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Moral And Legal Guilt

How are these concepts related beyond what has been suggested above? There can, of course, be moral guilt without legal guilt, legal guilt without moral guilt, and a range of instances in which the two overlap. Earlier, there were listed a number of examples of what might occasion moral guilt without legal guilt. To this list might be added those cases where compliance with evil laws creates moral guilt. Since it is sometimes morally right to violate an iniquitous law, it follows that there may be legal guilt without moral guilt. From a consideration of crimes such as murder, where generally those factually guilty are morally guilty as well, it is evident that the two overlap.

Moral and legal guilt may differ significantly. There is no concept in morality comparable to legally operative guilt; one is never morally guilty merely by virtue of being judged as such. Moral guilt is always factual guilt. Further, the law may specify in a relatively arbitrary way the norms that regulate conduct and the circumstances under which violation of these norms incurs guilt. But for moral guilt the norms and the conditions to be satisfied for incurring guilt are entirely immune from deliberate human modification.

Moreover, legal guilt is restricted to those situations in which a wrong is done to society. It is not enough that someone's personal rights have been violated. For the most part, however, moral wrongs that establish guilt arise in situations where another's rights have been violated; the guilt is not necessarily done to the society that conceives itself as threatened by the conduct. Thus, those in a position to condemn or forgive are those whose rights have been violated, and not some party that stands in an institutionally defined relationship to the wronged party.

Further, in being morally guilty there is no implication of being justifiably liable to punishment. There may be entitlement to criticize and to be resentful or indignant, but in a variety of situations where moral guilt arises, either the wrong done is not appropriately viewed as punishable, or the relationship (for example, between friends) is in no way seen as righted by punishment. What is essential for restoration in the moral sphere is such emotions and attitudes as guilt, contrition, and repentance. In addition, the objects of moral guilt differ from those generally of concern to the law. Maxims such as "the law aims at a minimum; morality at a maximum" and "the law is concerned with external conduct; morality with internal conduct" draw attention to the different emphases of law and morality. Finally, moral guilt may remain forever in doubt once all the facts are in. Moral reflection allows for the judgment that a person is and yet is not guilty; this depends on one's perspective, which is not precisely defined by any authoritative pronouncement. Thus, there is no need for moral reflection ever to come to rest.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawGuilt - Introduction, The Verdict Of Guilt, Factual Legal Guilt, Moral And Legal Guilt, The Sense Of Guilt