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Law versus Morality as Regulators of Conduct


  • Steven Shavell


It is evident that both law and morality serve to channel our behavior. Law accomplishes this primarily through the threat of sanctions if we disobey legal rules. Morality too involves incentives: bad acts may result in guilt and disapprobation, and good acts may result in virtuous feelings and praise. These two very different avenues of effect on our actions are examined in this article from an instrumental perspective. The analysis focuses on various social costs associated with law and morality, and on their effectiveness, as determined by the magnitude and likelihood of sanctions and by certain informational factors. After the relative character of law and of morality as means of control of conduct is assessed, consideration is given to their theoretically optimal domains--to where morality alone would appear to be best to control behavior, to where morality and the law would likely be advantageous to employ jointly, and to where solely the law would seem desirable to utilize. The observed pattern of use of morality and of law is discussed, and it is tentatively suggested that the observed and the optimal patterns are in rough alignment with one another. Copyright 2002, Oxford University Press.

Suggested Citation

  • Steven Shavell, 2002. "Law versus Morality as Regulators of Conduct," American Law and Economics Review, Oxford University Press, vol. 4(2), pages 227-257.
  • Handle: RePEc:oup:amlawe:v:4:y:2002:i:2:p:227-257

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Gary S. Becker, 1974. "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," NBER Chapters,in: Essays in the Economics of Crime and Punishment, pages 1-54 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Becker, Gary S & Grossman, Michael & Murphy, Kevin M, 1994. "An Empirical Analysis of Cigarette Addiction," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(3), pages 396-418, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Polinsky, A. Mitchell & Shavell, Steven, 2007. "The Theory of Public Enforcement of Law," Handbook of Law and Economics, Elsevier.
    2. Anastassios Karayiannis & Aristides Hatzis, 2012. "Morality, social norms and the rule of law as transaction cost-saving devices: the case of ancient Athens," European Journal of Law and Economics, Springer, vol. 33(3), pages 621-643, June.
    3. Friesen, Lana & Gangadharan, Lata, 2013. "Designing self-reporting regimes to encourage truth telling: An experimental study," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 94(C), pages 90-102.
    4. Benito Arrunada, "undated". "Catholic Confessions of Sin as Third Party Moral Enforcement," Gruter Institute Working Papers on Law, Economics, and Evolutionary Biology 3-1-1013, Berkeley Electronic Press.
    5. Roland Benabou & Jean Tirole, 2010. "Individual and Corporate Social Responsibility," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 77(305), pages 1-19, January.
    6. Kangoh Lee, 2017. "Norms and monetary fines as deterrents, and distributive effects," Journal of Economics, Springer, vol. 121(1), pages 1-27, May.
    7. Hongbin Li & Mark Rosenzweig & Junsen Zhang, 2010. "Altruism, Favoritism, and Guilt in the Allocation of Family Resources: Sophie's Choice in Mao's Mass Send-Down Movement," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 118(1), pages 1-38, February.
    8. A. Mitchell Polinsky & Steven Shavell, 2009. "Public Enforcement of Law," Chapters,in: Criminal Law and Economics, chapter 1 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    9. repec:kap:jbuset:v:147:y:2018:i:3:d:10.1007_s10551-015-2978-5 is not listed on IDEAS
    10. Dorothee Schmidt, 2005. "Morality and Conflicts," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2005_12, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.
    11. Benito Arruñada, 2010. "Protestants and Catholics: Similar Work Ethic, Different Social Ethic," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 120(547), pages 890-918, September.
    12. Fali Huang & Peter Cappelli, 2006. "Employee Screening: Theory and Evidence," NBER Working Papers 12071, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    13. Sue H. Mialon, 2014. "Declining Moral Standards and the Role of Law," Emory Economics 1410, Department of Economics, Emory University (Atlanta).
    14. Bruno Deffains & Claude Fluet, 2015. "Social Norms and Legal Design," CIRANO Working Papers 2015s-44, CIRANO.
    15. Benito Arruñada, 2003. "Specialization and rent-seeking in moral enforcement: The case of confession," Economics Working Papers 653, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, revised Jul 2009.
    16. Tsuneki Atsushi & Zasu Yoshinobu, 2015. "On the Complementarity between Law and Social Norms," Review of Law & Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 11(3), pages 503-512, November.
    17. Huang Fali, 2004. "Social Trust and Economic Governance," Working Papers 14-2004, Singapore Management University, School of Economics.
    18. repec:eee:ireced:v:25:y:2017:i:c:p:35-40 is not listed on IDEAS
    19. Xiao, Erte & Houser, Daniel, 2009. "Avoiding the sharp tongue: Anticipated written messages promote fair economic exchange," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 30(3), pages 393-404, June.
    20. Daud Vicary Abdullah & Hossein Askari & Abbas Mirakhor, 2015. "The moral foundation of collective action against economic crimes," PSL Quarterly Review, Economia civile, vol. 68(272), pages 9-39.
    21. Bhole, Bharat & Wagner, Jeffrey, 2008. "The joint use of regulation and strict liability with multidimensional care and uncertain conviction," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 28(2), pages 123-132, June.
    22. repec:kap:regeco:v:52:y:2017:i:2:d:10.1007_s11149-017-9329-7 is not listed on IDEAS
    23. Steven Shavell, 2012. "When Is Compliance with the Law Socially Desirable?," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 41(1), pages 1-36.
    24. Bruno Deffains & Claude Fluet, 2013. "The Role of Social Image Concerns in the Design of Legal Regimes," Cahiers de recherche 1321, CIRPEE.
    25. Florian Baumann & Tim Friehe, 2014. "Regulating harmless activity to fight crime," Journal of Economics, Springer, vol. 113(1), pages 79-95, September.

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