As gregarious beings that we are, human beings live in a society that must be organized so that the different individuals that are part of it can coexist in peace.
For it different social norms have been constructed in the form of laws, which aim to provide us with a framework for action with which to allow more or less effective social functioning. Generally laws aim to maintain the existence of a just and equal society.
However, on many occasions we see that the laws are not applied in the same way for everyone or they directly ignore the basic rights of citizens. In this way, we can perceive that what is legal sometimes ignores what is just. For this reason, we can sometimes ask ourselves: Are laws always legitimate? Is the opposite possible? What is legal and what is legitimate? In order to solve this doubt, in this article you can find the 8 differences between what is legal and what is legitimate.
- Related article: “Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development”
We understand as legal that which is endorsed and permitted by law. This implies that legal behavior will be permitted and will not be sanctioned. What is legal is defined by the Administration, the legislative apparatus of the State or country, and can vary enormously. Legality grants us freedoms and rights, as well as obligations and limits.
In general the legal tries to guarantee healthy coexistence and is intended to be based on morality and precedents, although this is not definitive. For something to be legal, it is enough for the legislative power to decide to allow it regardless of its purpose, since it is a solely legal concept.
Behaviors and situations that do not comply will be considered illegal and therefore sanctioned. For something to be considered illegal, it must be directly prohibited by law or constitute a violation of current legislation. However, it must be taken into account that although non-compliance with the law may be due to factors that may seem morally fair or due to aspects such as ignorance or uncontrollable elements, this does not affect the fact that it is considered non-legal.
However, there are behaviors and situations that are not contemplated by the law, being in a situation in which they are neither prohibited nor break any existing law. This is what happens with the so-called “legal holes”, situations that are not covered by the law and are therefore illegal. In these cases, freedom of action is allowed unless harm is caused to other people or to society as a whole.
What does it mean for something to be legitimate?
The other concept to analyze is that of legitimacy. Although one of the meanings of the word implies that the legitimate act is one that is in accordance with the law, legitimacy requires an aspect that is not limited to mere legality.
And the term legitimate refers to the idea that there is justice and reason in carrying out said act. It is not just about something being approved by the Administration, but the law or legitimate norm allows each subject to be provided with what corresponds to them. In other words, what is legitimate requires that what is considered as such be moral and ethical, being a legal and moral concept at the same time.
Legitimacy does not come from any legislative institution, but rather the acceptance and consensus by the community of said action. Legitimacy confers authority and allows the act, rule or situation that is considered as such to be respected. Otherwise, it implies the existence of wear and tear and a situation in which society will tend to rebel, producing reactance and in many cases causing the proposal of new laws that change the legal situation.
- Related article: “What is morality? Discovering the development of ethics in childhood”
The differences between what is legal and what is legitimate
Looking at both concepts, some clear differences can be observed. We briefly highlight them below.
1. Ethics in both concepts
We can find big differences between legitimate and legal. One of them is the implication of ethics and morality in each of the concepts.
Although what is legal tends to be done thinking about achieving a healthy and fair coexistence, laws can be enacted based on personal interests or with purposes contrary to the well-being of part of the population regardless of how they are perceived, as long as the person in power decides so. The legitimate, although in general it comes from the legal, It will be essentially linked to morality and ethicsto how the element in question that is being judged is perceived.
2. Level of objectivity/subjectivity.
This point is linked to the vast majority of the other aspects mentioned. We must keep in mind that the law establishes a framework for all citizens regardless of their opinions on the matter. However, Each person has their own idiosyncrasies and their own ideas. of what is or is not valid.
Therefore, what for me is legitimate for another person may be an aberration. Whether something is legitimate or not will therefore depend on the subjectivity of the person observing it, although generally when talking about legitimacy we usually talk about the level at which something is considered by the entire population.
3. The law comes from the legislative apparatus, the legitimacy of the assessment of the person
One of the main differences between legal and legitimate can be found in its origin. While the legal It only assumes that an institutional commitment has been reached which applies to the population regardless of, that something being legitimate implies that it will be considered fair by the majority.
Another difference that we can find between what is legal and what is legitimate is the degree to which something is considered as such can vary or at what speed it does so.
The different existing laws are created, promulgated, modified and even suppressed constantly, according to the ruling ideology and the prevailing sociocultural and historical situations. Thus, what is legal, illegal or unlegal is clearly modifiable, despite the fact that it involves a procedure that may take a more or less prolonged period of time.
Legitimacy, however, since it depends on the moral assessment of society, is difficult to change. Although it is possible to change the mentality of the community regarding specific issues and their moral consideration, such changes involve a slow process of conversion of attitudes towards specific aspects.
5. Relativity of facts
What is legal and what is legitimate can also differ in how specific facts are observed. Although the law takes into account that there are mitigating or aggravating circumstances, if a specific action is classified as a crime it will be considered illegal. However, even though the action may be illegal, it can be considered legitimate if there is a logical reason for its commission.
6. Reactance generation
If the laws are legitimate for society as a whole, as a general rule they will be well accepted and followed. However, if a law or the way it is applied is perceived as contrary to or restricts personal freedom, it will be seen as illegitimate. This can cause many people to present reactions of frustration, rage and anger. that lead them to contravene the norm.
This is an aspect in which legal and legitimate also differ: if what is legal is considered unfair it will tend to generate reactance while what is legitimate usually does not or at least not to the same extent, given that it is considered fair.
7. Application context
Another aspect to take into account that differentiates what is legal from what is legitimate is the context in which it is applied. Each territory and each country has different laws depending on the sociocultural circumstances and the type of thinking behind the power in command, and even how that power has been achieved or maintained. Thus, what is legal in one country may be illegal in another.
However, legitimacy has a more expanded context of application. A fact may be illegal in one place but legal in others, but whether it is legitimate or not can be assessed from anywhere in the world.
8. What is legitimate may not be legal, and vice versa
Although laws are usually created with the intention of being legitimate, and in fact the fact of being laws invests them with a certain level of legitimacy, their application and even the purpose for which some are created may not be.
For example, in Nazi Germany it was considered a crime to hide or even not report a Jewish neighbor. According to the legality of the country, the legal thing would be to contribute to handing over said people. However, a large number of people saved their lives thanks to the fact that many citizens opposed it, as did, for example, the so-called “Angel of the Warsaw Ghetto”, Irena Sendler. This is a clear example of how what is legitimate can be illegal, as well as how what is legal can be illegitimate.