The so-called ethics-law divide is pervasive in most cultures nowadays. Not all unethical acts are punishable by the state or defined in its positive law, and occasionally societies formally ban certain behavior but tacitly permit it as long as it is kept quiet and nobody is harmed. Most states also include so-called regulatory offenses or "victimless" crimes such as failure to register motor vehicles or other similar acts that are often not considered to transgress ethics. This really makes me wonder whether there has ever been a society where there is no ethics-law divide, that is, where ethics and law are exactly the same thing. In other words, in a society with merged ethics and law, any act that is legal is automatically ethical, and vice versa, and any unlawful act is, ipso facto, unethical, and vice versa.

Are there, or have there been any societies where ethics and law do or did encompass the exact same principles, behaviors, intents, etc.?

One idea I had was theocracies, but even religious systems of law tend not to fully punish all bad acts or failures to perform correct acts. For example, the Islamic concept of makruh defines certain acts that are strongly discouraged or even considered disgusting (and thus might be considered unethical for followers to commit), but nonetheless are not considered sins and carry no punishment. Roman Catholic Canon Law distinguishes the so-called external and internal forums. A priest holding heretical beliefs but not sharing them with others is subject only to conscience and personal penance (internal forum) rather than a formal trial for heresy before a canon law judge (external forum). Only when the priest begins formally preaching his heretical beliefs in public does it enter into the jurisdiction of the external forum and the possibility of official action by church authorities under its statutes.

In response to comments, this question is not about theocracies. I mentioned them because theocracies, even when "harsh" compared to Western standards, tend not to address all possible religious or ethical transgressions through the law and courts.

  • Um... Islamic religious law says don't go "all in" on enforcing every rule to the very last jot, and so theocracies based on Islamic law have not merged ethics and law? What? A person with transgressive ideas "not sharing them with others" is a problem for the merger? What?
    – BillOnne
    Aug 23, 2022 at 16:25
  • Gotta agree with @BillOnne that your criteria don't seem to follow from what you are claiming to look for. It seems like what you are looking for isn't a law that contains within it ethics/morality - which would generally be the case for any country's laws - but rather for an example of a nation that is justice incarnate: executing justice perfectly without any favoritism, forgiveness, or the like. Aug 23, 2022 at 17:45
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    No. Nor will there ever be such a human society, it would not be viable. Law requires enforcement to function, and enforcing punishments for every infraction of ethics would overwhelm society's resources, not to mention the backlash against punishing offenses seen as minor, forgivable or "necessary evil".
    – Conifold
    Aug 23, 2022 at 20:11
  • I'd look to Viking law, which was pretty much decided ad hoc by the assembly of free men at a thyng, though with reference to precedent. The en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eyrbyggja_saga is our most complete insight into the system.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 23, 2022 at 21:28
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    Considering that law is the same for everyone but ethics varies from person to person, this would seem to be logically impossible for any society with a population larger than one, unless you make the law dependent on personal ethics; that is: you punish people for violating their own ethics. But that would be unenforceable. Aug 24, 2022 at 6:33

2 Answers 2


I'd argue while tribal societies essentially work that way but do not even have this difference, no state where the difference exists can do so.

Tribal societies generally have certain characteristics which include that ethics are more or less completely shared within the group and that transgressions are punished by social punishment up to complete ostracization. Thus, there is an extreme social cohesion which does not make the difference between codified law vs. ethical rules as well as institutionalized punishment vs. social consequences necessary.

One of the characteristics of a state that made codified (or at least public and more or less stable) law necessary as opposed to ethical rules, coming with power monopole enforcing these laws as opposed to mere social consequences, is that it unites several groups with different interests and ethical rulesets. This comes naturally as soon as there is some level of pluralisation of roles and does not need to have anything to do with ethnical, religious, or whatever difference. You just will not have a society that is sufficiently differentiated to have a state as form of organization and at the same time have the social and ethical cohesion to not make these different institutionalizations emerge. Working as a state needs this diverse society to work and vice versa, so there is no way for the state to escape the emergence of law and coercive punishment with the emergence of social and thus ethical plurality.

As others have mentioned, the only way to try to enforce the absolute unity of ethics and law - something which as I just argued is working against natural tendencies - is an absolute totalitarian control over all aspects of law and ethical thought, ie. complete indoctrination. And as soon as this absolute, coercive control is lessened - and there are arguments this is not possible at all - the achieved will fall apart again.


The problem you sense is the reason you feel a "divide" between law and ethics.

In its essence, law is a form of ethical sense being given a cut-clear interpretation (well, not really because that interpretation can be somewhat further interpreted, but at its basis). The problem with ethical reasoning is that the context is 100% of the reasoning, and when you eternalize a specific interpretation in a rule book, you make it very hard to anticipate and adjust to every single possible interpretation.

What you're looking for is basically a society that didn't eternalized certain ethical thinking into a rule book.

There actually used to (somewhat) be such a thing in Judaism. Although the Torah contained the very general outline of ethics that the Judaistic society followed, these ethics were always being interpreted according to the situation at hand in the Halacha. It was called the Oral Torah for a reason - it exactly wasn't written as very specific rules.

Later on the Jewish community realized that it was quite difficult to handle a very separated society (across multiple countries), with varying degrees of ethical education between the people, so they did too what probably every human society has done: they eternalized most of their ethical thinking into very specific rules.

It seems like as a society we can't afford the "luxury" of oral thinking, because it is simply too hard to maintain over the years and with increasingly larger population.

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    I beg to differ. Liberalistic law, say Hobbesian, for instance, are the rules necessary in order to even have a society with law (and not war). This law, these rules, are intellectually totally independent of the morals within.
    – user14511
    Aug 25, 2022 at 14:41
  • @Mr.White why are you saying that liberalistic law is independent of social moral? Let's go the other way around; what is the basis for liberal law? Aug 26, 2022 at 19:31
  • If you make it a question, I will probably answer it.
    – user14511
    Aug 27, 2022 at 3:21
  • @Mr.White well, I don't find it an actual question. But if you want you can ask and answer your own question and link it here; or the more reasonable thing to do, you can back up your comment with a resource (or a simple explanation). Either way, I find commenting without reasoning quite fruitless. Aug 27, 2022 at 12:12

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