Law and Morality
“Explain the meaning of law and morality. Discuss whether the law does and should seek to uphold moral principles and whether the discussion is still relevant today”
Legal rules, as defined by Salmond, are the rules that are applied by the state and Austin tells us that they are ‘commands’ issued by sovereign powers enforced using penalties. Arguably, moral rules are the opposite, defined by Harris as being a set of beliefs, values, principles and standards of behaviour.
Where legal rules are created through a recognised law making process by professional and formal bodies, moral rules are very subjective and personal and can be influenced by our family, friends, religion and our experiences in life. Laws can also be referred to in Acts of Parliament or case judgements, giving them certainty and clarity whereas moral rules aren’t formally recorded and it would be impossible to do so, given their subjective nature.
Laws often have to go through a long parliamentary process to be created or can be changed in cases by judges creating precedents, yet when enacted change immediately and there is no room for divergence from them, where moral rules perhaps have always existed and stem from religious beliefs but change gradually over time. Compliance to legal rules is compulsory and there are often severe penalties for non-compliance, mostly in the form of prison sentences whereas moral rules are enforced informally by society and often take the form of disapproval or exclusion.
A topic that clearly demonstrates these differences is that of homosexual equality in the UK. Homosexuality was legalised in the Sexual Offences Act 1967, an act which was commenced immediately, showing the swiftness of the changing law, but up until that point being homosexual was illegal and was an offence, first introduced into the law in the Buggery Act 1533 and was an offence under S61 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 – the offence which the poet Oscar Wilde was charged with. This shift in law was sudden, however it took much longer for society’s moral opinion to change. By the 1950s there had been a slow but sure shift in public opinion towards a respect of personal freedom and individual rights which resulted in the Wolfenden Committee investigation and report in 1957, leading to the Hart-Devlin debate and the eventual passage of the 1967 Act.
However, full equality was not achieved until much later. It took until the commencement of the Human Rights Act 1998 in 2000 to get parity of the age of consent, with ART 8 the right to a private life and ART 14 the right to freedom from discrimination making it possible. It took till 2014 for homosexuals to gain the right to marriage in the Marriage Act 2013, however this act still allows for religious leaders to refuse to perform the ceremonies – something which is still controversial.
It is arguable that these changes in law were caused by the changes in attitude, and…