How should we balance morality and the law?

I was recently discussing a clinical case with medical students and physicians that involved balancing murky ethical issues and relevant laws. One participant leaned back and said: “Well, if we know the laws, then that’s the end of the story!”

The laws were clear about what ought to (legally) be done, but following the laws in this case would likely produce a bad outcome. We ended up divided about how to proceed with the case, but this discussion raised a bigger question: Exactly how much should we weigh the law in moral deliberations?

The basic distinction between the legal and moral is easy enough to identify. Most people agree that what is legal is not necessarily moral and what is immoral should not necessarily be illegal.

Slavery in the U.S. is commonly used as an example. “Of course,” a good modern citizen will say, “slavery was wrong even when it was legal.” The passing of the 13 amendment did not make slavery morally wrong; it was wrong already, and the legal structures finally caught up to the moral structures.

There are plenty of acts that are immoral but that should not be illegal. For example, perhaps it is immoral to gossip about your friend’s personal life, but most would agree that this sort of gossip should not be outlawed. The basic distinction between the legal and the moral appears to be simple enough.

Things get trickier, though, when we press more deeply into the matter. Imagine you are walking along a country road and you come to a deserted intersection. The pedestrian sign indicates you are not allowed to cross the street. You wait for a very long time. There are no cars or people anywhere in sight, so you decide to cross the street even though you know that it’s against the law. You have done something illegal. But have you done something immoral?

Scenarios like this raise the question of whether we have a general moral obligation to obey laws simply because they are laws. This is an important question with important implications. If we have a general moral obligation to obey the law, then this applies to any law – even bad laws.

For example, if the law states that you ought to turn in undocumented persons to authorities, then you would have a moral obligation to do this because it’s the law. The mere fact that the law is the law creates this obligation, but we might agree that in some cases this obligation can be outweighed if we believe that the law itself is immoral, or if we feel that our other moral obligations outweigh our moral obligation to obey the law.

This view, thus, takes us back to square one: Even if we have a moral obligation to obey the law, how much of a moral obligation do we have and when is it outweighed by our other moral obligations?

Others fundamentally disagree. They say that you have done nothing morally wrong by crossing the street since you have no general moral obligation to obey the law at all – this law or any law. After all, where would this moral obligation come from? Did you promise at some point to obey all laws? Do you owe the government obedience to the law?

According to this view, we only have a moral obligation to obey those laws which we believe are moral in the first place – the good laws – and only because of their content, and not simply because they are laws.

For example, one must obey a law that states: “Do not murder” because murdering is wrong in the first place; making it a law does not make it extra morally wrong.

This is only one of many puzzles about the relationship between the realms of legality and morality, but it points to an important source of contention and confusion. I can say that I disagree with the person in the clinical case discussion who said that laws are the end of the story. There’s more to the picture.

But, beyond that, I think we have work to do as medical professionals and ethicists to further illuminate how we should balance legal structures in our work. Do we have a moral obligation to obey laws at all? If we do, then how much of a moral obligation? How bad must a law be before we can justifiably recommend disobedience?

By the way, I would cross the road. Three times. Just for the thrill.

By Peter Koch, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy at Villanova University and a graduate of the Clinical Ethics Fellowship in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine

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