The Legal-Moral Matrix

This is a simple framework that allows us to think about what is ideal and what is not in our system of laws as a society, and our actions as individuals.


We all know that what is and what should be are not the same thing. It's easy to get lost when evaluating complex things or making complex decisions. These decisions can be especially hard when it's your moral system struggling with the legal system. Both individuals and societies have this same problem. These decisions and actions can fall into one of four categories. Thinking through this may help us to understand our situation and what we should do about it.

Legal and Moral

The first is the ideal. An ideal is not always achievable. That's not even the purpose of an ideal. The purpose of an ideal is to set the direction. We want to be moving towards the right thing and having an ideal helps us to do that. Ideally, everything we do is both legal and moral.

Legal and Not Moral

We can all think of things from history that were legal at the time but weren't moral. Usually good examples involve various forms of beating, torture, killing, slavery, robbery, mutilation, etc. Many of the atrocities and genocides throughout history have been legal. Many of the current ones are. Many of the future ones will be. Just because something is legal it doesn't mean it is moral. To think so is to lose your humanity and your soul.

Moral and Not Legal

It is common that moral things aren't legal. Stupid and pointless laws abound for various reasons, namely different forms of corruption. They range from the dangerous to the absurd. This damages human well-being in a multitude of ways, and leads to the decay of the economy and the culture. Government overreach is pervasive. Like a hydra, every time you cut off a head, two grow back in its place.

Not Moral and Not Legal

This is the bad stuff that you know you shouldn't do and other people say you shouldn't do. This is the whole reason for government, to limit the violation of individual rights from others.

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Two of the categories are pretty simple. If something is legal and moral, then do it if you want to. If something is not legal and not moral, then don't do it. The other two are more complex.

Deciding which category an action is in is easier than deciding what you should do when morality and legality are in conflict. These can be very hard decisions to make. If the government tells you to do this immoral thing or else, what do you do? Most people comply, and it's hard to blame them. If there is this moral thing you want to do and the government tells you that you can't do it, what do you do? It depends on how severe the penalties are and how closely they're enforced.

I'm not going to dig in deeper, I'll let you wrestle with your own moral quandaries. There is no way to solve them once and for all. We must all confront these decisions on a regular basis, and we choose who we are and who we will be with each decision. I'll leave you with these words of wisdom from Martin Luther King, Jr.

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"I'm not a consensus leader. [Laughter - Applause] I don't determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or by taking....[Applause] Nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion." [Applause] Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus. [Applause] On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right. [Applause]

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That's the last paragraph from a speech titled "A Proper Sense of Priorities" given in Washington D.C. on February 6th, 1968. Since we're here we better read the first paragraph too, because it's just as important.

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There can be no gain saying of the fact that our nation has brought the world to an awe inspiring threshold of the future. We've built machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. We have built gargantuan bridges to span the seas and gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. And through our spaceships we have penetrated oceanic depths and through our airplanes we have dwarfed distance and placed time in chains. This really is a dazzling picture of America's scientific and technological progress. But in spite of this something basic is missing. In spite of all of our scientific and technological progress we suffer from a kind of poverty of the spirit that stands in glaring contrast to all of our material abundance. This is the dilemma facing our nation and this is the dilemma to which we as clergymen and laymen must address ourselves. Henry David Thoreau said once something that still applies. In a very interesting dictum he talked about improved means to an unimproved end. This is a tragedy that somewhere along the way as a nation we have allowed the mean by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. And consequently we suffer from a spiritual and moral lag that must be redeemed if we are going to survive and maintain a moral stance.

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You can find more of what I'm doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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