If the law commands me to sin, I will break it. - Angelina Grimke
Though the words “morals” and “mores” come from the same Latin root (mos, meaning “custom”), they do not mean the same thing: “morals” are the same as “ethics”, in other words principles of right and wrong; “mores”, on the other hand, are simply customs which are universally accepted in a culture. Leaving a restaurant without paying is a violation of morals, but leaving without tipping is a violation of mores: theft is always wrong, but not every culture practices tipping and restaurants don’t post signs announcing that doing so is a condition of service. The distinction is not always as clear-cut as one might like; religions which pretend that their rules were directly dictated by a deity intentionally confuse the two by pretending that private, personal actions are an offense against that deity, and modern secular societies do the same by speaking of offenses against nebulosities such as “the law”, “the state”, “decency” or “the public order”. In most cases, however, it’s pretty easy for a reasonable person to tell the difference, despite the obfuscatory efforts of “authorities” and moralists (a word which might be defined as “those who demand that mores be treated as though they were morals”).
Morals are precepts which govern forceful interactions between people. Every individual owns himself, his actions and the products of his labor unless he has freely consented to some agreement which assigns rights over one or all of those to someone else in exchange for some compensation. For example, a person may agree to allow someone else to control his actions and own his produce in exchange for a wage or salary. If such an agreement is made due to force or threat of force applied by the other party or one acting on his behalf, it is invalid and immoral; if, however, the force is applied by a third party with no connection to either it is not. For example, if I choose to give sex to a man in response to his threatening me, it is rape; but my choosing to have sex with him in order to get money to pay a third party is not. Now, it may be that the third party’s demand for money is an immoral one, but that has absolutely no effect on my sale of sex to the man; our interaction is morally equivalent whether I’m using the money for rent, drugs, food, gambling debts, education, taxes, a retirement fund, a blackmail demand or anything else. Similarly, if a thief buys food from a grocery store with stolen money, that transaction is the exact moral equivalent of buying food with money that was rightfully his; the grocery store owner is not morally responsible for the thief’s actions unless he somehow caused them himself.
Actions which exert control (including harm) over others which they neither desire nor require (for example, in response to incapacity or their own immoral actions), are legally described as malum in se (wrong because they are wrong); they do not require a law to be thought of as wrong by moral people, nor can they be made less wrong by law. Laws do not determine the rightness or wrongness of an action; they merely determine a government’s official response to that action. Laws against consensual, private activities do not make such activities wrong; all they do is to declare that the state will use those behaviors as an excuse for its own immoral conduct. Nor does the lack of a law make an activity right; slavery was accepted by most cultures for millennia, but it was still always wrong because it is a flagrant violation of the principle of self-ownership.
Mores, by contrast, govern either wholly private behaviors or public behaviors which do not violate others’ rights. Belching and farting in public don’t hurt anyone, but they’re certainly considered offensive in Western culture (though belching, at least, is not at all rude in some other cultures). Public nudity is another example; it has no direct effect on anyone else and in some cultures is (or at least was) perfectly normal. But in Western culture, it’s a violation of mores, as are a number of harmless private (especially sexual) behaviors which might nevertheless cause significant social embarrassment if they were discovered by others. The majority of laws are made against behaviors which violate mores, yet aren’t actually wrong; many others ban acts which violate neither morals nor mores, but somehow offend the rulers. Behaviors which violate such laws are legally described as malum prohibitum (wrong because they are prohibited). Because such laws are arbitrary they vary widely from place to place, and because they are not based in morality they often conflict with moral actions, either by forbidding actions which are not wrong or by compelling actions which are.
From the very beginning, then, would-be “authorities” faced a problem: how to get sane, reasonable people to obey laws that conflicted with their own judgments. In the days before science and mass communication this was accomplished by a combination of extreme violence and appeal to supernatural beliefs: “Omniscient gods made these laws, and if you disobey them they will punish you, either now or after death; furthermore, your disobedience offends the righteous so if we catch you we won’t wait for the gods to strike you down, but instead will do it ourselves.” Nowadays, it’s a lot harder; supernatural beliefs aren’t as universal as they once were, and the internet makes it possible for people to see exactly how arbitrary their own counties’ laws are. And while early mass communications like printing, radio and television were largely centralized and unidirectional (and therefore subject to control by governments), the internet is both decentralized and omnidirectional (which is why governments and other control freaks yearn to censor it, hobble it or bring it under their control).
The majority of people are no better than their Bronze Age ancestors; they still have faith in a priori arguments which bear no resemblance to the real world, in the superhuman powers of charismatic leaders, in mystical principles which contradict each other and in demonic forces which move about in the Unknown waiting to carry off nubile young virgins. Given that, it’s no real surprise that so many still accept the equation of mores with morals and malum prohibitum with malum in se; the world is full of people who really cannot understand the difference between weed-smoking and assault or between prostitution and rape, and are willing to say so in courtrooms and legislatures. And that’s why it’s so very important that those of us who do understand are very clear on the distinctions and therefore able to offer a cogent answer when someone demonizes cultural differences as “moral relativism”, says “why don’t we just legalize murder, too?” or declares that laws have the power to alter reality or to force others to believe the same things he does.