Legality and Morality — Conner Drigotas

Originally published at on September 25, 2019.

“If you don’t like the laws, leave the United States. There are many more countries out there you can call home.”

I exhaled slowly. This was round three with the guy who first told me that he supported voter suppression, then told me that gay people should not be afforded the same rights as heterosexuals. And now this, he was claiming legality and morality are the same, and that I had an obligation to leave the country if I was unhappy with some of the laws.

It can be difficult to have conversations when there is such clear disagreement. And especially when both people think they are right. Why do I keep having lunch with these people? Specifically because if we stop talking, as people, things are bound to get more polarized, and generally worse.

In one corner, me, who does not believe in legislating morality. On the other side, a guy who honestly believes that government should have the right to enforce any rule, and that legality trumps, or is at least equivalent to, morality.

This time as we stepped into the verbal boxing ring, I felt more ready than I had in the past. In fairness, the core of my belief system is “don’t hurt people, and don’t take their stuff.” I don’t have as many speaking points to remember.

The Debate

I opened with a question for him: “So if the law was that being overweight is a crime punishable by hard labor, you accept that?”

Why not make it personal? He has a few pounds he could lose. Dig in and pick a position he can’t defend.

But his answer surprised me. “Yes.” He replied, “I’d work out and lose weight. The law requires fitness.”

His consistency is admirable, but how deep is he willing to go?

“So if guns were made illegal by an act of congress, would you give them up? Voluntarily turn them in? Report your neighbors for having guns?” “I wouldn’t turn them in, but if a cop came to my door and asked if I had any guns, I’d give him three — and keep the other eight hidden. Maybe I’d tell them my neighbor hunts to get them off my back. I need to stay on the good side of the law, even if I don’t follow it exactly.” “Because the law is wrong?” “No, because I don’t want to give up my ability to protect my family.” “So you would, in principle, support the confiscation of guns because that is the law?”

That answer is irritating, and inconsistent. It’s easy to support something in the abstract. The law can apply to others, he was saying, but not to me.

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” — George Orwell

I took it a step further: “If being Jewish were made a crime by an act of congress, would you report the Jewish people you knew in the neighborhood?”

He stared at me. The noise of the Applebees restaurant around us shrunk to a hum. He is an ardent Christian but knew where this conversation goes. It was awkwardly silent over the table. Full seconds passed. I’m wasn’t trying to be an asshole. I was genuinely curious. Can someone believe that all laws are moral? How far is he willing to go? What would you do? Faced with this situation do you LITERALLY characterize yourself as willing to persecute people based on race, or do you admit you are wrong and admit that laws are not inherently moral?

“Laws are moral because they are laws.” He said, “ If you don’t like the laws, go move to another country, or work within the system to make changes.”

There it is — the cop out. Bringing us back full circle. No real answer. The ol “it is because it is” argument. Circular reasoning. I can’t blame the guy, all he could do was spin himself in a circle or step down one of two very unattractive paths. Was it worth ruining this and future meals over? I smiled politely, and dropped it.

He didn’t want to admit that not all laws are moral, but that is the truth: some laws are bad. Some laws hurt people and elevate others unfairly. There is a culture war unfolding right now because of that fact. As laws have played favorites, the answer is fewer laws, ad less government, not more. In reality, there is one truth about the law: unjust laws should be actively nullified, ignored, destroyed at our earliest possible convenience.

The Deepening Divide

Ideological inconsistency is a significant problem facing America. With the quick news cycles and opinionated opinion makers, fewer and fewer people are thinking through whether they have an underlying structure to their belief system, and thinking through what that means. As Americans, we are not taking the time to find consistency. Our news, our politicians, and our own opinions sway and bend in political headwinds.

As conversations like the one described above happen, it is easy to feel lost, alienated, or attacked when challenged with ideas that contradict our worldview. Worse, our politicians are more combative, polarized, and appealing only to their own echo chambers.

Conflating morality and legality is an increasingly common problem. Recently I began teaching business communications as an adjunct professor at Lehigh University. Among the first assignments first year students were required to complete in my course was an introspective work about their “purpose” as it relates to their professional and personal lives.

In the many answers, legality and morality were frequently used interchangeably. It was so pervasive that I had to add an entire segment to my next class to draw a clear line between the two. These young people, around 17–19 years old, struggled to understand not just the distinction, but why it is important.

Teachers and Students

Opposite students are the teachers, those driving the narrative that legality equals morality: the thought leaders. Traditionally Republicans have been appealed to using law and order. Democrats could be reached with a plea for “justice.” Now, both sides of the political spectrum are claiming legality is paramount, but branding it under their own version of moral action. The result is that both parties use similar language when referencing the “importance of the law” but mean drastically different things.

It would be hard to do a scale study examining whether this is true, but it appears from a purely observational perspective that culturally there has been a movement toward equating legality with morality. This generation, born around the 9/11 attacks in 2001, appear to be especially susceptible to this narrative, perhaps because it has been so pervasive. The advent of the AUMF and the Patriot Act have changed the calculation.

Regardless, that there are bad laws is a reason to decrease the influence of government on the lives of citizens, and to stop equating legality with morality.

How do you eliminate bad laws?

Bad laws are everywhere, and it is possible to eliminate them. In very simple terms: you need to get active. Heres a short list of ways to nullify bad laws:

Jury Nullification — Among the most powerful tools at citizens disposal, Jury Nullification is when a jury returns a verdict of “Not Guilty” despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. The jury nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding.

The Tenth Amendment — Did you know that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people?” It’s okay, neither does congress most of the time. The Tenth Amendment is a breeding ground for lawsuits. If you see something, say something (probably to a lawyer).

Talk to your legislators — Legislators are human beings who need to be reminded of how their actions impact real people in our communities. Whether you are seeking change at the state level or the federal level, you can hold your elected representatives feet to the fire. The worst case scenario is that they ignore you, allowing you to lambast them in the media, applying public pressure to get what you want.

Non Violent protest — Street Theater, road blockages, marches, picketing, rallies, sign a petition, and more. There are hundreds of ways to non violently protest bad laws, and bad lawmakers. Get involved.

Violent protest (not recommended, but historically, it gets results)

Live Free

Legality and morality are not synonyms. They never have been. It is unlikely our legal system will reach that point.

Our inherent right to question the morality of law is enshrined in our first amendment right to free speech and free association. That amendment is not a restriction on our right to practice it, however, but a restriction on government from getting in the way.

Originally published at on September 25, 2019.

pro liberty. Director of Comms and Development at a law firm. Adjunct Professor at a university. all opinions are my own.

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