The relation between morality and law is (or ought to be) complex and subtle: the two are neither identical nor entirely separate. Once upon a time everyone seemed to understand this, as if by instinct; but the instinct, if it ever existed, has been lost. When someone says, by way of excuse for his bad behavior, that “There’s no law against it,” he implies that what is not legally forbidden is permissible in every other sense.
No one, incidentally, ever explained his good behavior by reference to this legal/illegal boundary. The misunderstanding is a motivated one.
A misunderstanding of the morality of punishment and its justification in law will not always be grounded in self-interest, however. We can see this from a brief column recently published in the Guardian by the philosopher Nigel Warburton. Warburton considered the case of a man called John Paul Burrows, a multimillionaire who worked in the City of London as the director of a very large investment company.
My wife tells me that I have bees in my bonnet, generally in serial fashion rather than all at once, and the one at the moment is the attack on the rule of law known as parole.
The President of France, M. François Hollande, has spoken repeatedly of ‘punishing’ Syria. It is not easy to know precisely what he means by this, since he has also stated that the object of such punishment would not be to overthrow a regime whose one object appears to be to remain in power at all costs, among other reasons in order to avoid just punishment (for its extreme brutality is certainly of no recent date). This regime seems also to have no qualms about inflicting death upon the citizenry under its jurisdiction, so a little collateral damage consequent upon symbolic bombing will hardly cause it to change heart. It is difficult, indeed, to see what purpose M. Hollande’s punishment could possibly serve, other than the relief of the virtuous feelings of M. Hollande himself.