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Bioethics, Pro-Life

“But it’s Legal” – Does the legality of an act make it moral?

One argument that is often used to defend certain acts which are argued to be immoral is the notion that these acts are “legal.” For example, one might say they are personally opposed to abortion, but it is legal and so they do not seek to end abortions. A more specific example has been the defense of Planned Parenthood in regards to donating fetal tissue. It is argued that the donation is legal, and so no wrongdoing has occurred. Evidence from the recent videos released seems to suggest that those fetal tissues might be sold, rather than donated, but that is not the issue at hand. The question to address here is: “Does the legality of an act make it moral?”

Thus, in the case of Planned Parenthood’s donations/sales, if legal, does it follow that it is moral?

To be blunt, the legality of an act is not enough to make it moral. One clear example of this would be antebellum slavery, which was legal for quite some time in the United States. Would those who want to assert that legality is enough to make an act morally permissible agree that slavery, at that time, was moral? If so, that is a tough pill to swallow. But we can go beyond that example and see how Nazi Germany was treated. After World War II, several of the perpetrators of the Holocaust and other atrocities committed by the Nazis were put on trial. The first of these became known as the Nuremberg Trials. The argument they made, however, was that they were obeying the law of their land. The argument was thus made that there was no law to which they could be held accountable.

The argument was rejected, and the legacy of these trials led to the creation of various international law organizations and more specific definitions of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the question that must be pressed is whether these trials were just. The laws that they were condemned by were largely created after or during the trials themselves. What were the Nazis guilty of? The answer has already been provided, in part, as crimes against humanity. By willingly participating in and carrying out genocide and other atrocities, despite having orders to do so and acting within the laws of their land, the Nazis had still violated a higher law, which held them to a moral standard. There remains much debate over the legal basis for the convictions and executions of those who carried out the atrocities, but it seems that if one ultimately wants to argue that the law is all it requires to make something moral, they must side with the Nazis and agree that they should not have been held accountable for their acts.

We can therefore see that the mere appeal to a law to argue something is moral is not enough. Anyone who disagrees must assert that slavery, as it was being conducted in the United States, was at least morally ambiguous if not a moral good, because it was legal. Similarly, they must assert that the genocide the Nazis carried out was itself at least morally ambiguous if not a moral good, because it was legal and they did it under orders. The absurdity of these two conclusions should lead any reasonable person to agree that the legality of an act is not enough to establish its morality.

Thus, the simple legality of an act does not make it moral. An appeal to an acts legality does not mean it should be dismissed from moral scrutiny. Planned Parenthood should justly remain under intense scrutiny.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

3 thoughts on ““But it’s Legal” – Does the legality of an act make it moral?

  1. Very good article.

    Posted by SLIMJIM | October 19, 2015, 1:07 PM
  2. As society evolves, so does the legality of certain issues. As you stated, slavery was legal but we all know it is wrong. Eventually enough people will step up to make a change. Abortion has grown to a political issue. People are mainly fighting for or against it for votes. Is that moral? Should abortion be used as a method of birth control, no. Should the woman have the right to decide if her life is in danger or raped? Yes, I believe she should. Morally, that’s not for individuals to decide when there are many factors to consider. There are many immoral stories in the bible but I don’t hear people screaming to remove those texts. Gay marriage is another issue. Do I believe it should be legal? I do. Is it hurting me? No. Is it hurting you? Probably not. I’ve had people tell me gay marriage is immoral. The same people who think all muslims are terrorists. Is it moral to judge but immoral for a legal union of two individuals who love each other. We’re faced with new issues we haven’t seen frequently. Society dictates what is moral and what’s not. When society chooses which way to direct morality, that’s the way it will follow.

    Posted by Keith | April 24, 2016, 5:06 PM

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