Saturday, June 03, 2006

Ethics and the Law

Brian has an excellent point in the previous post, pointing out that the USAmerican corporate world general views ethics as minimum standards of behaviour. I think this concept is probably pretty close to the understanding in the general public. We tend to think of ethics as morality or even ethics as law, something that can be governed by a simple set of rules. But even a cursory study of Christian ethics will reveal that ethics and the law are not at all the same. We hope that they're in line most of the time. Murder is generally not ethical and is also against the law. But they are not always the same.

Ethics can force us to do something that is not required of us by the law. That is to say, sometimes the ethical choice requires more of us than a simple legal choice would. Legally, I can buy a Hummer and drive it continuously around the country 24 hours a day for no apparent reason. But ethically, since I know that driving my Hummer is polluting and uses scarse resources, perhaps I should only drive it when I have good reason.

Ethics can also force us to break the law, at times. There are plenty of unjust laws in the history of humanity. Sometimes, breaking these laws is the ethical choice. Breaking a law that enforces genocide is likely to be an ethical choice. But there are also some just laws that can in certain circumstances be ethically broken. Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt ethically obligated to support an attempt to assasinate Hitler, even though porhibitions on murder and conspiracy to commit murder are clearly just laws. Of course, when you make an ethical choice that breaks the law, you must be willing to accept the consequences of breaking the law. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to jail for his ethical choices that broke the law, for example.

In any case, my point is that it is high time that we stop taking the easy way out by only following the law and abdicating our responsibility as ethical beings.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

An odd extra point: most laws have nothing to do with ethics. Rather, they assign property rights. That's where property rights come from: from custom hardening into law and law revised to get different results.

There've been and are a great many different types of proprty rights sytems.

It's not at all clear that there are ethical differences between most of them as such-- though if you're willing to be Vulgarly Teleological* you can critique/compare the results of them on ethical grounds.

And *yet*-- in the U.S., at least-- people seem quite convinced that there is something peculiarly sacred about the versions of property rights they're familiar with! That is, there's a tendency to take *law* for *ethics* or morality.

Roll on, Jubilee....

* Yo, that's me, all right. Why is the consideration of Effects so out of fashion? And is it jsut at Iliff, or general?

Mary Ann

6:10 AM  

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