The Relationship between Morality and Law

In some capacity, the relationship between law and morality is constantly present in our day-to-day activity.  Both Hart and Fuller touch on this topic, providing opposing views on the subject and defining morality in different ways as it relates to legislation.  Nonetheless, the basic principle is simple.  The law must not be so directly related to morality that our obligation to obey the law is inherently moral.

Given that the law governs a collective group of people, it is fair to argue that people are obligated to follow the law.  It is less enticing to me, though, to say that we are all morally obligated to follow it.  Many laws seem to be intrinsically unrelated to morality in any capacity.  For example, it would be difficult to assert that someone who fails to make a complete stop at a stop sign lacks a sufficient moral compass.  Turning your blinker on when making a turn is a law, but does failing to turn your blinker on make you innately immoral?  These acts are clear violations of the law, but I find it difficult to believe that their decision to disobey was in immoral one.

It is also relevant to study the development of American social norms, as civil disobedience was prevalent at different times in our history.  Dating back to slavery and continuing through the mid-20th century with John Crow laws, our nation failed to acknowledge equal rights among races.  Decades later, we are able to agree that our government did not follow a moral guideline in developing these laws.  The civil disobedience led by Martin Luther King, among others, was actually the most morally justified action.  These laws, like many others, were formed without regard to morality.  How then, is it fair to assert that the people should have some moral obligation to follow it?

We have also read about Chiquita Brands and its series of payments to a terror organization over a number of years.  Threats from the organization included physical harm to workers in Columbia unless they were paid periodically.  Chiquita was eventually hit with a $25 million dollar criminal fine and five years of probation.  Despite all this, it is important to note that Chiquita was actually seeking to protect people.  While Chiquita was indirectly funding a terrorist group, they were also protecting a large group of hardworking people in a foreign country.  Their moral obligation, then, is twofold.  While their payment to the terrorist group could lead to harm of many others, their decision to not pay could also lead to many deaths.  From Chiquita’s standpoint, their decision to act morally in the interest of the workers superseded the potential harm of others by paying off the organization.  In essence, two moral obligations are at stake, with potential for a bad result in both cases.  Is there, then, a moral obligation to follow the law? Or are there cases in which disobedience is the more morally justified decision? I am inclined to believe the latter.


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