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Law: The Moral Minimums in a Democratic Society

15 January, 2016 - 09:28

The law does not correct (or claim to correct) every wrong that occurs in society. At a minimum, it aims to curb the worst kind of wrongs, the kinds of wrongs that violate what might be called the “moral minimums” that a community demands of its members. These include not only violations of criminal law (see Criminal Law ) but also torts (see Introduction to Tort Law ) and broken promises (see Introduction to Contract Law ). Thus it may be wrong to refuse to return a phone call from a friend, but that wrong will not result in a viable lawsuit against you. But if a phone (or the Internet) is used to libel or slander someone, a tort has been committed, and the law may allow the defamed person to be compensated.

There is a strong association between what we generally think of as ethical behavior and what the laws require and provide. For example, contract law upholds society’s sense that promises—in general—should be kept. Promise-breaking is seen as unethical. The law provides remedies for broken promises (in breach of contract cases) but not for all broken promises; some excuses are accepted when it would be reasonable to do so. For tort law, harming others is considered unethical. If people are not restrained by law from harming one another, orderly society would be undone, leading to anarchy. Tort law provides for compensation when serious injuries or harms occur. As for property law issues, we generally believe that private ownership of property is socially useful and generally desirable, and it is generally protected (with some exceptions) by laws. You can’t throw a party at my house without my permission, but my right to do whatever I want on my own property may be limited by law; I can’t, without the public’s permission, operate an incinerator on my property and burn heavy metals, as toxic ash may be deposited throughout the neighborhood.