About snewm91

A "20-something" teacher in West Tennessee who loves Jesus, long car ride conversations, and colorful skies.

Moral Responsibility vs Legal Responsibility

When watching shows such as Law and Order  there is usually a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. If a defendant is found guilty, they are often painted as a morally corrupt person. However, sometimes this judgment is not so cut and dry. There are people who did not mean to harm anyone, but caused physical or emotional pain, and in some cases death. There are also some people who intended to cause harm, but were not able to do so. How do we set about to judge these people? How do we differentiate between moral and legal responsibility?

The law does not punish an attempted murder in the same way as an actual murder. It does not prioritize intentions over outcomes in the same way that many people believe moral judgment should. Everything depends on the results, whether death occurs. The law is concerned with definite results, and second with the intentions. However, knowing someone’s intentions can change your view on their innocence significantly.

Here is an example of differing intentions:

 

Possibility 1:

Abby and Seth work together in a large office building. They are both applying for a promotion for assistant manager. Abby gets the job so she has to go on a three week long business trip for training. She asks Seth to water the fern that is on her desk while she is on this trip. However, Seth is mad that Abby got the promotion. While she is gone, Seth does not water the fern like Abby asked. Instead, he ignores the fern. When Abby gets back, her fern is dead.

 

Possibility 2:

Abby and Seth work together in a large office building. They are both applying for a promotion for assistant manager. Abby gets the job so she has to go on a three week long business trip for training. She asks Seth to water the fern that is on her desk while she is on this trip. However, Seth is mad that Abby got the promotion. While she is gone, Seth does not water the fern like Abby asked. Instead, Seth pours acid on the fern. When Abby gets back, her fern is dead.

 

In these two situations, Seth has two differing intentions, but with the same outcome. In the first one he just ignores the fern. He doesn’t even think about it. But in the second situation Seth clearly determines to destroy the fern. Many people would say that Seth of the first situation was responsible for the death of the fern, but that he did not cause it. At the same time, the Seth of the second situation is responsible and caused the death of the fern.

So with these differing intentions we may be more inclined to judge the second Seth more harshly. This does not fit with the legal importance of outcome and that is where moral and legal responsibility ultimately calsh.

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Legal Violations = Moral Judgment?

While reading the newspaper or watching the news it is easy to look on the subjects of the daily headlines criminals devoid of all sense of morality. Whether they be thieves, murderers, or unruly protesters, they are so often marked with bad character without even a thought to why or how they came to the current situation. Aren’t all people innocent until proven guilty? Even then, there may have been an acceptable motivation behind their actions.

For example, when Martin Luther King Jr marched while knowing it was against the law, he had a reason. Although he was arrested, he made his point and he aided in the Civil Rights Movement. He was protesting the maltreatment of people and unequal human rights. How can anyone argue with that, treating all people fairly? In the end, most people forgot that he was arrested in the scope of all that he accomplished for his imprisonment was more of a desire for consistency in the legal system rather than a punitive measure.

Also, what about those who accidentally run a red light? Are they so terrible as to be lacking in any moral sense? Speaking from experience in this arena, accidents happen and most of the time these infractions happen at the very last minute when the light has just turned from yellow to red. It can take just a split second of distraction to unintentionally run a red light. At the same time, how can we call someone immoral for running a red light at any time? Other things catch our attention. However, it is dangerous and it can cause harm to either yourself or other drivers and passengers. This is why it is ok for the law enforcement to issue tickets for such actions.

Even though legal violations are not a judgment on a person’s character, there is still a call for consistency in the justice system, which requires punishment for breaking the law. If a court was to sentence people based on their moral motivation prior to the crime, the process would be much longer and there would be a greater chance of bias. There would also be discrepancies between cases in which the judge lived by a different moral code. There would be no way to ensure that all people were being treated the same way.

Although it can be determined that the accused is an immoral person, that does not mean that they are one because they have committed a crime. In fact, if they are, the crime would be a result of that status rather than the other way around. Therefore, we can not decide that the person whose mugshot we see is of bad character when they could have acted by accident or with some greater motive in mind.

Natural Law and Positive Law

   While many people would love to be able to determine law based on their own beliefs of right and wrong, there is no way to do so entirely. There will always be someone whose views will not be the end result, someone will always have an opposing view. Many times lawmakers endeavor to create legislation based on a moral obligation, but these laws are rarely useful in all situations. There will be a time where the moral context of the original case is not relevant to the new situation.

There is also the question of whether natural law actually exists. While positive law can exist even when unjust, it is not enough to be just in order for natural law to exist. There must be some measure of factual existence. A standard that was true according to values and that was not a part of a prescriptive system would simply be morality and law would lose its certainty. The Nuremberg Tribunal is one of the few cases of natural law where the court sentenced Nazi leaders for obeying positive laws that were unjust. They violated natural law by following positive law. The Nazi leaders were condemned by the court for their acts of atrocity.

Some have argued that positive law comes from natural law. For many this would be ideal. Cicero explains that the four basic categories of law—labor, property, self-defense, and family—are based on basic instincts such as self-preservation and procreation. This opens man up to a political community with its fundamental standards. This is just an example of how natural law might influence the comprehension of positive law. Nonetheless, this does not conclude that natural law is relevant for a positive law system.

Natural law is a system dependent on the inclinations of human nature, but what are those inclinations? How do we determine their ability to produce a just society? If we believe what the Bible says in Matthew 15:19, then there is no way that human nature should be the deciding influence on law. Matthew 15:19 says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Certainly, actions such as murder and theft are fairly common, so we cannot conclude that human nature is against such things. There is also, however, a desire for justice. There is a calling for the people to be heard, judged, and acquitted. The problem is using the system to be fair and to represent all citizens in a way to which they are entitled.