifold, not everything is that simple. Probably you got used to definitions you have on your mind. But even more probably I didn't get used to definitions you have on your mind. If you think ethical position and ethics are unrelated, you are already making some presupposition I can disagree with. What they end up adopting is something two thirds (varies from country to country) of them agree to some degree.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 21:29
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    I am not sure what the rest is about but I agree with the first sentence. Which is why the title should be changed to something more cogent, and the text expanded to explain what is being asked.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 21:37
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    Since some laws are created by people who deviate from their own ethics, there is a problem here in that not all laws are adopted depending on the legislators' ethical views as assumed in your first sentence. Some people make laws to benefit themselves despite their ethics... or so I assume, otherwise there are some people with disgusting ethical views, but I assume some just ignore their ethics for their benefit. You could fix this by editing to specify "if a law is adopted based on legislators' ethics, then is ethics distinct from law?"
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 22:30
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    A very crude simplified answer would be: "We give everyone the freedom to be an asshole"
    – solalito
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 9:12

14 Answers 14


In the most trivial sense, they are obviously distinct because morality does not disappear when I enter an area with no laws. Similarly, my personal morality does not change as I move between countries, nor is it necessary that my morality be aligned with some particular body of law.

We can also look at instances which are simply outside of the law. If I lie to my wife about sleeping with another woman, I probably have not broken a law (in my home country, anyway), but I think we can agree that there is still a moral component to my lie.

"it seems which laws are adopted depends on what ethical views legislators hold."

Maybe, if they believed in a unusual moral code that equated morality and legality. Laws can be made which are completely independent of the morals of any legislator voting for it. For instance, perhaps the law was designed to help large corporations, and the legislators voted for it because the corporations gave them money. Is your assertion that such a law indicates that all of the involved legislators see creating this law as a moral action?

Law simply isn't a system for defining morality. It's a system for regulating the actions of members of a community. Some laws may be based on morality, some may be purely bureaucratic, some may in fact be immoral, and there are many moral issues which laws simply don't account for.

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    @rus9384 That some laws have a moral basis does not, in any way, make legality and morality the same thing. Weather is related to the Sun, but weather is not the Sun, or vice versa. Further, your assertion that legislators always pass laws with moral reason is both wrong and irrelevant. Even if they all happened to be pure, morally good beings (which is far from the truth), it would still be the case that morality and legality are distinct, because in principle you could create immoral or amoral laws, or fail to address all moral issues in your legal system.
    – Harabeck
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 23:07
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    @rus9384 No, actually read what I wrote. Purely moral as in always acting for the sake of morality. We do things for for amoral reasons all the time. People also act immorally, even according to their own sense of morality. Hence the existence of guilt, shame, etc. The act of making a law is not necessarily moral, or morally good, even by the morality of the person voting for the law. I'm also really unclear as to how you're trying to get morality out of the collective effort of a group of people who almost never agree on every issue. Is a law more good if all the members voted for it?
    – Harabeck
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 0:37
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    This answer is poor because it assumes that one must necessarily have one (and only one) "personal morality". It also assumes that laws are unwaveringly tied to areas as if it were a physical object. A less blunt approach to understanding the abstract concepts of morality and laws would improve this answer. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 6:09
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    In a nutshell, laws are the morals a society can agree upon. That's why and how they were originally defined and "invented".
    – Mafii
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 13:08
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    @CarlMasens The examples make those assumptions for simplicity, but the answer itself is not predicated on them. If you have a specific improvement in mind, feel free to suggest or edit it in yourself.
    – Harabeck
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 16:22

They must be different! Otherwise, there would be no such thing as an unjust law.

I would not want to be there when the person who claims that legal obligation and moral obligation are one and the same tries to explain this to anyone who has engaged in civil disobedience or who has escaped from government-sanctioned oppression.

I would not want to be there, either, when the person claiming that neither legal obligation nor moral obligation is real tries to explain this to anyone who has chosen something more difficult or unsafe, but which was right, instead of something less difficult or more safe, which was wrong.

I don't see how a morality-denier could ever advise a person toward courage, honor, loyalty, or good faith; or how a morality-denier could warn against cowardice, cheapness, betrayal, and indeed, hate.

In 1948 some people wrote this:

it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law


The following was written by Luther Lee with regard to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850:

I affirmed that slavery is wrong---a moral wrong, a violation of every commandment of the decalogue, that no law can make it right to practice it, support it, or to in any way aid and abet it; that the Fugitive Slave Law is a war upon God, upon his law, and upon the rights of humanity; that to obey it, or to aid in its enforcement, is treason against God and humanity, and involves a guilt equal to the guilt of violating every one of the ten commandments. I never had obeyed it---I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the United States authorities wanted any thing of me my residence was at 39 Onondaga-street. I would admit that they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that I had friends enough in Onondaga County to level it with the ground before the next morning.

Autobiography of the Rev. Luther Lee, Part 4, pages 335-336

The following was written by Martin Luther King Jr.

One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Socrates was put to death for religious differences between himself and those of the city leaders (and also for one other charge: corrupting the youth). The law that condemned Socrates was unjust (or else it is OK to force religion upon somebody).

Samuel Adams wrote of the Stamp Act of 1765:

If Taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal Representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the Character of free Subjects to the miserable State of tributary Slaves?

We therefore earnestly recommend it to you to use your utmost Endeavors, to obtain in the Genl Assembly all necessary Instructions & Advice to our Agent at this most critical(Juncture); that while he is setting forth the unshaken Loyalty of this Province & this Town--its unrivald Exertions in supporting His Majestys Governmt & Rights in this part of his Dominions--its acknowlegd Dependence upon & Subordination to Great Brittain, & the ready Submission of its Merchants to all just & necessary Regulations of Trade, he may be able in the most humble & pressing Manner to remonstrate for us all those Rights & Privileges which justly belong to us either by Charter or Birth.

Samuel Adams's Instructions to Boston's Representatives

William of Orange issued this declaration in 1688 regarding unjust law:

It is both certain and evident to all men, that the public peace and happiness of any state or kingdom cannot be preserved, where the Laws, Liberties, and Customs, established by the lawful authority in it, are openly transgressed and annulled; more especially where the alteration of Religion is endeavoured, and that a religion, which is contrary to law, is endeavoured to be introduced; upon which those who are most immediately concerned in it are indispensably bound to endeavour to preserve and maintain the established Laws, Liberties and customs, and, above all, the Religion and Worship of God, that is established among them; and to take such an effectual care, that the inhabitants of the said state or kingdom may neither be deprived of their Religion, nor of their Civil Rights.

Declaration of the Hague, written by Gaspar Fagel

King John (1199 - 1216) was accustomed to governing his realm by the principle called vis et voluntas, Latin for "force and will". The Magna Carta was issued around the time of his reign, and among other things that are still in effect today in English law, stated that no free man could be imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions without due process being legally applied. Clearly, what had been happening before under the law was unjust.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 14:41
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    Here is the question as it appeared previously: "Is ethics distinct from law? In fact, it seems which laws are adopted depends on what ethical views legislators hold. Therefore it seems the answer on my question seems "no". At the same time moral responsibility is assumed to be distinct from legal responsibility. There is seemingly a contradiction here. How is this issue resolved? Or where am I wrong?" Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 15:16

Legal and moral responsibilities are subtly different, even if we presume an entirely just legal system.

Legal responsibilities are about the scope of a person's authority. It is illegal for me to murder you because your life is not within the scope of my authority. I cannot trespass on your property because your property is outside the scope of my authority.

Moral responsibilities are about how we exercise the authority that we do have. I have the authority to call my mother on her birthday or not. It may be my moral responsibility to call her, but no sane society would say it's my legal responsibility. If they were, they would be arguing that the decision to call or not call my mother on her birthday is outside my moral authority.

If you view a legal responsibility as just, you likely also view it as a moral responsibility. This is a reflection of the belief that we ought to exercise our authority within the bounds that are justly imposed on it.

A decision regarding how to exercise our authority is a purely moral one. Few decisions are purely legal as we exercise our moral authority when we set the scope of moral authority.

You have a legal responsibility not to choose to be a thief or assassin. But beyond that, it's within your moral authority to choose a profession. As you make this moral decision, you can weigh you preferences and skills however you wish. It will require moral skill to make this decision well, but it's not a legal question.

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    This answer presumes that legal and moral systems universally behave in specific ways, without reference to specific cultures or civilisations. The answer would have been more helpful if the exact scope, and cultural and civilisational applicability of this answer were clarified. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 6:17
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    @CarlMasens I don't think it does that at all. It just explains the definitional difference between legal systems and moral systems. The respective systems can behave various different ways and still be legal systems because they define scope of authority or moral systems because they say how authority ought to be exercised. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 6:59
  • What I meant is that legal is a subset of moral. Legal is what legislators agree on to be moral (yes, they allow some admissions to reach consensus). At least I thought so, but not sure anymore.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 7:23
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    @rus9384 Legal is a subset of moral only if you think one has a moral obligation to comply with the law. Otherwise, there are things that are legal obligations but nor moral obligations. For example, I have a legal obligation to file my taxes by April 15. It seems odd to say I have a moral obligation to file my taxes by April 15 unless you just mean that I have a moral obligation to follow the law. Most sane moral systems hold that we generally ought not to behave in a manner that exceeds our accepted scope of authority, which means we are morally bound to comply with law. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 8:17
  • Would you argue if I know a loophole in the law I am not legally responsible not to use it? Well, probably you would. That's why loopholes seem to be fixed. And you have some kind of other obligations like organizational, which seem to be about files.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 8:24

A law is a standard that the government uses force to impose. For example, if you murder somebody the government may use force against you to catch you and keep you confined in prison. If you exceed the speed limit and refuse to pay a fine the government will take the money from you without your consent.

So the moral standards that should be laws are those that should be imposed by force. So unless your view is that every moral standard should be imposed by force, then some immoral acts shouldn't be laws. For example, if John's wife asks you to buy some milk on the way back from work and John claims he forgot when he actually just couldn't be bothered that may be a bad thing to do. Unless you think John should be fined arrested or prosecuted for telling that lie, then you think there is a distinction between law and morality.

Also, governments have made laws that are a lot worse than a law against lying about buying milk, such as the Nuremberg laws in Nazi Germany. Some laws are grossly immoral.

  • In the case John tells he forgot to buy milk, we can say he is responsible to his wife. But his wife is probably not a legislator. And sometimes from the position of morality one should only be condemned but not punished. And sometimes not. That some laws contradict folk morality is not news for me. But I'm not speaking about folk morality.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 7:30

By way of example, under US laws, slavery was legal and Jim Crow laws were legal, and under German law the Holocaust was legal. However, many people today, possibly including yourself, believe that those policies were immoral. Therefore, there must be a difference between what is legal and what is moral.

The larger principle at issue is that sometimes immoral people rise to positions of power, and, from there, dictate what the law is going to be. Some people use the power of government to enrich themselves at the unjust expense of others, some use it to unjustly rid the world of enemies or "undesirables", others use it merely to exercise raw power. Note, also, that unethical people both have an incentive to rise to power, but, also, are willing to do things to come to power (e.g. spying on or murdering opposition candidates, rigging votes or debates) that more ethical people would be unwilling to do, so there may even be an increased probability that unethical and/or immoral people will actually succeed in gaining power, all else being equal.

World history is full of things that today are viewed as immoral - human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, genocide, honor killings, etc., which are generally viewed as immoral by members of western civilization. Ghengis Khan, for example, is said to have possibly murdered entire populations of ethnic groups, i.e. making them extinct, in his various conquests. The Romans burned the library of Alexandria to keep their baths heated, which today seems like an unspeakable crime against humanity, destroying so much knowledge and history, to say nothing of scientific progress, in so doing, for such a temporary and meaningless gain.

All of the above entirely according to laws at the time.

(A corollary to all this is that government generally, or the law in particular, should never be looked to as a final moral authority.)

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    Did you mean "believe that those policies were immoral"? Or "moral"? You can edit the post if you want to. I would edit it but I am not sure of your intent. Welcome to this SE! Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 4:24
  • As an "answer by example", a reader's interest in this answer would be augmented if there are more examples, since the world is much more than just the modern USA and Germany. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 6:11
  • Frank, yes, you are correct, and I've edited my text. I altered the phrasing before posting and missed that, but it is corrected now. Carl - I think there are many examples of immoral laws, e.g. a government going to war is legal, yet the war will kill many innocent people (and many people might agree that the killing of innocent people is immoral). My examples are very well known. Mathematicians accept as disproof a single counterexample, although I give three. Also, slavery used to be common (and legal) across the globe, so one of my examples is more broad than I directly imply. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 11:55

The distinction between something like legal culpability, and something like moral guilt, can be made by observing the distinction between local laws, e.g., the laws of the early Romans, say under Numa, at Rome, and, on the other hand, a philosophic inquiry into the nature of Justice as such. The laws of Rome have to do with what is good for Rome. What is Just simpliciter, without qualification, is Just in itself. For instance the theoretical statement: that which makes human beings better is just. This is not quite the same as a distinction between the expedient thing, what gets something done at all costs, and the moral thing. Since doing what is largely considered morally wrong brings shame on the country, on the local entity, and therefore is not (as it were, truly) expedient in many cases.

The question of the ethics of the legislator's could read: the universal values, as established by the lawmaker's art, i.e, by Political Philosophy as conceived under the influence of Plato, is brought to the legislative process, to the political process. For instance, consider the issue of the Federalists in the American founding, and the Anti-federalists, they had different ultimate views about what the best regime (politiea, i.e., the subject matter of Plato's Republic) was. This had to be put into actually existing laws which did not perfectly agree with the ethics of either group. The issue is thus resolved by the political process de facto, but not in any way satisfactory to the ownmost convictions of those who hold with regimes of ultimate values.

This is all complicated by the notion of "deliberation", as opposed to dealing and deal making, the contrast between so-called Liberal Democratic government (as imagined, for instance, by James Madison or Thomas Jefferson), i.e., rational deliberations towards the "good of the whole", as against an interest politics (i.e., political process, which speaks of a"political branch" and names the Federal Legislature, Article III, or the Parliament in most countries other than America), which is de facto always in play and means a contest between factions involving compromise (or, stated honorificly, as it were, a "coalition government", where all are invaded by inconsistencies) rather than rational persuasion.

These two disjointed notions would be almost the same in a theoretically perfect situation of rational deliberation towards Justice, with the issue added on of the cleavage of the local and universal, amidst the rising sense in which all deliberation is not local, because one has constant dealings with and news from all parts of the planet.

Carl Schmitt is good authority on these issues as a start.


A deeper investigation would have to treat with the following difficulty: There's a question about whether the subject matter of the Euthyphro, holiness, the gods, which basically corresponds to the personal conscience, the native sense of doing something wrong, can be brought into harmony with a rationally derived statement of Justice, as in the Republic, or, at length, in Catholicism which becomes Universal Human Rights under the sway of the secularist age. There's a double contrast with the positive law, i.e., with the law on the books here or there.


One important difference between laws and moral responsibilities arises from laws being a utility to enforce practicable behavior.

An easy example: A law which makes it illegal to carry a knife.

Is it morally wrong or despicable to carry a knife? Maybe you carry a knife on your way to a friend, because you want to cook at their house? I can see no moral problems with you carrying this knife at all - you have no ill intent and do nothing wrong.

So why does the law make it illegal to carry a knife? Because a law has to be practically applicable. If a police officer stops a possible culprit who is carrying a knife he needs a supporting law so he can stop him. A law which states "it is illegal to carry a knife if you plan on doing something evil with it" would be very hard to enforce, because it is almost impossible to proof someones intent without reading his thoughts.

TL;DR Laws are formulated differently from moral guidelines, because laws are utilities which need to be applicable in certain circumstances.


Law is necessarily the same for everyone (within its applicability limits), while ethics can be personal, at least in some aspects. While laws stem from ethical views of the legislators, they become independent from them once they receive their legal status. When laws are applied, it shouldn't matter whether people applying the laws share the original ethical views or not.

One established moral concept which is inherently personal is the golden rule: if I don't mind e.g. being lied to or cheated on, I will find it ethical to lie and cheat myself. If I believe that lending money with interest is wrong, I will find the whole banking industry deeply unethical.

  • "Law is necessarily the same for everyone" Only within given jurisdiction. "while ethics can be personal" A moral universalist would argue otherwise."When laws are applied" When applied, ideally - yes, their application should not be based on personal prejudices. But when adopted?
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 21:50
  • @rus9384 (1) - that's what I meant by applicability limits, (2) - I don't share that point of view given the neverending debate over the ethical aspects of DRM, software licensing and patents for example, (3) - when adopted, laws are indeed based on personal views of the legislators. Are you asking whether they should? Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 22:44
  • I am asking why aren't then legal responsibilities called moral as well, if when you are liable to laws, you are liable to lawmakers' morals, or what their morals were, when they adopted those laws.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 22:46
  • This answer would have weight if the claims made here were backed up by some established moral, or legal, philosophy or way of thinking. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 6:13
  • You can find the whole capitalism to be unethical. But still use it. And you can tell people are morally responsible to you. That they should use arguments to protect/justify the idea of capitalism. But isn't legality often the same in the sense that you should juatify your actions to the government?
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 8:41

@elliot svensson wrote:

They must be different! Otherwise, there would be no such thing as an unjust law.

Let us expand on this. Considering the shape of laws that exist for a moral purpose*, laws are written by humans to be interpreted by humans to implement justice. Humans are fallable, and they cannot reliably write down in advance the set of moral laws that cover all cases. Where a gap exists, the resulting law is most likely unjust in some way or another.

Furthermore, humans are corruptible, and the greater the power the greater the likelihood of being corrupted by it. This results in laws being written that are deliberately weak on the moral side for the purpose of favoring some people over others. These laws are automatically unjust and immoral.

And that's when tribalism hasn't pushed the condition to get a specific outcome in the absence of forward reasoning from the conditions to the outcome. This is degenerate, and closer to tyranny than law at all.

We should not assume the law is just. The process of creating law does not actually warrant that assumption.

*Not considering tax & spend, traffic laws, infrastructure development, etc.


The difficulty of comprehension arises because there is a large overlap between the two, so they are not entirely distinct. However, mixing them would be what Gilbert Ryle calls a "category mistake" ("The Concept of Mind", 1949).

Legal responsibilities are a defined, explicit code of rules applicable within a specific domain both temporal and spacial. They are strict in the sense that they contain specific penalties to be applies by specific rules. Simply put: If you can kill someone for breaking a written rule, that written rule better be precise and cover all edge cases. Note that death was the typical punishment for breaking written laws for most of human history, from the first written law of Hammurabi to the religious laws of biblical times.

Moral responsibilities are fluid, social rules largely concerned with interaction between people. Morality is inter-social. If nobody else is affected by my actions, morality does not come into play. There is a corner case where some actions are claimed to be "against god" (e.g. masturbation) which artificially creates inter-personality.

The difference becomes clear when you look at a more abstract case of behaviour involving an abstract second, such as paying your taxes.

As a legal responsibility the matter is very clear: The law says that you need to pay your taxes. That is the end of that story. In a court of law, no further investigation into the reasons is necessary. The court would look at the evidence of whether or not you did, and your defense would be that you did and they just didn't record it, or you didn't know the due date, or such. You would not mount a (successful) defense along the lines of "I did not pay my taxes and here is a good reason why." You could, however, mount a successful defense on formalities, such as a piece of paper not being phrased or signed correctly.

As a moral responsibility the exact part left out of the law question would be central: That paying taxes is your duty to society because you receive something in return (roads, police, not being murdered by your neighbours, etc.). That other people depend on your taxes, such as health care for the poor, or that it ensures the safety of society (police, military, etc.) You would not mount a (successful) defense along the lines of some formality. You could, however, mount a successful defense along the lines of good reasons, such as refusing a specific tax that overwhelming goes to the military if you are a pacifist.

  • I think that your depiction of legal responsibility is more accurate in places that have "civil law", such as France or Germany, and less accurate in places with "common law" where a judge's decisions form precedents that are legally binding, such as the US (but not Louisiana), Australia, and the UK. Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 14:12
  • Common law countries also have written laws. The method of interpreting them is different, but the principle of law is not so much different.
    – Tom
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 21:09

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that aims to answer the basic question, “What should I do?”

It’s a process of reflection in which people’s decisions are shaped by their values, principles, and purpose rather than unthinking habits, social conventions or self-interest.

Our values, principles, and purpose are what gives us a sense of what’s good, right and meaningful in our lives and serve as a reference point for all the possible courses of action we could choose.

On this definition, an ethical decision is one made based on reflection about the things we think are important and that is consistent with those beliefs. While each person is able to reflect and discover their own sense of what’s good, right and meaningful, the course of human history has seen different groups unify around different sets of values, purposes and principles.

Christians, consequentialists, Buddhists, Stoics and the rest all provide different answers to that question, “What should I do?” Each of these answers is a ‘morality’.


Many people find morality extremely useful. Not everyone has the time and training to reflect on the kind of life they want to live, considering all the different combinations of values, principles, and purposes.

It’s helpful for them to have a coherent, consistent account that has been refined through history and can be applied in their day to day lives.

Many people also inherit their morality from their family, community or culture – it’s rare for somebody to ‘shop around’ for the morality that most closely fits their personal beliefs.

Usually, the process is unconscious. There’s a challenge here: if we inherit a ready-made answer to the question of how we should live, it’s possible to apply it to our lives without ever assessing whether the answer is satisfactory or not.

We might live our whole lives under a moral system which, if we’d had the chance to think about, we would have rejected in part or in full.


The law is different. It’s not a morality in the strict sense of the word because, at least in democratic nations, it tries to create a private space where individuals can live according to their own ethical beliefs or morality.

Instead, the law tries to create a basic, enforceable standard behavior necessary in order for a community to succeed and in which all people are treated equally.

Because of this, the law is narrower in focus than ethics or morality.

There are some matters the law will be agnostic on but which ethics and morality have a lot to say.

For example, the law will be useless to you if you’re trying to decide whether to tell your competitor their new client has a reputation for not paying their invoices, but our ideas about what’s good and right will still guide our judgement here.

There is a temptation to see the law and ethics as the same – so long as we’re fulfilling our legal obligations we can consider ourselves ‘ethical’.

This is mistaken on two fronts.

  1. First, the law outlines a basic standard of behaviour necessary for our social institutions to keep functioning. For example, it protects basic consumer rights. However, in certain situations, the right thing to do in solving a dispute with a customer might require us to go beyond our legal obligations.

  2. Secondly, there may be times when obeying the law would require us to act against our ethics or morality.

    A doctor might be obligated to perform a procedure they believe is unethical or a public servant might believe it’s their duty to leak classified information to the press. Some philosophers have argued that a person’s conscience is more binding on them than any law, which suggests to the letter of the law won’t be an adequate substitute for ethical reflection.

Did you know that you can never be ethical and moral and follow the law at the same time? The idea that we can have all three elements together is a hope that human society dreams.

If you are ethical you can abide by the law. If you are Moral you can be ethical. Also, if you are moral you can abide by the law. But you can never be all of three together.

Morality governs private, personal interactions. Ethics governs professional interactions. Law governs society as a whole, often dealing with interactions between total strangers.

Some people talk about their personal ethics, others talk about a set of morals and everyone in a society is governed by the same set of laws. If the law conflicts with our personal values or a moral system, we have to act – but to do so we need to be able to tell the difference between them.

Ethics and morals relate to “right” and “wrong” conduct. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different: ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual's own principles regarding right and wrong.

Morals and Law differ because the law demands an absolute subjection to its rules and commands. Law has enforcing authority derived from the state. It is heteronymous (being imposed upon men upon the outer life of men). Law regulates men’s relations with others and with society.

Morality demands that men should act from a sense of ethical duty. Morality has no such enforcing authority from the state. It is autonomous (coming from the inner life of men). It governs the inner life of men. If the promissory note is time-barred, then the legal duty of the debtor turns into moral duty.

Of course, moral duty is not enforceable before the court of law. It is also accompanied by a corresponding right. But right is not enforceable before the court of law.

There is no such organization for the enforcement of morals. Moral rules do not admit even in principle admit of change by legislation. Moral disputes can be solved by the mediation of caste elders, village elders, etc. Morality applies to every human act. The morality also applies to all persons.

But it depends from person to person, from religion to religion, society to society. It is his/her pleasure to follow or not. But morals sometimes can be converted into law. Example: donation to charity institution is a moral principle. The income-tax recognized and exempts certain percentage of income-tax towards donation from the total income.

Ethics and Law - Ethics are rules of conduct. Laws are rules developed by governments in order to provide balance in society and protection to its citizens. Ethics comes from people’s awareness of what is right and wrong. Laws are enforced by governments to its people. Ethics are moral codes which every person must conform to. Laws are codifications of ethics meant to regulate society. Ethics does not carry any punishment to anyone who violates it. The law will punish anyone who happens to violate it. Ethics comes from within a person’s moral values. Laws are made with ethics as a guiding principle.

It is clear that one cannot be Ethical, Moral, and follow the law. In today society following the law affects the morality of people. Being ethical makes you look like you are against someone or something. What do you do? It is not to please anyone but make sure you are ok with the what you will follow. Choose wisely because only two go side by side. Ethics is a set of standards, or a code, or value system, worked out from human reason and experience, by which free human actions are determined as ultimately right or wrong, good or evil.

If acting agrees with these standards, it is ethical, otherwise unethical. Law is a code of conduct which the authority in power prescribes for society. It basically differs from ethics in its option to use force if and when necessary and by the fact that it is backed by power. Laws are, by and large, fair and moral. But it is not easy to accept that laws can be the foundations of ethics, or even that laws can ensure ethical behavior.There are many situations in life, where just following the law does not make one ethical.

For example, if a wealthy man intends to splash thousands of Ghana Cedis on the anniversary of his dog whiles his neighbor has no money to buy food and is being ejected from his home, there is no law to prohibit the wealthy man from doing so. If he decides not to, it is because of the dictates of his conscience, not because of the dictates of the law.

His conscience, ethical value system and principles forbid him to rejoice when someone else nearby is in sorrow. The law has no role to play in such a situation. Moreover, not all laws have a moral choice. There are many laws which do not involve any ethicality questions - for example, we are required to walk on the left hand side of the road. This is done to ensure traffic control and the traffic discipline, but a question of ethics is not involved here.

Again, all moral and ethical actions do not involve the law. For example, it is ethical to love and respect your parents, but there is no law for it, except when they are deliberately mistreated by their children. Law represents the minimum standards of behavior expected from people.

Merely following the law, does not make one ethical. Another aspect of the legal system is that it prohibits us of certain actions. It also spells out the negative consequences of our not following the law - that is legal punishment. However, ethical behavior encourages us

to do certain things and explains the benefits, i.e., the positive aspects of these ethical behaviour. For example, the law tells us not to steal, not to kill, but ethics tells us to do good, speak the truth, help others in distress. Thus there is a positive

aspect inherent in ethical behaviour, whereas the law is more concerned about the negative behavior. Yet another aspect of the law is that ethics precedes the action, the law follows it.

Ethics tells us what we should strive to develop in ourselves (high moral standards), on the other hand, the law tends to be more concerned with the consequences of the negative action - what punishment would follow, who is guilty and how shall justice be done. Moreover, the law is a universally accepted, published document, whereas ethics do not yet have a universally accepted, consistent and published concept - it is abstract, culture specific and left to the individual for interpretation and action.

Some Laws have nothing to do with morality because they do not involve serious matters. These include parking laws, dress codes and other laws covering similar matters.

Our moral standards are sometimes incorporated into the law, when enough of us feel that a moral standard should be enforced by the pressures of a legal system.

In contrast, laws are sometimes criticized and eliminated when it becomes clear that they blatantly violate our moral standards. Morality, therefore, has shaped and influenced many of the laws we have. Most ethicists agree that all citizens have a moral obligation to obey the law so long as the law does not require clearly unjust behavior. This means that, in most cases, it is immoral to break the law.

Tragically, the obligation to obey the law can create terrible conflicts when the law requires something that the individual person believes is immoral. In such cases, a person will be faced with a conflict between the obligation to obey the law and the obligation to obey his or her conscience. In summary;

1. An action can be illegal, but morally right. For e.g. A public officer, who is under the oath of secrecy, revealing certain sensitive information and documents which would serve the greater good of society to journalists.

2. An action that is legal can be morally wrong. For example, it may have been perfectly legal for the chairman of a profitable company to lay off 125 workers and use three-quarters of the money saved to boost his pay and that of the company’s other top managers, but the morality of his doing so is open to debate.

3. All legal provisions may not be ethical and some are, at best, debatable.

4. All ethical actions are not governed by laws.

5. Not all laws have a moral choice.

6. Laws are specific concepts, ethics is abstract.

7. Laws represent the minimum standards of human behavior; ethical behavior goes much beyond the legal expectations.

8. Ethics has a positive aspect, whereas the law is more concerned about negative behavior.

9. Ethics precedes action, the law follows it.

10. The law is universally accepted within its jurisdiction and is enforceable, whereas ethics is not always universally accepted and is not enforceable by force or pressure.

11. Law prescribes punishments for illegal acts, whereas ethics do not clearly prescribe specific punishments for an unethical act, since the outcome of an unethical act is not always clear.

**In conclusion, laws provide the human society with the minimum standards of behavior, but laws do not duplicate the value system of the society.

Laws are not a replica of the ethical system, nor are laws an expression of the moral standards of the society.

Laws merely provide us with the guidelines of behavior for a disciplined, peaceful and safe society. Law and ethics combine to define how individuals choose to interact with one another.**


Ref.- >https://www.scribd.com/doc/97416444/Relationship-Between-Ethics-and-Law

Ref.- http://www.ethics.org.au/on->ethics/blog/september-2016/ethics-morality-law-whats-the-difference


  • But I meant that those who make the laws are making them in accordance with their own moral values. And moral responsibilities they think we have to them become legal. At the same time responsibilities we think we have to ourselves, indeed, can differ from theirs. But law is not required here. If we assume the being so powerful that it can threat us if we don't act according to its will. Then we probably have responsibilities to it. Probably, they aren't legal. Aren't they moral?
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 12:51
  • @rus9384-your analysis is correct-the legal structures of so-called civilized societies after the growth of community markets/barter centers generated because of 'mercantile needs' and after the growth of counties and property systems were basically framed by the 'ruling' circles-therefore many instances of unethical laws can be traced say against equality and moral justice.even in 21st century the legal rights of farmers who grow our foods are still to be 'enforced'..and the moralists must be responsible enough to raise the voice against those laws- for example Mr. Gandhi's movements
    – drvrm
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 13:24
  • I guess after all these discussions I need to get rid of use of notion of responsibility completely. Only causality makes sense.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 13:28
  • <I meant that those who make the laws are making them in accordance with their own moral values> I do not think the legal systems operating in large democracies like India- the legal heads-Judges are devoid of 'Legal responsibilities" in tune with their own moral values...as we find 'resistance' in interpreting the law..in support of issue of 'human rights', 'freedom', justice to women, and a flutter is seen in supreme courts..therefore notion of 'responsibility' based on ethics is there..but not powerful enough as no 'institutional base' of morals have been created...
    – drvrm
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 14:10

Why are legal and moral responsibilities different?

Every law which penalizes those found guilty of breaking them presents choices for those who happen to be subjected to them:

  • Approval and obedience (no penalty)
  • Approval and disobedience (possible penalty)
  • Disapproval and obedience (no penalty)
  • Disapproval and disobedience (possible penalty)
  • Mindless obedience (no penalty)
  • Mindless disobedience (possible penalty)

Every option involves a choice: whether to obey or to disobey the law.

  • Approval and disapproval involve some sort of logical reasoning process, some forethought.

  • Mindlessness is more impulsive or compulsive.

Approval with obedience means that you agree with the law and accept that it applies to yourself as much as to all others. Legal and moral responsibility are in agreement.

Approval with disobedience means that you generally agree with the law, but don't think that it applies to you personally. Legal and moral responsibility not in agreement, but you are willing to risk the penalty.

Disapproval with obedience means that you disagree with the law, but choose not to risk the penalty. Legal and moral responsibility not in agreement, but you are not willing to risk the penalty.

Disapproval with disobedience means that legal and moral responsibility are in agreement and you are willing to risk the penalty.

Mindless obedience means that you just do what you're told. You're just very agreeable or easy to manipulate.

Mindless disobedience means that you are probably a sociopath. You're just very disagreeable and defiant.

Anyone freely choosing whether to obey or disobey the law, based on some logical reasoning process -- practices free will.

Mindless actions do not involve the exercise of free will.

Legal responsibility is collective. Rational individuals can freely choose whether or not it agrees with our own personal morals. Once that is decided, we are then faced with yet another choice: follow our own conscience, or submit to that of the collective.

Moral responsibility is personal and individual. It is the basis upon which we can choose to agree with the law, or not. It also influences how we act on our conscience. We might feel very guilty, even if we haven't broken any laws. Or feel justified, even if we have broken laws.

Why are legal and moral responsibilities different? Because people vary so much with respect to individual morality that we need laws and courts in order to establish some consistency in an attempt to create a functional society.

  • But well, organized crime also has some kind of code. Do we speak about morality or about legality there?
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 23:50
  • @rus9384 Politicians and mobsters all put their pants on the same way: one leg at a time.
    – Bread
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 23:55
  • 1
    Do these imposed definitions come from an established source? Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 6:14
  • @Carl Masens Which definitions in my analysis do you feel are "imposing"? Please specify them for us, so that I may provide a source that would be established enough for any reasonable reader.
    – Bread
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 9:41
  • @Bread The definitions which you imposed (which is different from whether or not they are imposing) are all those declarative sentences beginning with the concept in question, followed by "means that...", which take up the bulk of your answer. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 14:32

I would argue that legality and morality are not only different, they’re the exact opposite of one another.

There is no such thing as “legal responsibility”. None of us signed a contract when we were born stating that we accept a government to have any control over our lives.

Morals are a product of the brain that are influenced by many environmental and biological factors. Most of the so-called universally accepted morals were developed by people who lived long before us and found some things that physically or mentally hurt others the most. Those people were part of a society, and the society as a whole eventually chose which of those moral foundations they democratically agree on- and that’s how people live together peacefully. As societies get bigger, there is always a tendency to create govenrnments, and you seem to be confounding society with government.

Government is force. No matter what law is passed, it is essential for the government to have force in order to enforce it. If the law says you cannot smoke pot, that does not make the action of smoking a plant immoral. It simply means the government said no, and if you do, they will use force against you.

Morals are different. Force is not essential to uphold moral standards. If you steal my bike, I can certainly use force, but it’s not required. I can publicly call you out and embarrass you, I can stop talking to you so that you lose a friend, or I can ignore it and go on with my life. If I don’t know you and my options are limited, I can call the police or hire someone to find my bike, take it back, and then choose whether I want to use force against you or not.

Every person has their own set of morals that developed over their life time, and they can consist of morals that have been approved throughout history (ex. Do not murder, do not steal...), or they can be new morals such as “I should help kittens out of trees” or “I should vote for people who will use guns to enforce things I don’t like”.

Societies can be filled with a majority of ignorant people who develop their own moral standards, and when this happens, they will create governments.

Governments are force, and morally speaking, they are evil.

  • Government is not evil when it obtains its authority by consent of those governed, who therefore submit willingly to its force. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 22:32
  • @elliotsvensson Maybe, but I never gave my consent to Trump being president. If Hillary had won, I wouldn’t have given my consent to her either. Even in a direct democracy where “the majority rules”, the minority is forced to uphold those conditions without consent. Suppose a state should say “No blacks may live here”, and the 100,000 white people agree that the state should kill the 10,000 black people. While the majority of white people consent willingly to the government’s force, the government has been given permission to commit evil acts.
    – Cannabijoy
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 14:00
  • But without government, you would be much more vulnerable to evils of others: petty criminals, immoral institutions, and gangs. Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 14:07
  • @elliotsvensson Why would there be gangs if all drugs are freely traded? How many criminals would there be if capital could easily be obtained by any means- rather than costing hundreds of dollars in fees before you can open a lemonade stand? What are we to say about immoral institutions like the War on Drugs that is the foundation of success for cartels- and treats addicts like murderers? We might need a little government to make people feel safe, but it’s objection will always be to grow and control.
    – Cannabijoy
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 14:15
  • Governments do tend to grow and control, but that's why charters such as the Magna Carta, the US Declaration of Independence / Constitution / Bill of Rights, the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, etc. were made: to prevent governments from feeling too safe when they attempt oppression. Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 14:33

Your question seems to imply the following:

1 - Since the morality of the lawmakers is the basis for most of the laws they make, the laws reflect the morality of the lawmakers.
2 - Therefore, moral and legal responsibility are the same (that they are different "...is seemingly a contradiction...").

I don't believe statement 1 is true, but even if true, the conclusion of statement 2 is not valid. The proof of this, is that I can be morally irresponsible without being legally irresponsible (I can be unfaithful to my wife, without any legal responsibility).

  • Well, I meant that legal responsibility is the consequence of moral responsibility of certain individuals. I don't argue one can believe his moral responsibility is to violate the law. And laws must not be a comprehensive list of moral rules. E.g. "X is bad, but not bad enough for a punishment." Or "our intervention is not needed."
    – rus9384
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 5:24
  • @rus9384, you don't argue it, but others have made the case that it is a person's moral responsibility from time to time to violate the law. And I believe them! Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 15:14
  • @elliotsvensson But not lawmaker's moral responsibility. I'm starting to think the word responsibility should be avoided at all costs. There are desirable consequences, there is experience, there are errors of the past and there are methods. Some of which will help me to achieve my goals better than others. And responsibility is redundant as it serves no purpose.
    – rus9384
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 15:23
  • @rus9384, is a person responsible to avoid words that should be avoided? Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 17:23
  • @elliotsvensson No. If avoiding them presumably leads to more desirable consequences do it. If not, don't do it. Why responsibility? What's the use?
    – rus9384
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 17:27

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