Basic Observations on Law and Morality

Basic Observations on Law and Morality
Most recent alteration: September 10, 2001
At first there seems to be no distinction between law and morality. There are passages in ancient Greek writers, for example, which seem to suggest that the good person is the one who will do what is lawful. It is the lawgivers, in these early societies, who determine what is right and wrong.
But it is not long before thoughtful people recognize the difference between what is actually legal, or legally right according to the political authorities and what should be legal. What should be legal roughly corresponds to what is really right or just, that is, what we would call morally right. We find, for instance, the distinction between what is legally or conventionally right and what is naturally (or as we would say today morally) right.
Sometimes this is expressed as an opposition between what the gods command (i.e., what is morally right) and what the political authorities command (i.e., what is legally right). This is dramatically illustrated in Sophocles' tragedy Antigone, in which the heroine defies the decree of the king (the source of "legal right" in the circumstances) and buries her brothers (an act the audience would assume was morally right).
The contrast between what the state demands and what the gods demand is not the only way that this legal v. moral distinction is expressed. We find it also in the important Greek philosophers, who frequently discuss the distinction in terms of appearance and reality, or between what superficially seems or appears to be the case and what a thorough rational investigation reveals.
Plato, for example, holds that knowledge of what is just or moral, and the ability to distinguish true justice or morality from what is merely apparently just depends on the full development and use of human reason. According to Plato, there is a very close connection between true justice or morality and human well-being or flourishing. Legal and political...