Moral Relativism: legal does not define ethical

In ethics — not just Catholic ethics, but any sound philosophical system of morality — the point is often made that legal and ethical, illegal and unethical, are two different concepts. An act can be legal and ethical, or legal and unethical. An act can be illegal and ethical, or illegal and unethical. Proofs of this basic concept are easy to find.

1. Every person of good will today admits that slavery is gravely immoral. And yet slavery was formerly legal in many nations, including the U.S.

2. In Germany, before and during World War 2, Hitler committed gravely immoral acts. But he often did this by changing the law, not by breaking the law. When he want to do something evil, he first made the wicked act legal.

3. Conversely, helping Jews escape persecution, incarceration, and murder by Nazis was illegal, and yet not only moral, but morally-required. Law-breaking in this instance was a moral obligation. In some situations, choosing not to break the law, even by mere inaction, is a grave sin.

The eternal moral law requires us both to refrain from doing evil, and to actively do good.

Do I even need to give a fourth example?

No intelligent person of good will can dispute the truth that some legal acts are gravely immoral, and that some illegal acts are not only moral, but a grave moral obligation.

So if anyone asserts or implies the proposition “It’s legal, therefore it’s moral” or “It’s illegal, therefore it’s immoral”, he is not a person of good will. He does not place the love of God and neighbor first. He has made moral truth relative to human law, and subordinate to human law.

Worldwide, there are estimated to be over 40 million abortions each year. At this rate, every 25 years sees one billion innocents murdered by abortion. Many of these murders are entirely legal. Abortifacient contraception perhaps kills an even larger number of prenatals, by an insidious and hidden type of early abortion. This brings the total murders to over 2 billion every 25 years. This moral situation is worse than slavery, worse than the Jewish holocaust. It is unprecedented in human history.

This brings us to the present political and legal situation in the United States. Abortion is legal and widely available. Abortifacient contraception is legal and widely available. All efforts by faithful Catholics and Protestants to stop the abortion holocaust have failed.

And now the wicked pro-abortion forces have decided that abortifacient contraception (including the birth control pill, IUDs, and morning-after pills) must be offered in all health care insurance plans, because it is a legal form of “preventative care”. It is now, or it will soon be, illegal to offer health insurance without abortifacient contraception.

The Roman Catholic Church infallibly teaches that all direct abortion (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62), including abortifacients (Evangelium Vitae, n. 13), is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Direct abortion is never justified, whether as an end or as a means. Catholics who obtain abortions, even by means of abortifacients, are automatically excommunicated under Canon Law.

If a citizen believes that abortion and abortifacients are gravely immoral, and therefore he or she refuses to offer, pay for, or otherwise participate in this grave crime against God and humanity, the response is some form of this argument: “it is a legal form of health care, therefore, refusal to participate is illegal discrimination against women.” In other words, you have to help us murder innocent unborn children, because it is legal.

It is particularly problematic when the persons using the “It’s legal therefore its moral” argument also have the ability to change the law. In some cases, they themselves first changed the law to make the immoral act legal, and then they say “It’s legal therefore its moral” or “It’s legal, therefore the contrary is illegal discrimination”. It is only legal because they made it legal. It is only a legal requirement because they interpreted the law to make it a legal requirement.

But in truth, no human person can determine morality merely by changing human law. The eternal moral law is unchanging and unchangeable because it is the Justice inherent in the very Nature of our almighty and infinitely-good God. Since God cannot change from good to evil, a good act cannot change to become evil, and an evil act cannot change to become good.

What is next? Undoubtedly, sooner or later, the pro-abortion forces will decide that, since abortion and abortifacient contraception are (supposedly) rights and legal forms of heath care, anyone who refuses to perform an abortion or to dispense abortifacients is committing a crime. Morally, this situation is the same as if Hitler required everyone to participate in killing innocent Jews, because it was legal.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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1 Response to Moral Relativism: legal does not define ethical

  1. jbbt9 says:

    Excellent post Ron.
    I thank God for your discernment and ability to present it clearly for those like myself who agree with your argument but could not put it so well.

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