How Morality Differs from Law & Religion

How Morality Differs from Law & Religion
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  • 0:01 Definition of Terms
  • 1:16 Enforcement
  • 2:06 Societal Norms
  • 2:55 Jurisdiction
  • 4:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will highlight the differences between morality, law, and religion. In doing so, it will focus on the law's inability to legislate morality, as well as morality's relationship to societal norms.

Definition of Terms

Today's lesson on the differences between morality, law, and religion won't contain any earth-shattering information. Quite the contrary, it'll contain common stuff that most of us just never stop to think about despite the fact that it governs most of our daily lives and actions. With this little teaser of sorts, on to the lesson.

For starters, morality is defined as beliefs pertaining to the differences between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. The rules of morality are not mandates or commands; they are beliefs. Laws, on the other hand, are the rules a country or community mandates its citizens follow in order to regulate society. Laws are not optional. They must be obeyed. Adding to the mix, religion is a structure of faith and worship. It's a belief system based on faith in a supernatural power.

Now, on paper, these terms seem rather cut and dry. However, their application is where things get a bit tricky. Also, these terms take on very different meanings depending on where you live. For instance, in a fundamentalist Islamic State, they are almost interchangeable. However, for the sake of time, we'll limit our discussion to what Western ideology has to say about morality, laws, and religion.

Enforcement

For starters, in a Western system of governance, the major difference between morality, law, and religion is that laws are enforced by the state. For instance, many religions believe that drunkenness is a sin. However, an alcoholic can sit quietly at home downing shot after shot to the point of unconsciousness, and the police have no business interfering.

Now, many would say what he's doing to his body and his family is immoral, but as the popular, albeit not completely valid mantra states, government can't legislate morality. The law must wait until our imbiber threatens public safety. Unless he destroys someone else's property, hurts someone, or gets behind the wheel of a car, he's free from prosecution under the law.

Societal Norms

Adding to our differences, morality and laws are usually linked to overarching societal rules. Religious convictions are based on the commands of a perceived higher power. For instance, in the U.S., it's completely normal for some people to eat bacon with breakfast. You won't get funny looks, and you won't get thrown in jail for liking fried pig. However, if you are an Orthodox Jew or a Muslim, pig is a big no-no. To eat it would be breaking faith.

As another example, Western law and mainstream Western morality sees no problem with a woman wearing make-up or showing her legs. However, the very conservative faith of the Amish would consider this scandalous. Unlike laws and typical ideas on morality, religious standards often exist outside mainstream societal norms.

Jurisdiction

Our last difference of the day has to do with jurisdiction or the official power to make decisions and judgments. Keeping things as simple as possible, sociologists argue that religion and morality have jurisdiction over a person's private life; the law does not. Revisiting our poor alcoholic, the law can't dictate what he does to himself. He can keep drinking until his liver gives up. However, the morality police can call him a drunk and exclude him from society's embrace.

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