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.

Cross-references

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.

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