The difference between Legal and Moral
L

ast week, I got to see ‘Three Sisters’ – a new play by Inua Ellams – and leaving the theatre, I realised that much like the characters in the play, a lot of the things we say and do are influenced by two principles – legality, and morality. While legality is mostly concerned with how compatible our actions are with the laws of the land, morality is largely concerned with how compatible our actions are with our personal or collective definitions of right and wrong. In an ideal world, laws should be grounded in morality, but as history can confirm, ours is a world that is far from ideal. As such, in many cases, things that we consider to be morally right may not be legal, and things that are legal may not be morally right.

Looking back into history, slavery was legal until it was abolished. The same can be said of the racial segregations that occurred in South Africa and the United States among other countries. While many of us today would agree that these episodes of world history are not the best examples of human morality, the fact remains that they were all legal at the time, and anyone who dared to speak or act in protest against them risked being dealt with the wrath of the state – backed of course by the courts of law.

In an ideal world, laws should be grounded in morality, but as history can confirm, ours is a world that is far from ideal.

Between the years 1955 and 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested about 30 times. Most of these arrests were made for minor infractions, and in 1963, as in a number of other cases, he was actually arrested for taking part in an organised protest against the racially motivated treatment of black Americans in Birmingham, Alabama. In this case, segregation was legal but to many, King included, it was immoral. Considering the fact that a court had ordered King not to protest in Birmingham, his protest was, by definition, illegal. Looking back though, especially considering how things panned out eventually, many of us today have no reservations regarding the morality of his actions. Now, over half a century later, King is widely considered a hero even though he was once considered a criminal and a trouble maker. He even has a nationally recognised holiday in honour of his achievements and what he stood for.

While legality is mostly concerned with how compatible our actions are with the laws of the land, morality is largely concerned with how compatible our actions are with our personal or collective definitions of right and wrong.

Much like King, Muhammad Ali was arrested for refusing to fight for the United States in the Vietnam war. Fighting and killing in the name of patriotism was and still is totally legal and constitutional but Ali begged to differ as he did not see the morality in this. His refusal, though grounded in his moral convictions, was considered an affront to the nation, and led to his arrest and eventual conviction. Speaking in defence of his stance, Ali is quoted to have said:

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,”Muhammad Ali

Speaking further, and questioning the justification of the war, he asked:

“Shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. […] Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”Muhammad Ali

For Ali though, conviction was not the end – far from it, he was stripped of his world titles and with his license to box suspended he was effectively banned from the sport of boxing for an indefinite period that turned out to be three years approximately. Today, the same Ali who was convicted by the criminal justice system of the United States, and considered unpatriotic by a large majority of the population, is considered a great American hero and is celebrated for the same act of defiance that got him convicted. 

Today, the same Ali who was convicted by the criminal justice system of the United States, and considered unpatriotic by a large majority of the population, is considered a great American hero and is celebrated for the same act of defiance that got him convicted.

Nelson Mandela was no different. During his unapologetic stance against the system of Apartheid, Mandela was arrested on a number of occasions before he was successfully convicted in 1964 for conspiring to overthrow the government. Mandela was branded a terrorist by a number of western governments – most notably the United Kingdom’s conservative government, led by none other than Margaret Thatcher. There was even a UK based campaign led by the Federation of Conservative Students to “Hang Nelson Mandela”. All because he dared to take a stand against a system of government that oppressed millions of indigenous South Africans.

Prior to his conviction, Mandela, speaking to the court said:

“[…] During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”Nelson Mandela

Such were Mandela’s convictions. Although the system of apartheid was legal, for Mandela, it was highly immoral. His moral convictions, however, were not enough to keep him out of jail. Now dubbed South Africa’s greatest son, Mandela is considered a hero – not because he was the first [black] president of the Republic of South Africa but because he fought tirelessly against the status quo of racial oppression – the same fight that cost him 27 years of his adult life in jail time. 

Long before King, Ali, and Mandela, there was Tubman. Even though the institution of chattel slavery was completely legal, Harriet Tubman decided to free herself and others from bondage – a morally sound decision by all standards. The fact, however, that she is now considered a symbol of courage and freedom should not let us forget that following her escape, she was considered a fugitive and was wanted dead or alive – not because she committed murder, but because she dared to free herself and others from slavery. Today, she is immortalised in poetry, prose, and motion pictures. At some point, in the 2010’s, the Treasury Department of the United States wanted her portrait to replace that of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Simply put, she has gone from having a bounty on her head to potentially having her portrait grace the $20 bill – isn’t it simply amazing what difference time can make?

Now dubbed South Africa’s greatest son, Mandela is considered a hero – not because he was the first [black] president of the Republic of South Africa but because he fought tirelessly against the status quo of racial oppression – the same fight that cost him 27 years of his adult life in jail time.

I cannot put enough emphasis on how important it is to be law abiding, but I often wonder if it is right for us to be subservient to the law, and if yes, at what point is it justifiable to break free from the chains of such servitude? We live in a world where laws can be driven by profits, privilege, power, and even personal agendas. Putting this into consideration, is it okay to live by a law that contradicts your conscience and/or moral inclinations? Or do we have an obligation to oppose laws, systems, and practices that favour the few at the expense of the many? If Dr King and the rest of the civil rights activists did not oppose the system of segregation that existed at the time, would there have been a civil rights victory? If Mandela and the rest of the anti-apartheid activists did not take a stand against the status quo, would South Africa have had a chance at a rebirth? Like Tariq Ali said in reference to the activists of the civil rights movement, “It was civil disobedience that won them their civil rights”. Does that mean that it’s okay to be civilly disobedient in certain contexts? Or does that only count if history absolves you in the end?

“It was civil disobedience that won them their civil rights” Tariq Ali

Three Sisters reminds us of the Nigerian Civil War. At the time, the decision of the Biafrans to fight against the pogrom that had claimed tens of thousands of Igbo (and other South Eastern) lives, was widely resented and misconstrued as a fight for Igbo supremacy. Many suggested that theirs was not the right way to protest – especially because secession was considered illegal. So I ask, was King’s protest done the right way? Was Ali’s refusal to take part in the Vietnam war the right way to protest the war? Was Mandela’s way the right way? Was Tubman’s escape the right way to protest against slavery? I’m asking because at the time when these things happened, they were unpopular and not considered right. Kwame Ture – better known in the west as Stokely Charmichael – was known to have said that “There is a higher law than the law of government. That’s the law of conscience.” So, when people take a moral stand against the status quo, are they really in the wrong? Is there a chance that sometime in the future, the actions of Baifran freedom fighters will be justified? Without equating their struggling to those of King, Ali, Mandela, and Tubman, I have to ask, what will the people who fought and died for a free Biafra be considered tomorrow? Heroes? Villains? Only time will tell.

“There is a higher law than the law of government. That’s the law of conscience.”Kwame Ture