The argument between legal versus moral has been, and is currently, an ongoing discussion differentiating the two. Legal is something that has been appointed, established, or authorized by the law that has consequences if violated. All citizens of society must obey these laws, even if they don’t necessarily value them. Morality is concerned with the principles of right versus wrong that are based on one’s personal feelings, values and opinions. According to philosophers, the argument between legal and moral can be distinguished in many different ways. Kant, a relativist, believed that one’s morals are based on experiences and determined throughout their life through self-rule. The hedonism theory is based on actions and beliefs that motivate and maximize self-interest, with little pain for others. I will use the theories of philosopher Immanuel Kant and Aristotle, a hedonist philosopher, to discuss this argument further.

As a relativist philosopher, Immanuel Kant believes that human’s values are based mainly on the culture they grew up in (Kant and Cultural Relativism). He says that people choose whether something is right or wrong according to the influences of their familiar culture. They grew up learning right from wrong in their culture, so they believe in those values. An individual’s morals are based upon their personal values, but motivated by their culture. Looking again at the abortion example, if one has the choice of having an abortion but it is against their religion, then they may feel that the right, moral choice would to not receive one. Kant says that humans are subjective and base their values on their personal values and opinions.

If the purpose of life were just to achieve happiness, then we

would all seek pleasure and gratification and hope that it would

lead to happiness. The problem is that happiness is not totally

within our power to achieve; to a large extent, happiness is a

matter of luck. Consequently, being happy and being good

are two different things. (Kantian Ethics)

Kant stated that the “good will” is the only good without any qualification. This means that a good attitude or feeling about something is moral, to that specific individual.

One person’s values and beliefs shape their individual personality and character. Essentially every person does things primarily to help themselves, whether it’s helping the homeless for the self-satisfaction of helping others, or accomplishing something for happiness and contentment, such as stealing possessions, that affects other people. Hedonists, such as Aristotle, believe that pleasure and happiness is the primary factor of one’s morals and values. Choices are made by a hedonist to provide personal pleasure and the satisfaction of accomplishing something. The choices that are valued and acted upon do not harm others, but at the same time give an individual enjoyment. According to hedonism, moral goodness is doing the right thing, but it may not always lead to happiness in the long-run. (Ethics) Aristotle states that the “highest good must be something final.” (Nichomachean Ethics 200) His arguments are mainly based on Hedonism where happiness and pleasure comes from fulfilling our human nature, and that nature is originated in excellence. Aristotle came up with two kinds of virtues, intellectual virtue and moral virtue, which is generosity and self control of an individual. A hedonist’s morals are somewhat similar to a relativist’s morals where they believe in human nature and their personal values. They can be distinguished where Aristotle says that a humans morals are things they act upon, or believe, to maximize their pleasure, whereas Kant says that humans’ morals are based upon the influences of their culture and what they learned throughout life.

Sometimes if something is legal, it is not always moral, in fact, there are many things in which this is true. For example, if someone wants an abortion, they have a right to because it is legal. However, this doesn’t mean it is the right or moral thing to do. It depends upon the individual’s values and opinions of whether or not it is right. A hedonist would do what he or she values the most, that will promote their self-interest. In addition, if something one believes is moral, it may not always be legal. For example, if somebody morally thinks it is okay to steal from other people because their moral values are low, does not make it legal. Stealing most likely motivates self-interests, given that the individual’s morals are low. It may give them happiness and pleasure, therefore it is possible for them to think it is moral.

Kant’s and Aristotle’s theories of moral ethics are similar where they believe that morality is based on free will and freedom of choice. They differ because in Kant’s, he says that individuals’ free will is not entirely based on their own opinions and values, it is influenced by culture and experiences; Aristotle’s hedonism theory states that people’s moral values are based on motivating their self-interests, essentially giving them freedom of choice. Looking at both sides of the argument, legal and moral are not synonymous. Morality is based on an individual’s opinions and values whereas legality focuses primarily on the law system and forces of the government.

Works Cited

  • Hooker, J.N. Kant and Cultural Relativism. Carnegie Mellon University. March 1996. Web. February 2, 2010.
  • Hedonistic Theories. Ethics. N.P. 2001. Web. February 2, 2010.
  • Kantian Ethics. Ethics. N.P. 2001. Web. February 2, 2010.

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