It’s hard to pin down how exactly the law relates to morality.
Some people believe that acting ethically means simply following the law. If it’s legal, then it’s ethical, they say. Of course, a moment’s reflection reveals this view to be preposterous. Lying and breaking promises are legal in many contexts, but they’re nearly universally regarded as unethical. Paying workers the legal minimum wage is legal, but failing to pay workers a living wage is seen by some as immoral. Abortion has been legal since the early 1970’s, but many people still thinks it’s immoral. And discrimination based on race used to be legal, but laws outlawing it were passed because it was deemed immoral.
Law and morality do not always coincide. Sometimes the legal action isn’t the ethical one. People who realize this might have a counter-mantra: Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that it’s ethical. This is more a sophisticated perspective than the one simply conflating law and ethics.
According to this perspective, acting legally is not necessarily acting ethically, but it is necessary for acting ethically. The law is the minimum requirement, but morality may require people to go above and beyond their basic legal obligations. From this perspective, paying employees at least the minimum wage is necessary for acting ethically, but morality may require that they be paid enough to support themselves and their families. Similarly, non-discrimination may be the minimum requirement, but one might think that actively recruiting and integrating minorities into the workplace is a moral imperative.
The notion that legal behavior is a necessary condition for ethical behavior seems to be a good general rule. Most illegal acts are indeed unethical. But what about the old laws prohibiting the education of slaves? Or anti-miscegenation laws criminalizing interracial marriage, which were on the books in some US states until the 1960s? It’s hard to argue that people who broke these laws necessarily acted unethically.
You could say that these laws are themselves immoral and that this places them in a different category than generally accepted laws. This is probably true. These legal obligations do indeed create dubious moral commitments. But how can you say that the moral commitments are dubious if law and morality are intertwined to the extent that one can’t act ethically without acting legally?
And aren’t there some conditions under which breaking a generally accepted law might be illegal but still the right thing to do?
What about breaking a generally accepted law to save a life? What if a man, after exhausting all other options, stole a cancer treatment to save his wife’s life? The legal bases for property rights and the prohibition against theft are generally accepted, and in most other contexts, the man would be condemned as both unethical and a criminal. But stealing the treatment to save his wife’s life seems, at the very least, morally acceptable. This type of situation suggests a counter-mantra to those who believe legality is a prerequisite for ethicality: Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it’s unethical.
This counter-mantra doesn’t suggest that the law is irrelevant to ethics. Most of the time, it’s completely relevant. Good laws are, generally speaking, or perhaps ideally speaking, a codification of our morality.
But the connection between law and morality is complex, and there may be no general rule that captures how the two are relates.
Sometimes, actions that are perfectly legal are nonetheless unethical. Other times, morality requires that we not only follow the law but that we go above and beyond our positive legal obligations. Yet, there are also those times when breaking the law is at least morally permissible.
There are also cases in which we are morally obligated to follow immoral laws, such as when defiance would be considerably more harmful than compliance. We live in a pluralistic society where laws are created democratically, so we can’t just flout all the laws we think are immoral – morality is hardly ever that black and white anyway. And respect for the rule of law is necessary for the stability of our society, so there should be a pretty high threshold for determining that breaking a law is morally obligatory.
If there is a mantra that adequately describes the relationship between law and morality, it goes something like this: It depends on the circumstances.