How do you distinguish between legal and moral? Burning ants with a magnifying glass: is this okay because it is not illegal? Taking a drug not approved by the Food and Drug Administration that may save your life: is this wrong because it is illegal? You probably answered no to both cases.
Over a two-month period, I monitored many sessions of the navy’s latest training on sexual assault prevention known as SAPR-F. While the presenters, both live and on video, mentioned numerous times that sexual assault is a crime, only with my urging did one presenter say that it is wrong to sexually assault a human being.
I emphasized this point when I gave my remarks at the end of each session. My question to those being trained was: how would you feel about someone who attacked your sister or mother? Do you want people to feel that way about you? The posture and attitude of those listening visibly changed. The pronouncement of the immorality of sexual assault more starkly exposed as futile whatever legal shilly-shallying they might have been considering,
Tim Cook recently testified before Congress about Apple Inc. not paying any taxes on its foreign-based profits. Yet everyone agreed neither American nor foreign laws were broken. Were the questioners implying Apple has a moral obligation to pay taxes?
Internal Revenue Service employees targeted certain groups for greater than typical scrutiny. No adjudication as to laws broken has been made. Nonetheless, people across the political spectrum have made accusations of misconduct. Is it reasonable to conclude that those involved acted immorally?
None of the above would be troubling if it were clear that the standard of moral conduct expected from people is different than the standard of legal conduct. But with the proliferations of laws and the inclusion of codes of ethics in statutes the impression is given that the law trumps all. If that is the case, there is no reason to be concerned about ethical behavior. Further, and more important for the future, children need not be schooled in the difference between legal and moral.
Most damaging about the equating of legal and moral is it teaches you to suppress your conscience in favor of an external source. Bereft of an internal gyroscope, your ethical decisions are more easily manipulated. You do not need to search far to find societies that, their people having relinquished their moral compasses, are convinced that murder, assault, and destruction are defensible, even meritorious.
Finally, when legality and morality are deemed the same, there is no standard by which to judge the justice of the law. The law cannot simultaneously establish the benchmark for right and wrong and be adjudicated by this criterion.
Instinctively you know there is a profound difference between what is legal and what is moral, and that the latter must guide the former. This correlation needs to be sustained for the maintenance of your mental and spiritual fitness and that of society.
Question – Which do you think is the higher arbiter of good: law or morality?
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