Teaching Morality vs Legality

This collection of resources will introduce students to the concepts of legality and morality and apply them to debates in current events and social issues.

Introduction 

The law is a system of rules that a state enforces to regulate behavior through penalties. Legal principles are based on the rights of the citizens and the state expressed in the rules. An action is permissible if it does not violate any of the written rules. 

Morality is a body of principles that attempt to define what is good and bad conduct. Moral principles can be based on culture, religion, experiences, and personal values. An action is considered moral if it fits within those standards, though everyone has different standards. 

An action or legislation can be both legal and moral, but what is legal is not always moral. Slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, and the removal of Native Americans from ancestral lands were all legal, but are not considered moral. Likewise, actions that people would describe as morally right are not always legal. Many would argue that removing a child from an abusive home would be the morally correct thing to do, even if it would legally be considered kidnapping in most states.

The legal vs moral lens is an interesting framework for students to engage with a number of different current and historical events. Considering whether laws are in line with moral concepts, as well as how ideas about morality have changed over time and across cultures, is helpful for understanding how we define “right” and “wrong” in society. 

Resources: 

  1. This animated video helps introduce the concepts, some history, as well as some real world applications. 
  2. This slide deck offers an introduction to the concepts and some helpful discussion questions to help students apply them to real life situations and think deeper about their meanings. 
  3. This blog post includes a lesson plan for using the discussion around immigration policy to frame the distinction between legality and morality, and asks students to consider what a moral immigration policy might look like.
  4. Many of our U4SC task forces could be applied to the Legal vs Moral discussion. Here are a few ideas: 
    1. Medical board on euthanasia: What are current laws in your state and around the country and world? What is the most moral solution to the controversial and complex issue? 
    2. Ethical standards for animal testing: How can the legal vs moral framework help us understand the treatment of animals? What laws currently govern animal testing? Are those laws in line with moral principles? 
    3. Create your own healthcare system: What are some moral issues with current healthcare laws? Can students design a system that is in line with their ideas of morality? What about the current system seems immoral? 
  5. Take it a step further: Have students choose either a current law that they think is immoral or something that they think is immoral that should be illegal. Then, have them either write an op-ed advocating for the change they want, or write to an elected official asking them to draft or amend a law. Resources and assignment print outs for op-eds are available here. If you email student articles to [email protected] we will publish them on students4sc.org. Also, here’s a great template for crafting a letter to an elected official. 
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