With regard to the letter and spirit of the law, there may be four kinds of actions: those that obey both the letter and spirit of the law, those that obey the letter but not the spirit of the law, those that obey the spirit but not the letter of the law, and those that obey neither the letter nor the spirit of the law.
In cases where there is an apparent conflict between the letter and spirit of the law, we may have to determine whether obedience to the letter of the law is more important than obedience to the sprit of the law, or vice versa. We may have to determine whether we can obey the spirit, without strictly obeying the letter, of the law, unless we adopt a legalistic interpretation of our moral duty. If we decide to be legalistic in our interpretation of our duty, then obedience to the letter of the law may be more important than obedience to the spirit of the law, whenever obedience to both cannot simultaneously be achieved.
Since the spirit of the law may be a subject of debate, we may need to employ a variety of interpretive resources in order to precisely determine its nature. Legal hermeneutics may require social, cultural, linguistic, and historical investigation of legal texts. Since some texts may be imprecise, ambiguous, or unclear, they may require interpretation by judges, jurists, or legal scholars. Our interpretation of the spirit of the law may depend on what we perceive as the law’s intended purposes and effects, as well as on our own notions of what justice, equity, and fairness require.
Relativism about the law’s letter and spirit may assert that they are merely a matter of interpretation, and that the law is therefore merely a coercive instrument used by those in power to reinforce their position of social, economic, and political advantage over others.
Legalism with regard to moral duty may be described as the theory that moral duty is a matter of obedience to the law, and that actions are right or wrong insofar as they obey or do not obey the law. It may also be described as the theory that it is always our duty to obey the law, whatever the consequences of that law may be. It may also be described as the theory that our moral duty extends only as far as the law extends.
According to one possible legalistic interpretation of our moral duty, as long as we obey the law, we cannot be said to have violated our moral duty. We do not have a duty to perform actions that are not legally required; we only have a duty to perform those actions that are legally required, and a duty not to perform those actions that are illegal. We do not have a duty to provide support to those who are helpless or to care for those who are suffering, unless we are legally required to do so. We do not have a duty to offer aid to the unfortunate or to provide shelter for the homeless, unless we are legally required to do so. We do not have a duty to end armed conflict abroad or to relieve world hunger and poverty, unless we are legally required to do so.
Weaknesses of legalism as a theory of moral duty include the following:
(1) It may delimit our moral duty to such an extent that we may not be inclined to perform those actions that are not legally required. We may not be inclined to perform generous or unselfish actions if we do not think they are morally obligatory. There may be no laws requiring us to be good Samaritans, and so we may feel we have no duty to extend help to our neighbors when they are in need.
(2) It may encourage a literalistic interpretation of the law, even when that interpretation is not suitable for present circumstances and does not fulfill the needs of contemporary society. Thus, it may not allow for a situational ethics or a moral pragmatism. It may assert that it is always our moral duty to obey the law, no matter how unfair, inequitable, or unjust that law may be.
(3) It may not recognize that we do not necessarily have a duty to obey unjust laws; we may indeed have a duty to disobey them. Thus, it may not recognize that civil disobedience may in some cases be justified as a means of seeking social justice.
(4) It may encourage harsh or merciless punishment of those who disobey the law, even when such punishment is unnecessary and serves no useful social purpose.
(5) It may encourage the attitude that “the law is the law, regardless of whether it makes sense.” Although there may be some laws that are outdated or that have unexpected loopholes or that have unanticipated consequences, it may not recognize that such laws should be changed and that reform of the legal system is in some cases necessary.
(6) It may encourage the excessive use of the legal system and adversarial litigation as a means of resolving disputes, rather than promoting the use of less costly, less time-consuming, and less contentious methods of conflict resolution.
(7) It may attempt to justify acts of legal chicanery or gamesmanship and other morally dubious but legal transactions, on the grounds that even if such actions are morally questionable, they are legal and cannot therefore be criticized for not having fulfilled the principles of moral duty. Thus, for example, legalism may be used as a justification for cheating a person out of her money or property, if such an act cannot be legally prosecuted.