Moral Law

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Moral Law

The rules of behavior an individual or a group may follow out of personal conscience and that are not necessarily part of legislated law in the United States.

Moral law is a system of guidelines for behavior. These guidelines may or may not be part of a religion, codified in written form, or legally enforceable. For some people moral law is synonymous with the commands of a divine being. For others, moral law is a set of universal rules that should apply to everyone.

Ethical principles held primarily by the followers of Christianity have influenced the development of U.S. secular law. As a result, Christian moral law and secular law overlap in many situations. For example, murder, theft, prostitution, and other behaviors labeled immoral are also illegal. Moral turpitude is a legal term used to describe a crime that demonstrates depravity in one's public and private life, contrary to what is accepted and customary. People convicted of this crime can be disqualified from government office, lose their license to practice law, or be deported (in the case of immigrants).

Passing laws is relatively easy when public policy makers can unanimously identify behavior that is socially unacceptable. Policy makers can then attempt to enforce socially correct behavior through legal channels. However, in many other situations, it is far more difficult to determine what behavior the government should promote, if any. When a government seeks to implement a code of conduct that may conflict with the U.S. Constitution, the courts are generally called upon to determine the law's validity.

Abortion is an area where legal and moral principles converge and often conflict. In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, that a woman's decision to have an abortion is a private choice that is protected by the Constitution, at least until the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. After a fetus is viable (able to survive outside the womb), the state may regulate the woman's pregnancy and prohibit abortion except if the woman's life is in danger.

Some advocates of legalized abortion as well as some critics believe that the current legal situation is inadequate. To protect either the rights of the pregnant woman or the rights of the fetus is a moral question that individuals decide for themselves. Yet the extent to which people should be allowed to act on their beliefs and exercise their rights is debated in the arena of legislative and judiciary decision making.

Medical science is a field where evolving technology can create moral crises that have legal consequences. The American Medical Association sponsors a Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, which debates such problems as assisted suicide, harvesting organs over the objections of family, and whether to include HIV status on autopsy reports.

Many public policy issues form a crossroad of legal and moral law, including Euthanasia, assisted suicide, same-sex marriages, and Capital Punishment.

Further readings

McWilliams, Peter. 1993. Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do. Los Angeles: Prelude Press.

Tivnan, Edward. 1995. The Moral Imagination: Confronting the Ethical Issues of Our Day. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome; Animal Rights; Death and Dying; Ethics, Legal; Fetal Rights; Fetal Tissue Research; Gay and Lesbian Rights; Genetic Engineering; Genetic Screening; Health Care Law; Health Insurance; Jurisprudence; Natural Law; Organ Donation Law; Organ Transplantation; Patients' Rights; Slavery; Surrogate Motherhood.

References in periodicals archive ?
It is to be noted that the Instruction speaks of infallibility only regarding those norms of the natural moral law which are also divinely revealed.
The Vatican has told Roman Catholic politicians that they have "the fight and the duty" to uphold church teachings on bioethics, reproductive choice, the family and other issues governed by moral law.
It has not been clear whether the grace of orders affects the perception of both revealed moral law and also that moral law that is not revealed, but that is accessible to human reason.
Not only has it presumed to read into the Charter of Rights the concept of "sexual orientation," and did so even though the term is undefined, but it then went on to create this concept into a human right, in defiance of the framers of the Charter, as well as of science, reason and the natural moral law.
Allison's contribution defends Kant's thesis that freedom of the will and the moral law are reciprocal concepts, and argues that the significance of the thesis is the fact that freedom of the will is not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition of the moral law.
Thomas Aquinas and others between the moral law and the civil law.
The members of the Court who voted that decision showed their arrogance by flouting God's moral law and also by assuming that they are competent and entitled to contradict or ignore the known facts of medical science.
Although the categorical imperative is not formulated, Kant speaks of moral law determined on purely rational grounds.
Many Christians and non-Christians "will be glad to see there is still one institution in the Western world that knows how to raise its voice on behalf of a moral law that we human beings did not make, that knows how to |teach with authority about this moral law and to remind the world that both happiness of individuals as well as the good of society is impossible on any other basis than the moral law.
However, on other questions such as abortion, there are universal moral precepts, binding always and everywhere which must be observed because of natural moral law and Revelation.
Roth defends Locke against critics who think he makes public approval or disapproval his primary moral law.