Legality is about who you would let into your neighborhood. Morality is about who you would let into your home. Two stories have recently come out that, when juxtaposed, draw out an interesting problem in the way we discuss ‘wrongdoing’ in our society.
R.C. Sproul Jr., A well known Christian minister, was charged with a DUI and endangering a minor. Parsing the charges down to what had probably happened: the man drank about four 12oz beers in less than 2 hours and drove one of his children home. But, throw the words “minister” “minor” and “criminal” in, and our collectives mouths water for scandal. We want to attach extra moral weight to an event because it was illegal. Sproul broke the law, did something stupid, and will pay, legally for it. His actions may have been immoral, but they were definitely illegal. This is someone we might cluck our tongues at, and expect to pay for his actions, but he’s still a guy we wouldn’t object to having in our home.
Ten UofM football players were suspended for an alleged gang-rape of an intoxicated girl. The best possible version of this story (for the players) is that it was a gang-bang but, distinguishing between the two, matters legally more than it does morally. These are people we would not invite into our home.
So we have one party that mostly broke the law and another that did not technically break the law. But who is more ‘wrong’ and what system are you going to use to determine that? What system are you going to consult to decide on which doors/gates to lock and which to leave open?
It appears that most of the public is outraged about the UofM players and this is good, moral outrage. This is public shaming that must be at the ready if we are to maintain a society of decent people. It interests me though, that their teammates thought to boycott since the men hadn’t ‘technically’ been charged with a crime. It hints at a deeper misunderstanding that’s growing in the minds of too many Americans: the inability to distinguish between morality and legality.
We are too quick to ask the law to punish those we deem morally repugnant and too slow in judging those whom the law has not caught (think…every politician.) Have we lost the distinction between what is moral and what is legal? Do we see the dictates of the State as one and the same with the absolutes of moral behavior?
If the State dictates what is ‘moral’ then morality sucks if you are in North Korea but it’s not too bad if you’re in Finland. But you know it should transcend location, so let it.
Legality is about who you would want roaming your neighborhood. Morality is about who you would let into your home. Great legal infractions can evoke either horror or admiration depending on the state of the State writing and enforcing the laws.
Great moral failings only evoke shame. Your father can break the law and still maintain your respect in many circumstances, but if your father has shown himself to be morally corrupt, he has lost your respect and possibly any relationship with you. In any case, he can’t come over.
If we could distinguish between the two, maybe we’d stop demanding that people who show moral repugnance lose their jobs or face legal ramifications. Such people should be morally shamed and socially excluded. And maybe we’d stop dismissing people whom the law has dealt with, but who might be very honorable, good people. We should use our legal code to maintain an orderly society and our moral code to maintain a good society.