French law – The notion of rule of law

A. Law and justice

Definition of justice: The act of recognizing someone’s right, of granting him or her what is just.

Justice is therefore not law.

Thus, certain rights can sometimes prove to be unjust: for example, prescription rights, which prefer to guarantee stability rather than seek justice.

B. Law and equity

Definition of equity: 1. a disposition of the mind to give to each person what is due to him. 2. A way of resolving disputes that consists in impartially recognizing the right of each person, without making distinctions between individuals and without obeying any principles other than those of distributive justice.

Equity in this second sense is free from the rules of law.

C. Law and morality

Definition of morality: All the rules, the principles according to which one directs one’s life, one’s conduct, one’s morals, considered in relation to good and evil.

Morality aims at the perfection of man. Morality is at the origin of many laws.

However, the law is different from morality. Law is indeed neutral, even if it can be based on values: it does not discern between good and evil. In this respect, three major differences between law and morality can be noted:

—The source of law is not the same as the source of morality. Morality comes from one’s own conscience, whereas the law is set by an independent authority, a legislative authority.

—The goal of the law is not the same as the goal of morality. Morality aims at an ideal, it aims at raising man. The law remains neutral, and aims only at order. The law can even lead to preferring the immoral to ensure order. For example, the acquisitive prescription (after so many years, such object belongs definitively to the person who has it, even if he had stolen it).

—The sanctions of the law are not the same as the sanctions of morality. The sanctions of morality are only internal: each man feels responsible for himself. The sanctions of law are imposed externally, by another authority, and are binding: they are imposed.

Morality therefore lays down principles, such as charity or honesty, whereas law lays down rules with sanctions.

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