Those who have trouble with formal logic have huge problems in a society where legality is often equated with morality. This is a very very basic premise: What is moral is not necessarily legal, and what is legal is not necessarily moral. In fact, we have four categories that are possible in reality (and an example for each):
- Legal but Immoral – In this category falls such deeds as cheating on a spouse or paying debts you voluntarily incur, which most people believe that you should do of your own accord, but that you should not be subject to criminal penalty for not doing. These are things we should all avoid doing, simply because we will be better people for having refrained from doing them. There is no gun in your face enforcing them, though, and many conservatives believe more immoral things should be enshrined in law.
- Illegal and Immoral – Drug use is the best example (though I would see it moved into category 1) here. These types of things are both wrong for you to do, and will incur you some type of criminal penalty, if you are caught doing them. Generally, in an ideal society, that which is immoral would not be illegal.
- Illegal but not morally wrong (or even morally right) – The best example of this is driving in the carpool lane when you are alone in your car, or driving over the speed limit as posted. Legal positivism, or the idea that law and morality is defined in the law, pervades the modern Western consciousness – so deeply that great minds such as Locke, Aquinas, Plato, and Aristotle had tendencies toward equating man-given power with God-given, that is, moral, power. However, exceeding the speed limit is not typically a self-destructive selfish thing to do, and many of the very dubious “immoral” things that people tell you are morally wrong because the state says they are do not have the qualities of typical immoral action.
- Legal and not morally wrong (or even morally right) – Not much worth of mention, this includes things like walking around and taking pictures of buildings in downtown Seattle. Many of these things, in the presence of an expanding legal positivist democratic state like ours, will eventually end up in category 3.
There are two similarly related spheres that exist as well:
- Required but immoral – Paying the income tax is a good example here. Under any circumstances but that of the income tax, a person taking a third of your paycheck or putting you in a cage would be immoral. These things cannot be avoided even though they are immoral, and those of us with a mind for liberty are constantly tempted to violate the legal requirements and do the right thing and face the civil or criminal penalty therefrom.
- Required and moral – One example might be paying a tax that is distributed to charitable causes. If it is a moral duty we should do it on our own, and in fact it is less moral credit to us personally if we are required to do it by law anyway. Further, examining the common “ends and means” test that substantiates all moral action, we can say that the end action here is not moral after all, since the means toward that end (i.e., extraction of money by force from the payer) is wrong.
The lesson here is singular: The legality or illegality of an action has no bearing whatsoever on the moral permissibility of that action.