Law is best described as rules made by authority. John Austin defined law as a command from a sovereign power and Sir John Salmond defined law as a ‘body of principles’. Law needs to be obeyed and is enforced through various sanctions. Morality is really values and principles rather than rules. Phil Harris defines a society
’s ‘code of morality’ as a set of ‘beliefs, values, principles and standards of behaviour’
. Compliance is voluntary, though society can enforce moral codes informally, for example through disapproval and social rejection.
There are a number of clear distinctions between them . For example law can always be proved by referring to the written record of it, whereas morality is opinion and open to dispute. Secondly law can change instantly, for example homosexuality was legalized when the Sexual Offences Act 1967 came into effect and the ban on smoking in public places came into force on 1 July 2007. Morality on the other hand changes gradually. Finally the sanctions for breaking the law are severe and could involve financial penalties or loss of liberty, while sanctions for breaking moral rules are usually social.
But law and morality can also overlap. Sir John Salmond illustrated this by referring to overlapping circles. For example there are many long-established legal rules which have a moral connection. These include the laws of murder and theft, which can be traced back to the Ten Commandments. For example the Christian Bible and Jewish Torah state
“You shall not steal”
. Also changing moral views can lead to changes in the law. The legalization of homosexuality and the banning of corporal punishment in schools are good examples of issues where general public attitudes had gradually changed and then the law changed as a result. Although assisted suicide is an example of the law not changing due to moral views even though 80% of the public (British Social Attitudes Survey) are in favour of terminally ill people being given the right to die; but the Government has not made any changes due to opposition from most faith groups. The case of R v R is a good example of the courts recognizing that public morality had changed and deciding as a result that the previous legal position that a man could not be charged with ****** his wife was no longer acceptable. Also, the case of Brown highlighted the moral opinion against sado-machism.
But it is often difficult for law to follow morality. Britain is becoming more pluralistic and this means that there are more likely to be disagreements about what is morally right for the law to do. There are a number of issues on which there are conflicting moral views, which are very strongly held. For example abortion despite the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967 the issue remains contentious. In the debates leading…