Morality And Civility In The American Justice System Through Sophocles's 'Antigone'
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Politics and Activism

Morality And Civility In The American Justice System Through Sophocles's 'Antigone'

How the classic story of a grecian heroin shows that a closer look must be taken at the American justice system.

Morality And Civility In The American Justice System Through Sophocles's 'Antigone'
Gustavas Adolphus College

Ever since there has been law in the world, there has irrefutably been a constant battle between moral and civil (man-made) law. Consequently, problems arise when both kinds of law differ. Moral law does not always align with the views of civil law and vice versa. In the United States, this was unveiled in the Supreme Court Case of Roe v. Wade. The case ruled a state statute (the civil law in this case) unconstitutional because it denied women the right to an abortion. While other civil rules were found in order to support the decision, morals were the overall strongest backing to the case. This, in turn, made Roe v. Wade one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions of the 1970s and the case is still widely debated today. The battle of morality and civility is also omnipresent in Sophocles’s Antigone. There are instances in which moral law must override civil law, civil law must override moral law, and the two types of law must correlate with one another. However, the events in Antigone show that more often than not, one must consider morality over civil righteousness when pursuing justice.

The battle of moral and civil law is clearly shown when Antigone is faced with the burial of her brother Polyneices. Creon, the king who ruled over Corinth, refused to bury Polyneices because he [Polyneices] betrayed Creon and the land of Corinth. Antigone found that the absence of a burial for her brother was far more troubling than the penalty of death bequeathed upon her [Antigone] by Creon if she were to go against his wishes (i.e. bury Polyneices). Antigone’s conscious and morality was strong enough to overpower any of her inhibitions or fear of death by Creon. When Antigone disclosed her plan with her sister Ismene, she states, “[M]yself will bury him. How sweet to die in such employ, to rest,--Sister and brother linked in love's embrace--A sinless sinner, banned a while on earth, But by the dead commended; and with them I shall abide for ever. As for thee, Scorn, if thou wilt, the eternal laws of Heaven.” (Antigone, Sophocles) Here Antigone elevates religious law over the law of the state. These instances in particular, show that “God’s Law” or in Antigone’s case, the “Law of the Gods”, is far more important in some people’s consciousness than civil duty. Antigone had a civil duty to obey her king. Nonetheless, she pursued actions based upon her own moral beliefs. This in-of-itself is a powerful illustration of moral law trumping civil law.

However, the battle of moral and civil law does not settle in ancient times. In addition to the case of Roe v. Wade, the United States has statues that are morally erroneous. Currently, in the US, thirty-one out of fifty states still use the death penalty as corporal punishment. The death penalty is used as punishment for treason, terrorism, espionage, federal murder, large scale drug trafficking, and attempted murder to hide evidence in certain court cases. While the traditional view of justice dates back to times of “an eye for an eye,” the modern judicial system is, for the most part, about deterrence, restraining crime, and rehabilitation. Whilst all of the crimes listed previously are morally wrong and may or may not have resulted in the death of others, all citizens of the US deserve the rehabilitory aspect of the judiciary system, even if that rehabilitation requires a lifetime behind bars. The death penalty completely denies the defendant of any rehabilitory opportunities. This is why many states are looking at the morality of the death penalty and whether or not to continue its use. Like Antigone’s internal battle between her own death and the honor of her brother, morals should be further contemplated with the formation of laws rather than the law’s civil execution.

Whilst the law is not solely driven by morals, (i.e. it is not morally wrong to drive on the wrong side of the road, but it is legally wrong to do so) they [morals] have been increasingly analyzed when creating and enforcing modern law. Take for instance the introduction of the legality of gay marriage. Some religions have the belief that gay marriage is morally wrong. Adversely, many US citizens push human equality and civil rights for all. It was also shown that several other countries had legalized gay marriage before the US chose to do so. The Supreme Court had to take into consideration the morality of the legalization of gay marriage when creating the statute. This decision took place in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges whereas the court decided that a state-level ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and thus making same-sex marriage legal nationwide in June of 2015. The Supreme Court not only took into consideration the legality of the marriages and the previous statutes in place at the state level, but the morality of banning certain marriages as well.

Sophocles’s work may have unknowingly set the stage for the debate between moral and civil law. Antigone can be perceived as a revolutionary who contravened a civil law that she deemed immoral. Antigone found that her morality and what she believed was correct was far more important than her civic duty to follow Creon’s decree. By burying Polyneices, Antigone is not unlike those women who protested against the anti-abortion laws. By burying Polyneices, Antigone is not unlike the Supreme Court justices who made same-sex marriage legal. Antigone’s actions set a precedent that if a law is deemed as immoral or unjust, an individual has the right, the duty even, to strive for justice and morality. Antigone shows readers that morality and civility must coincide when creating just laws and more often than not, morality must set a precedent in deciding the validity and correctness of laws.

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