Civilization was founded on the basis of social reciprocity; these communities of people united and, as a result, increased our species’ fitness, survival, and functionality. Urbanity and society thrive on the pillars of social reciprocity: the intrinsic disposition of responding to benevolence with more kindness. Before modern economies were established, skilled labor was traded: a sheep herder would trade wool to a metalsmith, who would provide the shears. We see some remnants of this in modern society. Primary education is, in theory, free with the hopes that it produces adults who contribute to the overall wellbeing of society.
With this main concept of propagating the social good, the first laws and legal codes reflect what ethicists and philosophers have been dedicated to discover. In Egypt, people lived their lives based on the central cultural value of Ma’at, which represented social justice, equality, truth, balance, and order. Morality — what is right, just, and true —has been the foundation for law and society around the world and throughout history. Laws ought to be moral. Laws should increase the good life and make existence more comfortable for those that it serves.
This has been intrinsic to cultural codes such as the Ma’at to legal codes such as Hammurabi’s Code to the U.S. Constitution itself. In theory, we have rights and protections from the government and others. The legal system was designed to create this. But often times, it does just the opposite. Some laws protect corporations at the expense of freedom and democracy and some legal codes imprison children in cages. Who or what do such laws serve? How can this increase the overall “good” of our republic?
Our laws do not always reflect a national morality, and what is “legal” and “illegal” does not always translate to what is “right” or “wrong.” For example, it is taught from a young age that murder is wrong, bad and evil. It is black and white. It is illegal to murder a 34-year-old mother of four who gives her valuable time to charity work. It is illegal to murder an organ donor to save the lives of those in need of organ transplants. It is illegal to murder a 52-year-old serial rapist. It is illegal to assassinate a dictator who oppresses his people. Is murder immoral in all cases? Deliberate and premeditated murder is always illegal. But how can murder always be illegal, especially when the government who creates notions of legal and illegal break their own laws through war and destruction?
Morality is not black and white, even though our laws try to paint it as such. We live life in color. Morality is a contextual and cultural construct that our laws and legal codes neglect. Sometimes what is moral, correct, right and true is not legal. And sometimes what is legal is not always moral.