There seems to be quite a strong connection between law and morality. Although people sometimes say "you shouldn't legislate morality", they presumably don't really mean this - why would we outlaw rape and murder if they weren't wrong? Instead, I suppose they mean that people shouldn't impose their personal moral views (especially regarding sexuality) upon others. I would agree with that sentiment, though my reason is precisely because I think legislation should be morally informed, and the "moral views" in question are entirely misled.
As a quick aside: it is unfortunate that the word "morality" has become associated with conservative values, because the obvious invalidity of those values to many people tarnishes their attitude towards morality as a whole. And that is a damn shame. When conservative groups advocate bigotry masquerading as "family values", we need to recognise the injustice of this, and instead stand up for what is right. But I digress - this isn't intended as a post about how liberals need to reclaim the moral high ground.
So we accept that there is a connection between law and morality, but what sort of connection is it? Their domains are clearly not entirely identical - for example, it may be wrong to lie to your parents, but it certainly is no business of the law. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to acknowledge that the law is an extremely blunt tool, and so will be of no help when dealing with minor or subtle moral issues.
But even if some morality is outside the scope of Law, could Law's domain be a subset of the Moral? That is, should we only ever outlaw immoral acts, and never morally permissible ones?
I would like to say 'yes', as it does seem like a good principle. But I can't, because it contradicts my position on some other issues. That is, I think morality is purely 'other-regarding' in nature, and merely harming yourself (e.g. smoking in private) is not immoral. On the other hand, I previously suggested that state paternalism could be acceptable even in cases where Mill's harm principle would forbid it.
So I'm stuck with the following inconsistent triad:
1) X should be illegal only if X is immoral (and sometimes not even then)
2) Purely self-harming actions are not immoral
3) Sometimes, purely self-harming actions should be illegal
Those claims cannot all be true. Each strikes me as plausible, though I am not certain of any of them. I'm sympathetic towards utilitarianism as a moral theory, which implies the falsity of (2). But I also think of morality as a purely social phenomenon, so (2) should be true. So that's another conflict I'll need to sort out someday. For now though, I'm most inclined to doubt (1).
To approach this topic from a slightly different angle now, I owe to Alonzo Fyfe the intriguing suggestion that we understand law and morality in terms of belief-desire psychological theory. That theory claims that any human action can be explained solely in terms of the beliefs and desires of the agent. For example, if I turn on a heater, this may be because I desire to be warm, and I believe that turning on the heater will achieve this end. To apply this to our current topic, consider how society can influence the actions of its members. According to belief-desire psychology, there are two broad options: change someone's beliefs, or change their desires.
Morality, by this understanding, corresponds to the latter option. That is, morality is a system of socialisation whereby society instills in its members the desire to act in certain ways. (I discuss some of the implications of this view in more detail here.)
The other method of influence is to alter people's beliefs about how best to fulfill their desires. This is where Law comes in. Its role (according to this interpretation) is to serve as a deterrent for those who, for whatever reason, fail to be bound by morality. It achieves this through the threat of punishment, i.e. by instilling in citizens the belief that breaking the law is not in their own best interests - they could get caught and sent to jail, which would surely thwart many of their other desires.
So by this view, law and morality are just two sides of the same coin - namely, that of socialisation. Morality seeks to influence our behaviour by way of our desires, whereas law is the 'back-up' option, and targets our beliefs.
Do you think that sounds plausible? Comments welcome, as always.