Difference between legal and moral norms

Both legal norms and moral norms are guidelines that serve to order life in society, establishing criteria by which people are guided for the development of social life and to regulate people’s behavior for the common good.

There are important differences between legal norms and moral norms and they are determined by their origin and the function they fulfill, in addition to the character and control that both have over people.

In this article we will point out the definitions of legal norms and moral norms to later present the differences that exist between the two.

Legal Norms

Legal norms can be defined as the set of precepts and rules imposed on people who live in a given society, to regulate their actions and behaviors. Compliance with them is mandatory and usually entails legal and/or criminal sanctions.

The legal norms constitute the principle of law, which is the system by which human actions are ordered, so that they adjust to the demands, needs and interests of society. The legal norms are bilateral, since two or more people intervene, the people who design and regulate them and society.

Additionally, the legal norms are external, because they obey the regulation of the external activities of people, that is, the externalization of their actions. Legal norms are also heteronomous because people must abide by them even when they do not agree with them. Finally, legal norms are enforceable because their compliance is mandatory and the state has the right to enforce them through the application of force.

Moral standards

Moral norms can be defined as the set of criteria and guidelines by which each person is governed and which are derived from their value system. Moral norms are imperative but not mandatory, since each person complies with them to order her life and govern her actions.

It is then a set of rules of a subjective nature but that are socially accepted insofar as they obey a system of values ​​shared by the members of a given society to a greater or lesser extent.

Likewise, we have that moral norms are unilateral, since they arise from the person in his individual character, that is, no person is empowered to enforce them. In the same way, they are internal because they derive from the person in attention to their beliefs and values. In addition, these are autonomous because each individual creates and regulates their own conduct and they are incoercible because no individual can use force to guarantee compliance with them.

In view of the above, the following differences between legal norms and moral norms are presented in the table below:

Legal Norms Moral standards
They are bilateral, since two or more people are involved. They are unilateral, because only the person who executes them intervenes.
They are external, in that they regulate the external behaviors or actions of the person. They are internal, in that they regulate the conduct of the person from the internal point of view.
They are heteronomous, this is because they are created by law and all people must abide by them even when they disagree with them. They are autonomous because they are created by each person from their value system and they comply with them because they identify with them.
They are coercive because the law requires compliance through force, that is, through sanctions. They are not coercive, since no one is empowered to punish those who do not comply with their moral standards.

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