Legal Moralism: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

I have worked in higher education since 2008 when I began teaching in remedial ed and teach classes in Humanities, Philosophy, and Sociology. I have a Bachelors Degree from the University of Colorado at Denver in Philosophy with a minor in Theater and a Masters Degree in Humanities.

Legal moralism is the belief that acts may be criminalized on the basis of their immorality. Examples of legal moralism can be found in anti-gambling, anti-prostitution, and anti-bigotry laws.

Definition of Legal Moralism

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the anti-Sodomy laws in 13 States in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case. In arguments before the court, the State of Texas argued that it's laws were justified because they were against immoral behavior and that this justified making actions like sodomy illegal. This view of law is referred to as legal moralism, a theory of law that permits the criminalization of immoral actions. As we move forward in this lesson, we will learn about what legal moralism is and take a look at a few examples of legal moralism to clarify how it works.

Eating pizza with a fork
Pizza with a Fork

Now, you may be saying to yourself, aren't criminal actions ones that are immoral, like theft or murder? It is true that actions like stealing or killing are immoral, but they are not necessarily illegal because they are immoral, they are illegal because they clearly cause harm to others. The idea that what causes harm should be illegal was formulated by John Stuart Mill, and actions that cause harm are criminalized on the basis of protecting the rights of others. According to the Harm Principle any action that causes harm to others, whether immoral or not, can be criminalized. This is why immoral actions, like murder or theft, are criminalized as well as acts that arise due to unintentional or negligent harm.

Legal moralism goes beyond the Harm Principle and argues that the law is supposed to promote morality and that the immorality of an action is a reason to make it illegal. Legal moralism is best articulated in Plato's Republic where Socrates argues that the job of the state is to create and enforce laws to foster moral citizens. Even if an action only harms the person engaged in the activity, or occurs with the consent of others, the fact that society deems the practice immoral can be reason enough to make it illegal. Legal moralism does not mean that every immoral action should be criminal, only that the immorality of an action is a reason to consider making it illegal.

Examples of Legal Moralism

Gambling is an activity that is frowned upon morally, but usually only harms the gambler. Since the action does not produce a victim other than the individual who is gambling, it is not justified to criminalize the behavior based on the Harm Principle. Legal moralism provides grounds for banning the practice as it is considered immoral and does not promote responsible and upstanding behavior.

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