Monday Morning Matrix Meme: Legality v. Morality

MMMM legality morality

Being born into a nation-state, all of us are trained to equate “illegal” with “bad,” and “legal” with “OK.” And because many times there is, in fact, a direct correspondence between what is illegal and what is wrong (e.g., murder—at least for individuals—is illegal), the relationship between the two is particularly strong.

But they can never be the same. In fact, as far as history is concerned, we should avoid the generalization altogether. There are too many exceptions. Especially with women’s subordination and race-based slavery firmly fixed in America’s own history, one would think that the illegal = immoral (legal = moral) formula would have disappeared altogether.

But it hasn’t. It remains strong and functional in the subconsciousness of millions. “I better go ask if it’s OK to collect rainwater off my roof.” ; “My dog is unlicensed; what will my parents think?” ; “I haven’t registered my charity business; God, will you forgive me?” We give way too much credit to the state—and, of course, cede far too much control to the state over our lives.

The separation between legality and morality is most visible when considering the large-scale, systematic aggressions amidst society. Strip searching men and women on the side of the road in search of an ‘dangerous’ plant. Drone-bombing thousands of innocent families and children in the name of ‘national security.’ Annually harvesting a third of a population’s entire income through the use of threats, force, and intimidation. Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr.—supposedly icons of ‘American values’—both argued that unjust laws need not be obeyed, and that in fact, it might best to disobey them. But where is this argument today? Who are the Jeffersons and Kings of the 21st century? What has happened to the land of the free?


“Conventionality is not the same as morality.”

—Charlotte Brontë


“What is right is not the same as what is legal.”

—Edward Snowden