With instances of fraud and violent crime remaining unacceptably high through 2009 and early 2010, there is an ever intensive focus on US laws and legislation to help resolve criminal behavioural trends. However, there is another factor which influences criminal acts and conduct, one which remains less defined and yet potentially more pertinent, and this is the concept of personal morality. Completely individual to each person, these nurtured principles govern an independent philosophy of living, and help determine which acts a conscience deems acceptable and righteous. With this in mind, it is fair to question the validity of strict and detailed law when confronted with an individual’s own standards of morality.
Acknowledging Morality as a Factor in Criminal Behaviour
If we consider their core definitions, laws and morals are essentially as one. Both are sets of principles that govern what actions are deemed to be acceptable and righteous, and act as a code by which we conduct our lives and daily affairs. However, whereas laws are set by government legislation to serve society as a single entity, morals are unique to each separate member of that society. They are conditional, influenced by nature, upbringing and most crucially the surrounding environment and circumstance that an individual finds themselves in at any given time. Morals are the most malleable to a subjects situation, and are therefore are often the primary principles by which conduct is orientated. This means that in order for laws to effectively govern a society, they must serve two specific purposes: firstly, to recognise the role of morality in certain criminal offences, and secondly to ensure that such actions are met with swift and consistent consequences.
The legal concept of moral turpitude is an example of government laws respecting the part that morality plays in particular criminal acts. It is without concise definition, but refers in part to acts of baseness, vileness or depravity in private or social duties that infringe on individuals or society as a whole. The reason that the concept is not specific is that it is designed to change and adapt to societies expectations. Historically, there have been cases of homosexual acts being cited as evidence of moral turpitude, and so this has altered as the general perception of homosexuality has softened over the generations. The act relates to the morality of various crimes, most prominently fraud, murder and rape, and attempts to comprehend the moral motivation and corollary of such offenses.
For those found guilty of crimes of moral turpitude, it can also effect later criminal proceedings where the perpetrator wishes to act as a witness, or indeed is alleging to be the victim of a crime. The act can also be used to revoke professional licenses or memberships, and makes the clear distinction that those who commit immoral acts will face the resonance of consequences for the duration of their life. It is, if administered correctly, a significant way to effect laws in the face of personal morals: by aligning political legislation and laws with individual morality, governments can implement consequence and regimented punishment to appease any breaches of these factions as one single entity.
Crime and Punishment
The concept of punishment is another significant factor in the effectiveness of laws against immorality. If you consider a compliant act of moral turpitude, for example fraud, it is fair to surmise that in most cases the offence is committed in the interests of personal gain or self preservation. The same could be argued for a vast majority of murder or rape cases: the immoral act is conducted to solve a problem or fill a particular need, be it financial or psychological. The circumstances have dictated a problem, and the conditional morals of the perpetrator proffer a solution that law abiding actions cannot facilitate.
The only ways in which law and legislation can effect this is to be concisely defined and also have structured and inevitable consequences if they are breached. In Cesare Beccaria’s Essay on Crimes and Punishments (linked closely to Voltaire’s Of Crime and Punishment), it is argued that crimes are more effectively prevented by the certainty rather than the severity of punishment. This is particularly relevant if we apply the ethos to crimes of moral turpitude or crimes for gain, as the inevitability of consequence would negate much if not all potential benefits of the immoral act for perpetrator. Such a theory was contrary to the prevailing methods of the time, where many European countries (think Elizabethan England as an example) sought to avenge trivial crimes with the most barbaric of corporal and capital punishment.
An example was cited of a youth defacing public property, either through physical damage or the use of graffiti. This can be considered an act of moral turpitude, as it infringes an individuals or a society’s space. It was argued that applying the death penalty for such a crime would not completely assuage any potential wrong doer, as the act itself is one of rebellion and therefore an exercise in risk and fulfilling a youthful need or desire. However, if for example there was a law enforcer on every street corner and a strict yet reasonable punishment in place to ensure capture and consequence for the offender, then it would be much easier to deter the perpetrator from committing the offence in the first instance.
Transparent Laws and an Inevitable Consequence
To summarise, it is the adaptable nature of morals that make them the influential factor in our orientation. In order for laws to successfully regulate what in essence is a collection of conditional and ever changeable principles, it must be clear and rigid in its wording and carry a certainty and clarity of punishment. To have any flexibility in its interpretations or inconsistency in the application of its consequences is to actively encourage acts of immorality. This is because immoral acts invariably suit a need or purpose, and are often committed in the interests of the self and for what stands to be gained. Without any definite consequence to balance the benefits of the act, then it is far easier to justify it as necessary without entering into any moral conflicts or reasoning.
In order to determine what strict laws can physically do in an abundant absence of morals, these points all require addressing. Laws can and do prosper, and often despite a lack of morality in particular cultures or sub cultures, as if this was not the case then societies would be overrun by crime, immorality and vulgarity. Laws and their written legislation can be extremely effective without morals, as long as they are conceived with an understanding of the correlation between the two, facilitate the enforcement of their principles with efficiency, and offer swift and unswerving action when they are breached.