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Hello.
My question is about law and morality.

It is commonly assumed that intentionality/ purpose is an important factor in determining how morally 'good' an action is. For example if I give to charity because I honestly care about the cause and hope to improve society by supporting this cause, my action would be considered more morally good than someone who donates to improve their public reputation (why companies are often involved in charity work for example). So an act which is committed for altruistic reasons is often considered more moral than one primarily committed for selfish reasons/ reasons that will directly benefit the person.

However, the introduction of laws, with associated punishments for transgressing these laws, can change the intentionality of people’s behaviour from altruistic to self-centred. For example if it wasn't illegal to steal from a shop, people’s reason/justification for not stealing would most probably be a moral one (i.e. stealing is wrong, stealing harms society etc). But since stealing is illegal, people’s dominant/ most cognitively obvious reason for not stealing would often be a far more selfish/ self-centred one of avoiding punishment or perhaps rather more morally neutral desire for wanting to obey laws/ fit into society etc.

So since laws often reduce people’s capacity for altruistically-motivated behaviour (due to the added motivation of avoiding punishment), do laws diminish people’s capacity for morally good behaviour in many circumstances?

Or is altruistic behaviour often an illusion, and all human behaviour is selfish to some degree?

Or does this issue not really matter, since these laws are supposed to bring justice and reduce the incidence of these immoral acts, which far trumps the above possible negative effect?

March 17, 2011

Response from Sean Greenberg on March 17, 2011
This is a wonderful and fascinating question, which goes to the heart of the relation between morality and legality.

It does seem that the moral status of an action might well be determined by the intention with which the action is performed (in part because depending on one's intention, one may well perform the same external act--say, give money to charity--but act very differently--one might give to charity in order to help others, or in order to get a tax write-off, or to impress one's friends--and so it seems to me that the nature of and the respect to which an act reflects morally on an agent can vary depending on her intention in performing the act. Of course, however, it might well be the case that no one but God can really know the intention with which someone acts--agents themselves may not know their own intentions very well, as Freud and empirical psychology have argued--and so intentions cannot be taken into account in determining whether some external act is in conformity with or against some law. (This is not to say that the law ignores intentions: attempted murder is punished, albeit not to the same degree, as a successful murder: but in both cases, the starting point is an external act.) Since law regards only external action, it can--fortunately for it--avoid consideration of the intention with which an agent performs an action: the agent who doesn't steal because stealing is morally wrong and the agent who doesn't steal because s/he fears going to jail have equal standing in the eyes of the law.

Now I myself am inclined sharply to separate questions of morality and legality: many other philosophers have distinguished them. Kant, for example, distinguishes in The Metaphysics of Morals between questions of virtue, which have to do with the intention with which an agent acts and are therefore moral, from what he calls questions of right, which have to do with the permissibility of actions and don't regard intentions at all, but only external acts. One virtue--to my mind--of the fact that the law only regards external actions is that it provides a very clear standard for distinguishing between (legally) permissible and (legally) impermissible actions; matters are not so clear with respect to morality, which is one of the reasons that it is so difficult to be moral. In light of this distinction between morality and legality, I don't believe that the point of laws is to "reduce the incidence of...immoral acts" at all, but rather to ensure that agents do not commit illegal acts. Consequently, one prong of your question can be avoided, because it seems to turn on the question of whether the domains of law and morality can and do overlap.

Now even if you might were to grant that morality and the law have different objects altogether, there remains another issue: can the mere fact of there being laws turn agents away from morality. I'm dubious that this is indeed the case. It's not at all clear to me that just because there are laws that agents' reasons for doing what they do will therefore be centered around conforming to the laws. Suppose that an agent who knows that it is against the law to steal doesn't steal because it is morally, not merely legally, wrong to do so: in such a case, the agent would still have acted morally. So I don't think that I would agree with the suggestion that laws "often reduce" the capacity of agents to act morally.

(If you haven't already read it, you might want to check out the first section of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which engages with certain of the issues that you broach in your question and of which I have been thinking in the course of my response.)


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