‘The law’ may be used to describe a scientific fact (e.g. the law of gravity), a particular system (e.g. the law of England) or a recognized legal area (e.g. the law of contract). Nevertheless, more generally, it connotes a series of rules (each called ‘a law’) that governs people’s behaviour. These rules may sometimes be supplemented by certain established principles, and common examples in English Law are the maxims ignorantia juris neminem excusat (‘ignorance of the law excuses no man’), likewise ex turpi causa non oritur actio (‘a legal action does not arise from a base cause’ – e.g. a contract to commit a crime is unenforceable).
Morality and law
The value-concepts of right and wrong form the basis of morality and, although this is closely interwoven with religion, a distinction must be drawn between the two – as one concerns the relationship between people, whereas the other establishes it between mankind and some higher power. Nowadays the law regards some kinds of behaviour (e.g. parking offences) as criminal although, in general, they may not be looked upon as morally wrong. Likewise, other forms of conduct (e.g. adultery) may be morally condemned but not legally prohibited. Yet again, some practices considered to be immoral (e.g. lying) are illegal only in certain circumstances (as in the case of perjury or misleading trade descriptions). It has been argued that the law should proscribe all immoral acts, as failure to do so will ultimately cause the disintegration of society.
The impracticality of this, however, stems from the plurality of cultures and values in our society (whereby there is a total lack of consensus over particular moral issues, e.g. abortion), as well as from the evolutionary nature of morality (whereby what is immoral and criminal at one moment might not be so shortly afterwards). As deviance (the breaking of rules) can be said to be created by the very framing of those rules one should examine the manner in which any particular moral attitude (as oppose to a competing one) becomes embodied in the law. Often it simply reflects the views of a restricted section of society (politicians, judges, etc.) at one moment. Legislation of morality ‘for its own sake’ is notably exemplified by the so called victimless crimes which involve only the participants themselves (e.g. smoking cannabis). There is thus a school of thought to the effect that, although morality and law are interrelated, there are some aspects of human behaviour which may be considered immoral but which should not be legally proscribed so long as they do not harm other people (e.g. homosexual practices between consenting adults in private).
The Concept of Justice
Justice, the ultimate goal towards which the law should strive, is but one segment of morality because, although unjust acts (e.g. unjustifiably punishing one child more than another) may be considered immoral, the converse is not true and immoral acts (e.g. cruelty to children) cannot be described as just. ‘Fairness’ is the closest synonym to justice, a vital function of which is the attainment of equality. Some lawyers tend only to be concerned with formal justice – i.e. fairness in the application of valid law and the conduct of trials – whereby like cases are treated alike under existing rules which are generally and impartially applied. Laymen, however, are more prone to take entirely subjective views on substantive justice – i.e. fairness in the substance of the law and in the outcome of trials.