We live in a society where questions of legality abound and questions of morality are all but ignored. When deciding a course of action, we have little hesitation about asking “Is it legal?” but typically fail to ask “Is it right?” A recent example comes from the leaked DOJ memo containing legal rationale for the killing of American citizens who have joined Al-Qaida or an ill-defined “associated force.” The memo outlines why, in the opinion of the DOJ and current administration, such activities are considered legal. Following its release and subsequent public outcry, Sen Lindsey Graham (at the opposite end of the political spectrum) supported the President’s position and issued a statement saying, “The process of being targeted I think is legal.”
One of the many issues in this scenario is the question of legality vs. morality. Lawmakers (like Obama [as Senator] and Graham) make laws. Lawyers (like Obama and Graham) practice law. In theory, I’m certain that most lawyers, judges, and lawmakers genuinely desire moral laws…but there is absolutely zero guarantee that what is legal according to the law is also moral (exhibit A: slavery).
Where are those asking whether such things as targeting killings (of American citizens or others) are morally right? Reading the outcomes of our judicial system, it seems that just about anything can be argued to be legal, but where are the discussions of morality? They are, in large part, nonexistent.
This is true not only in politics. As a military chaplain, one of my mandated charges is to serve as a moral and ethical adviser to the chain of command. While I have been consulted on personal ethical matters time and time again by commanders and individual airmen, I have never once been consulted on matters of morality regarding command decisions. The JAG, of course, is consulted routinely to ensure whatever course of action is legally defensible. It seems commanders can be easily removed for taking actions that are illegal, but as long as they are legal there seems to be little concern for whether or not they are ethical.
Simply because something is legal does not mean it is right. We must to be concerned with both.