Law and Morality

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Law and Morality
Sir John Salmond described the law as ‘the body of principles recognised and applied by the state in the administration of justice’. They are a set of rules and boundaries that are established by authorities which must be obeyed, otherwise, a sanction may be given. Morals are beliefs, values and principles that are set by society or part of a society, determining what is right and wrong. Phil Harris stated that they are “standards of behaviour”. Unlike legal rules, compliance with moral rules is voluntary, that are often informally enforced through social or domestic pressure.

Law and morals are both normative; they specify what should ideally be done and mark the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable conduct. However, the ways in which they both do this are different: laws are codes of conduct which a superior power has decided should be compulsory. They are formally enforced by appointed authorities and relate to all members of society. One example is the ‘smoking ban’ which was introduced by the Smoke-Free (Premises and Enforcement) Regulations 2007 and more recently the proposed change to the legislation regarding same-sex marriage under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which previously meant that gay marriage was prohibited. Morals can be seen as a set of values which are not enforced by law. They define how one ought to act not how one must act and whilst they are not subject to moral enforcement, they can be informally imposed. There are significant differences between moral rules and legal rules; whereas Laws can be introduced almost immediately by Parliament or the Courts, morals tend not to be backed by legal sanctions and are often reinforced by social pressures; such as family and friends. They can have powerful influences on people’s behaviour, and develop over many years; often heavily embedded in religious and social history. Compliance with moral rules is voluntary and there are often no formal punishments. Today we live in a diverse society which has meant that as morals have developed: they have become pluralistic and between individuals or social groups opinions on moral codes now vary. Within Christianity, acts such as abortion and euthanasia are strongly opposed, while other religious groups may not deem these as wrong. Similarly, in Hindu and Muslim communities arranged marriages are encouraged whilst in non-religious communities these are disfavoured. Furthermore, legal rules can enforce strict liability, such as the requirement of wearing a seatbelt in a car or not exceeding a speed limit, whereas moral rules cannot- they can only be broken voluntarily.

Legal and moral codes can coincide; law can often be seen reinforcing and seeking to uphold our moral values. For example, Lord Atkins’ ‘neighbour principle’, which is the basis of the tort of negligence and is thought to have derived from the biblical command to ‘love thy neighbour’ which is also believed to mean do not harm thy neighbour. However, this can be seen as a major problem as morals will consistently change over time, to reflect a change in attitudes, and the law must attempt to keep up in these situations. An example of this can be seen in R v R (1991), which changed the law, so that rape within marriage became a crime. It was viewed that the wife was legally seen as almost the property of the husband, via the marriage agreement. This was view was morally outdated and wrong, yet the law was very slow in adapting this moral view. Another example of how moral change has led to legal change is the case of Diane Blood. Mrs Blood’s husband died from meningitis. They had been trying to start a family and she arranged for sperm to be extracted from him. Following his death she attempted to use the sperm to become pregnant, but this was banned under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. She won the right to have the insemination carried out abroad. Under UK law their births had to be registered with a...
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