Moral Law

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Financial, Encyclopedia.

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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
He is also critical of any education that leads children and young people to submit to the principle of self-love and have it override the moral law so that they become greedy and selfish, basically concerned with their own interests and the ends set in a specific society instead of making it possible for those concerned to actively pursuing the highest good in the world; such an education strives to make those concerned not merely efficacious but also autonomous and possibly also creative (see Roth, 2018).
In the remainder of this article, natural law will be discussed first, and moral law second.
Kant's justification of morality, or more specifically, his justification of the authority of the moral law, stands or falls with the success of his theory of motivation.
We can now describe Murphy's own view, which attempts to establish a concurrentist account of moral law that incorporates the best of both natural law ethics and theological voluntarism.
There is a sharp and clear distinction between what is known as Positive Law and the Moral Law. Positive Law is legitimately within the domain of freely elected governments and has to be obeyed by all citizens subject only to the condition that these laws are in conformity with the Moral Law.
God and Moral Law is the latest work by the prominent Catholic philosopher, Mark Murphy, who holds a professorship of religious philosophy at Georgetown University.
Is this not a time for us all, especially lawyers and politicians to reflect on the concept of the natural moral law?
But, for them, the conscience should be free to adhere to the truth of the universal moral law articulated by the hierarchical teaching office of the church.
Kant writes that each of us knows whether an act is required by the moral law by a process of reasoning about it.
Their feeling of being secure did not come from fear of the police but by respect for the moral law.
Divine help comes to us in Christ through the moral law which is the work of divine Wisdom.
In this book Morrisson's ambitious project is to make sense of Kant's account of how the moral law of reason motivates human action.