Morality versus Legality

Fred Smith muses on the need for law and the desire for morality.

By Fred Smith

Mary Alice and I were once discussing an issue that involved a complicated set of laws. One of the children looked up and said, "Why do we have to have so many laws?" This is a question from a child but not a childish question. The answer is rooted in our heart and drops its leaves mischievously over our entire landscape.

Individually we are constantly looking for a shorter, simplified code of laws, but our use of law does not promote this. Wherever people exchange legality for morality, the body of laws must be large and the interpretations complicated — growing like a cancer maiming natural freedom.

Among individuals of character, the legal simply defines the minimum morality needed for the society to function as a benefit to the individual and the group. As long as no one wants an unfair advantage, but rather desires everyone to have all that he deserves, then laws can be simple.

Men of good will can have honest differences of opinion, and these can be covered legally in short order. Men of ill will use the law not for rightness but for wrongness…this necessitates voluminous documentation.

W.C. Fields said, "You can't cheat an honest man." The honest man is not controlled by greed so is less vulnerable to the con man's schemes.

Golf gives me an excellent illustration of the reason for law. Few games have such volumes of laws with such extensive interpretation. A quote from John L. Low, chief compiler of the 1902 code clearly shows why. "The code of laws is being used by individuals to escape the law rather than abide by it. They want interpretations which will favor their escape but bind their opponents. The pity of golf today (1905) is that men play entirely to win. It would be happier for golf if it could be remembered that the true good is in the playing and not in the winning. The man who does his best and loses has wrought his play as bravely as the winner and is entitled to feel equal satisfaction from the day's engagement. Those who will not abide by the spirit of the game cannot be trusted, and they need the law to birch-rod them into the ways of honesty."

I have played golf with theologians who cheated — intellectuals who remained ignorant of the laws on purpose — otherwise honest men who opportunistically made exceptions to the law for their own benefit — and legalistic friends who ask for interpretations hoping for advantage. And so, cheating, ignorance, opportunism, and interpretation are all used as ways to get around the rules.

Continuing our golf example, we could simplify a great many of the rules simply by stating, "A player shall not create any advantage for himself other than by his skill." This would do away with picking the ball up — cleaning it — moving it — kicking it — soiling the club — stepping behind the ball — and all such things which are really manufactured improvements for the advantage of the player. Yet human nature would cry out that some circumstance had created an unfairness which they were simply going to even up. Their idea of evenness is a "fair advantage."

The problem with creating such a large of body of laws is that it also creates a legal bureaucracy to administer them. There must be legislative bodies for the creation of laws, review committees for their legality, and judges for their interpretation. Add to this the administrative and policing forces, and we get some small idea of the cost of letting legality define our morality.

Then the legal bureaucracy takes on a life of its own and promotes its own welfare by seeking the power to make laws not only prohibitive, but permissive. This is where we cross the stream at the widest point. When laws prohibit bad actions, they are serving their true function, but when they have to be consulted to permit good action, then freedom is being tightly circumscribed and caught in the net.

When the greedy and the creative conspire, laws and administrative rules multiply ostensibly to protect the innocent, but in reality often to protect the bureaucracy. Soon the activities for which the laws were originally conceived are lost and the attention is placed on the machinery.

Wherever morality far exceeds legality, there can be a reverence for the spirit of the law permitting the simplification of the law.

When winning became the object of golf, then Satan was admitted to membership in the club. He sends one of his angels out with every foursome shouting, "win, win, win, win.

Morality gives us a conscience while legalism simply clears it.