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What is morality

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What is morality?

"The quality of being moral conforming to standards and principles. A religious code of conduct".  A moral right;  "A claim people would think is justified but not necessarily supported by law". F.S. Harraps Law Dictionary.


Moral views can change over time

In 1934 it was implied in a film about Russia that Rasputin had raped the Princess Youssoupoff. In 1934 it was necessary to protect her reputation by going to court (Youssoupoff v MGM Pictures (1934) CA).  Would she need to do so today?


In the USA opium used to be used by the middle classes and thought not to be morally wrong, but when it was criminalised by the Harrison Act 1914 attitudes changed when the hardened users were perceived as low-life. It then was morally unacceptable.




Law requires a definition, but morality can be many things.


Justice is an aspect of morality

Justice is concerned with how classes of individuals are treated.  Equality before the Law is considered vital in modern societies.  Certain classes of person such as MP's and judges have greater immunity regarding their freedom of speech.  And police officers have greater powers than ordinary subjects.   To prevent abuse by officials of these privileges there are extensive rules of behaviour.


Law and morality compared



Applied by Courts

A system of social norms

Applied by



Recognised by Society

Forces you to do things

Backed up by threat of prison

Backed up by social condemnation It might force you to do a thing

Individual principle or preference



Issues of law and morality have always been at 'odds' with each other.  Many people argue that not everything that is illegal, for example, parking on a yellow line, is immoral; not everything that is immoral, for example, breaking a promise, is illegal.


Morality is 'personal' to the individual; law must be 'universal' to society.


Problems occur when issues of “personal choice” arise

Shaw v DPP (1962) HL and Knuller v DPP [1973] HL show how the judiciary are willing to move the “goal posts”. They will prohibit behaviour they think society will be wrong.

The big question is “Who should say?” what should be prohibited, should it be Parliament or judges? Furthermore, what things should they prohibit?


In Shaw Viscount Simonds said

“In the sphere of criminal law I entertain no doubt that there remains in the courts of law a residual power to enforce the supreme and fundamental purpose of the law, to conserve not only the safety and order but also the moral welfare of the State, and that it is their duty to guard it against attacks which may be the more insidious because they are novel and unprepared for.”

This bold statement has not been followed, and the “residual power” is doubted.


Government pressure ensured that we've cracked the morality of drink driving, but what about the morality of speeding?


Is law appropriate for producing social change?

Law can be a force for social change.  Health, education, discrimination are but three areas where the law has been used to engineer society.
The National Health Service in 1947 created by law has been a major success in improving society, but some observers question whether this is an appropriate use of the law.  


This also applies to the criminal law for example; the Race Relations Act 1965 has been the subject of considerable criticism, by writers who question whether it is right to legislate in the field of personal relationships.  The legislation has clearly not been a total success - racial discrimination still remains entrenched in some geographical and social areas - but now few people would claim that this is not a proper field for legal intervention as a force in educating and changing behaviour.


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