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What is the relationship between law and morality? Is the law simply a branch of morality?

November 4, 2005

Response from Peter Lipton on November 5, 2005

Philosophers of law spend a lot of time arguing over this question. This is not surprising since, on the one hand, there seems clearly to be some close connection; but on the other hand there are both actions that are immoral but not illegal (e.g. not keeping a promise) and actions actions that are illegal but not immoral (e.g. breaking an law requiring people to turn in escaped slaves).

Response from Roger Crisp on November 11, 2005

Some so-called natural lawyers have claimed that the idea of an immoral law is an oxymoron. If some state diktat says that people of a certain race can't travel into certain areas, then that's not a law. That's fine -- but essentially it involves giving a new and special meaning to the word 'law'. Law and morality can be seen as analogous in various ways. They have a similar structure (both involve requirements, permissions, demands, etc.); they serve similar functions (such as coercing people into certain behaviour for social purposes); and they probably have similar origins (see e.g. the work of the anthropologist Christopher Boehm on this). If one sees both law and morality as essentially forms of social coercion, then one is not a branch of the other. In the case of each, we can ask ourselves whether we have a reason to accept it, or parts of it, and whether it can be improved in some way or other.


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