reason for living

Morality, legality, tolerance and compromise

Tolerance is not always a good thing and compromise is often a cloak for cowardice. No amount of legislation will ever make wrong into right.  This document discusses various aspects of morality and legality with particular reference to sexual acts.

What is meant by moral and legal?

First let us define what we mean by moral and legal, morality and legality.  Legality is easier to define than morality because very simply an act becomes legal or illegal according to whether or not it contravenes any of the laws of the land.  What the laws do not prohibit is legal and what the laws do not allow is illegal.  Thus to know whether any act is legal we simply need to know what the law says about that act — is it prohibited or not?

Morality is not identical to legality although it can be defined in a similar way.  An act is moral or immoral according to whether it contravenes a moral standard.  To this extent morality is similar to legality because in each case the act must be referred to some other standard to know whether it is moral or immoral, legal or illegal.  The difference between morality and legality is the source of the standard to which each refers.

Legality is defined by reference to a standard decided by humans.  In most countries there are legislators, parliaments, councils, courts and judges and, through various procedures, these people and institutions decide what is or is not legal in that particular country or region.  Of course some of these people will claim that the set of laws that they accept is not human in origin but that the laws come from some divine source but even in most of these cases the actual day to day interpretation and application of the law is still a human matter so, for the purposes of this discussion, law is always something that humans determine.

Morality is not obtained in the same way that legality is.  The first distinction is that morality is not defined by any human individual or institution or organization.  The second distinction is that while some morality is taught to us, some morality is built-in to us from the beginning.  The third distinction is that morality is not something we can alter as we please.

Let us look at this third distinction in a different way: We (as a nation or group) can decide to change laws when we like and how we like so, for example, we can make it illegal to sell coffee at any time, we can change the law to make it illegal to sell coffee between certain times of the day and we can change it again to remove all restrictions on the sale of coffee.  Those are legal issues.  However, we can never say that adultery, for example, is morally right; Adultery is always immoral.

Now it is very important that we maintain this distinction between morality and legality.  Sometimes our laws are arranged so that what is immoral is also illegal.  However there are many actions that are immoral but still legal and there are other actions that are by themselves perfectly moral but which have been made illegal because they have other undesirable implications.  Let us have some examples of each:

Action or activity or behaviour

Moral status

Legal status (in Britain, 2004)

Theft (stealing) wrong illegal
Fornication (consensual sex between two unmarried persons) wrong legal
Rape (nonconsensual sex between unmarried persons) wrong illegal
Adultery wrong legal
Being dishonest by telling lies to a friend wrong legal
Allowing a dog to go to the toilet on a city pavement neutral illegal because, although the dog is only doing what every dog has to do and probably didn't intend to inconvenience anybody, its toilet activity on the city street makes life unpleasant for other people and so it is undesirable.  The action of allowing a dog to use the street as a toilet is illegal not because of morality but because of convenience.

So we see that legality is defined by humans and that what is immoral is not always illegal; later we will examine why this is so but, first, we will find out how morality is defined.

Who decides what is moral?

There are essentially two popular answers to this question and neither of them will satisfy everybody.  Those who believe in the Christian notions of God will claim that morality is defined by the nature of God and is therefore an inherent, unchangeable quality of the universe created by God.  Those who do not believe in a God will tend to argue that morality is somehow created by social conditioning.

[The second of the above answers will not be considered in this article because I find it to be a very unsatisfactory answer; other writers have shown that while it is possible for social conditioning to determine and enforce particular moral values, it is not possible for the initial concept of “morality” itself to be created by social conditioning.  Indeed the existence of morality is one of the pointers towards the divine origins of the universe]

The rules of morality can be thought of as the rules by which the universe is governed.  They are as unyielding as the “physical laws” of he universe and, indeed, cannot be fully separated from them.  The universe is an expression of the nature of God and thus everything in it expresses his particular character.  Sometimes we might not understand that character and sometimes we might not like what we understand but nonetheless we cannot change the character.  The nature of God does not alter to suit our individual preferences any more than the earth will alter its orbit to please us with a warmer summer.

Imagine a man who has just fallen from a high building.  He might not understand the so-called laws of gravity, indeed he might never have heard of such things.  He does, however understand that in a few moments he is going to hit the ground very hard and he does not like this in any way.  His personal preference is that he shouldn't get hurt because, perhaps, he has a wife and children waiting for his weekly wage or, more likely, he just doesn't like pain and doesn't want to die.  Nonetheless his circumstances, his preference and his understanding will not alter the experience in the smallest way.  The time it takes for the man to hit the ground and how hard he hits the ground will be determined by such things as his body mass, the density of the air, the height from which he fell, the surface area of his clothes and the strength of the gravitational field at that point on the earth.  Whether he understands any of these things, or likes or desires the experience will not change what is about to happen in the slightest.  As far as the outcome of his fall is concerned, his understanding and desire are irrelevant except that, if he survives, he might learn something about the physical laws of the universe from the experience.

The moral laws of the universe have this same independent character and so they do not change to suit us.  If the nature of God means that dishonesty is immoral then it is immoral.  It will be immoral no matter how much we think it would be convenient for us to be dishonest.  Perhaps we need some extra money to feed a child and we could get that money by claiming that we worked more hours at our employment than we actually worked.  Claiming for the unworked hours would be an act of dishonesty but, given the circumstances, would it be immoral?  The answer is plainly yes, it would be immoral.  The immoral nature of dishonesty will not be changed by the hungry child any more than gravity will stop working in order to keep a falling man alive for the sake of his wife and children.

Is this unfair?  No it is actually very fair because the rules of morality are, like the rules of gravity, exactly the same for everyone.  There are no extra rules or special exemptions given to any person, nation or state.  Divine justice shows neither fear nor favour.  It might be interesting to consider this "no fear nor favour" approach to justice because, I suspect, we don't fully understand its scope.  It seems to me that we are all entirely in agreement that the exhalted position of a powerful president or rich person will provide no special protection in the divine court.  The rich and the famous will get the same treatment as everyone else because the position a person holds in life will not be a factor that the court will consider.  But we forget that everyone else means everyone else.  Or, to throw the argument the other way around, everyone else will get the same treatment as the rich and famous.  In other words if the position of a wealthy president is not considered by the divine court then the position of a poor, unemployed, disabled father will not be taken into account either.  A policy of “No discrimination” on account of circumstances means exactly NO discrimination on account of circumstances.  The wealthy ruler and the impoverished father will be judged on exactly the same scales; they will be measured against exactly the same standard.  Equality in the court of God is truly equality; no exemptions, no privileges.  This should make us all a bit nervous because, it seems to me, we are all quick to be glad that the rich and mighty will not be excused because of their exalted earthly status but we forget that we often make excuses for ourselves based on our own lowly earthly status.  We irrationally assume that our lowly position will somehow excuse us our wrongdoing, but that, of course, would be unfair.  When we stand in the court of heaven our earthly status will no longer exist — all that will remain will be good deeds and bad deeds, moral acts and immoral acts, right motives and wrong motives.  Divine justice, utterly impartial and utterly fair, is not something we should look forward to.

Why aren't all immoral actions illegal?

Earlier in this article we saw that some immoral activities (for example, adultery) are not illegal.  There are some very good reasons why some immoral acts are not, and should not be, illegal.


If we make a law that cannot be enforced then that law is more or less useless.  For example, telling lies to a friend is morally wrong but it would be very silly to make lying illegal.  The reason it would be silly is simply that most conversations are unrecorded and quickly forgotten.  In a court it would be almost always be impossible to know what a person said to somebody and impossible to know if the listener heard correctly.  A law to make lying illegal could rarely or never be enforced and would achieve nothing useful.


Sometimes it is inconvenient to make an act illegal because it would create a bigger problem than the one it would solve.  For example prostitution is immoral but legal.  If it were illegal for a person to be a prostitute then a person who had become a prostitute because of blackmail, drug dependency or because of some other problem might be afraid to ask for help.  This would have two negative (and immoral) consequences — first the person who needed help wouldn't receive it and would be left to deal with the problem by themselves.  Second, if prostitution were illegal then all prostitutes would be criminals.  This would leave them even more exposed to the dangers of blackmail, extortion and violence and would create an environment conducive to more crime and greater immorality.

In the end, if a society were to make prostitution illegal then that society would likely to have more crime and less morality.  It would also become much harder for a prostitute to change career if they wanted to leave prostitution and live a morally better life.


Some people might say that it is immoral to be greedy or to envy somebody.  In a similar way, the Bible tells us that immorality begins with our thoughts and that immoral actions are caused by immoral thoughts and immoral desires.  So, should greed be illegal?  Should lust be illegal?  The answer is no.  It is true that greed and lust and pride and envy are all immoral but in most cases we humans cannot know what a person is thinking and we cannot prove that they have immoral desires.  If we cannot detect a person's thoughts then it is pointless to declare certain kinds of thoughts illegal.  However as an indication of their stupidity the British government has introduced a series of laws concerning “hate” crimes, namely crimes motivated by racism or other unfashionable attitudes; it is stupid because no police officer or court can actually know a person's motivation for a crime with any reasonable confidence.  At the end of the day, either the hatred results in tangible assault or it does not.

Justice (case 1)

Sometimes an act is immoral and a law against it could be enforced but it is a bad idea to make that act illegal because it would result in an unacceptably large injustice to some person who is not directly participating in the immorality.  A good example of this is adultery.  Adultery is immoral and can be detected and it would be possible to successfully prosecute many adulterers.  However each act of adultery always involves three people — a husband, a wife and the third person.  Now, for example, let us imagine that the wife has an adulterous affair with another man and that this adultery is detected and successfully prosecuted.  What will we do with the convicted wife and her lover?  Whatever penalty we impose on the wife will also affect the husband and so he now suffers twice — first he suffers the emotional pain of his wife's unfaithfulness and then he suffers again when she is punished by the courts.  If she is imprisoned then he is deprived of his companion, is possibly left to raise the children alone, and has very little opportunity to reconstruct the marriage.  If the adulterous wife is penalized in some other way (perhaps with a fine) then again, the husband (and possibly any children of the marriage) will also lose the benefits of the money that the errant wife must pay.  By punishing the adulterous wife an act of injustice is imposed on her husband (and children if there are any).  The situation would be similar if it were the husband who had committed adultery and been convicted.
In this case we see that the injustice created by a successful prosecution and penalty for adultery would also penalize the person who is the victim of the first injustice.

Justice (case 2)

It is possible to create injustice in other ways.  This is because no matter what our earthly position or status is we are all individuals and in the sight of God we are all equally valuable and we all have certain fundamental rights that are either God given or that we grant to one another in order to create harmonious and pleasant communities.  One of these rights is the right to have privacy in some (but not all) areas of our lives.

Sometimes in order to discover the facts about an immoral act it will be necessary to ask the person who is alleged to have committed the immoral act because they are the only person who will be able report the facts accurately.  However, if the alleged immorality involves an area of their lives where they have a right to privacy then we cannot investigate the alleged immorality without automatically subjecting the person to the injustice of invasion of privacy.  This injustice will be inflicted on both the guilty and the innocent because by the time the truth of the alleged immorality is known the injustice of invasion of privacy will already have happened.

In these situations a moral dilemma exists:  Is the alleged immorality sufficient grounds for denying a person the right of privacy?  Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes no.  For example, where murder or fraud is being investigated we generally agree that a person's right to privacy needs to be temporarily suspended in order that the alleged murder or fraud can be investigated fully.
When it comes to sexual morality the case is not so easy to decide.  For example, fornication and homosexuality are morally wrong and could be made illegal, but would it be possible to investigate alleged fornication and homosexuality without infringing a person's right to privacy and, if not, is the infringement justified?  Generally we, as a society, have decided that the immorality of both fornication and homosexuality is not by itself sufficient reason to suspend a person's right to privacy.  In other words, it would be unjust (and hence immoral) to infringe a person's privacy in order to investigate alleged sexual immorality.

So although immorality and illegality are often related they are not the same thing and they do not always coincide.  Some immoral acts must always remain legal but the fact that they are legal does not then make them good.

Maintaining the distinction ...

Now that we have made a clear distinction between morality and legality we need to be sure that we keep the distinction.  This, however, is where things often go wrong.  One mistake that is made is simply that some people think that if an act is not illegal then neither is it immoral.  Or, to put it the other way around, people think that everything that is legal is also morally acceptable.  This flawed reasoning can lead to a disaster for whoever is involved.

Legality can and must, and thankfully does, change.  Justice is only one part of morality and it must be adapted to each society and must change as technology, customs and lifestyles alter.  Morality has not changed since the beginning of time but that does not mean that we should still be using the laws of Moses.

However, as we saw earlier, moral standards are not defined by us and they do not change.  Morality is defined by God and is the same for us as it was for the people living 3000 years ago and it will be the same until the end of time.

Adultery, homosexuality and fornication are all presently legal in Britain but that does not mean that they are morally good or right things to do.  The laws of morality will not change to suit our mood and no matter how much we might want it otherwise it is a simple fact that all three of these sexual acts are morally wrong and those who indulge in them risk being condemned by God.  An act of adultery, fornication or homosexuality does not usually have any legal consequences but that does not mean that it has no consequences at all.

Unfortunately societies all around the world have turned their backs to God and as a result are steadily losing their ability to be rational.  This is because reason or rationality is not something that we can put together out of nothing;  Just as “crooked” is defined with reference to “straight”, so is “irrational” known by reference to “rational”, “immoral” is known by reference to “moral” and “bad” can only be defined with reference to “good”.  However our only source of true rationality, morality and goodness is God himself so when we ignore him we also lose our reference for rationality and morality and goodness.  When a nation takes profit, pleasure and convenience and gives them the authority and honour that belong to reason and to God then the result must inevitably be disintegration and disaster.

Tolerance and compromise

Tolerance and compromise are often wonderful attributes for a person or nation to possess but if we do not have a solid standard to refer to then we will not know what the limits of our toleration or compromise should be.

Tolerance is not always a virtue and compromise is often nothing more than cowardice.

Tolerance is a word that has become somewhat fashionable in the 20th and 21st centuries but, in the process, seems to have lost some of its meaning.  One way of illustrating the scope of the word tolerance is by noticing that that we never tolerate the things that are good and pleasing.  Aspects of life that are universally considered to be good and valuable and satisfying and pleasurable such as happy families, a good harvest, or a nourishing meal, do not need to be tolerated because there is nothing wrong with them or displeasing about them.  The aspects of life that we tolerate are things that are either bad or things that annoy us or that we do not like.  We might tolerate bad cooking at a restaurant because the view is good.  We might tolerate an unfaithful husband because a divorce would be even worse, we might tolerate a useless and corrupt government because the alternative is civil war.  These examples illustrate another point about tolerance, namely that when we choose to tolerate something we generally do so because we perceive that there is some greater good that we wish to attain or maintain or some greater evil that we wish to avoid.

Tolerance itself is not necessarily concerned with morality or legality as can be seen in the example of tolerating badly cooked food for the benefit of having good view.  It is neither immoral nor illegal for a chef to prepare food that we don't like.  Nonetheless tolerance does overlap both legality and morality in many places.

If a society is to continue to function it is important that we know what the limits of toleration should be. 

A quick note about “Gay” marriage

Some people want homosexual couples to be given the right to marry and sooner or later the debate will be held around the world.  There are several good reasons why homosexual marriage should not be permitted but one of those reasons is, very simply, because the law (in Britain) quite rightly does not allow a contract to be formed for an immoral purpose.  Since homosexuality is, and always will be, immoral it should never be subject to legally binding or contractual obligations because then the obligations of the contract and the force of the law would act as an obstruction to a person who wanted to abandon the evil of homosexuality and make greater effort to lead a morally good life.  Any law that hinders a person from doing good is itself likely to be immoral!  Homosexual marriages may well be an issue where God-fearing people will have to assert themselves and refuse to compromise because the implications for society will extend far beyond the lives of any homosexuals who are permitted to “marry”.

Related articles that you might like to read

Self-control, self-discipline and self-denial
Contemporary living does not have much use for these three qualities but they are essential for any Christian who really wants to live in obedience to God.
Simple commands for Christians.
A handy guide to some of the things that God told us to do but we never quite get around to doing.
Gay priests
Can a homosexual man or lesbian woman hold the priesthood?
Believing “on trust”.
We all have some sort of beliefs or personal philosophies; but WHY do we believe what we believe and how do we know that it is true?
What does it mean to be “born again”?
One life or two?  According to Jesus you'll need a whole new life before you can get close to God.
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