If you were to ever ask an attorney how is it that they determine what is the difference between moral and legal reasoning? Most attorneys would tell you that there is no difference at all. This may be true in some respects. One might suppose that an attorney has to “go by the book,” whatever that might be. However, I think this is an example of an attorney making a moral judgment about what is the difference between legal and moral reasoning.
For every legal question there is an answer that is both moral and legal. Where questions of fact are concerned, there is a right answer and a wrong answer. Where questions of statutory law are involved, there is an appropriate answer and a more appropriate answer than the statutory one. Every legal question has both a right answer and a wrong answer. Where there is a conflict in fact, there is always a right answer and a wrong answer.
Obedience to the law is not just a matter of what is the right way to behave, although it clearly is a significant part of that. To say something is moral or immoral according to your personal moral beliefs is rather different than saying that something is illegal according to your personal moral beliefs. A good example of the first kind of moral reasoning would be if you noticed a police officer speeding past you on the highway, and you felt that you ought to speed too because he was already endangering himself. You might say that you felt that it was justifiable to speed in order to avoid a collision with that police officer. Of course, you face a greater risk of accident if you do not obey the officer, yet you are acting in the same way as if the officer had made a mistake of law. A second example is that of obeying the law in order to avoid being taken to jail, which in actuality may help you avoid jail.
The difference between moral and legal reasoning can also be seen in the difference between what is morally right and what is morally wrong. An example of the former would be something like stealing, whereas a person who steals something may be morally justifiably feel that it is morally wrong to do so. In such a situation, it would be absurd for him to steal, whereas someone who thinks that stealing is wrong may steal. Legal reasoning involves reasoning to the effect that something is prohibited by law, where there could be nothing more absurd than a law that makes stealing illegal.
Another example involves rape. People may feel that it is morally wrong to rape, but they cannot logically reason out why they should not do so. A similar problem arises when people attempt to justify discrimination against certain classes of people. Legal reasoning can also arise in the workplace, where some employers try to justify against the requirement that their employees take tests that may make them unfit for work due to their disability. For example, an employer might argue that they are providing benefits for their employees, but that those benefits are only for the company and therefore not for the employee.
Legal reasoning can arise in many different situations. However, those situations do not mean that moral reasoning and legal reasoning are the same thing. Rather, the two are different concepts that are used to describe very similar occurrences. People can be both moral and legal, and it is irrelevant what the reasoning is. A person may be morally right in doing something, but may still be legally wrong to do it in the eyes of the law.