Sunday, February 14, 2010

Legal--but not Ethical

My seniors study a bit of philosophy, and we just finished a unit on 'ethics'. One of my students from Indonesia, who aspires to be an honest politician, has latched onto this phrase and uses it in odd moments--at the concession stand, for instance, when someone wants to sell the leftover,overcooked and bursting cheese sticks with the advertisement: "Cheese bursts--an explosion of flavor!"
"Legal, but not ethical", he cautions, happy to have caught me at my own game.

It isn't quite true that we cannot legislate morality; otherwise why would there be laws at all. not driving under the influence, buying someone's goods and services instead of stealing them, nurturing children instead of stringing them up by their thumbs or chaining them in the basement, not slandering your neighbor in court: these are moral behaviors and we legislate them all the time. We prevent anarchy by controlling what people do.

But there is a morality we cannot legislate; it is the morality of the heart: The "ought" in "What ought you to do?" It mimics the character of God and flies contrarily in the face of what is easiest, and what may seem beneficial at the time. Ethics is about others, and our desire to give them the same consideration we want for ourselves. It is about not taking advantage of someone's subservient position, innocence, or ignorance in order to advance our own pleasure at their expense.

Ethics holds true even when the law goes contrary to conscience.

My son has an elderly Russian friend who grew up in Communist Russia. He asked her why her uncles had been arrested and she said: "You ask the wrong question. The question should be "What year were they arrested?" The law had clearly become it often does.

Ethics is about what is right. That doesn't always square with what the current law demands.

Germany had a holocaust and murdered over six million Jews: Legal--but not ethical
For years, slaves from Africa were sold around the world: Legal--but not ethical
Many native Americans were driven from their lands because of broken treaties: Legal--but not ethical.
In some countries today women have no basic rights: Legal--but not ethical.
In others, unwanted children are murdered before birth so they "won't be abused" afterward: Legal--but not ethical.

And while I respect the laws of the land, there is a law within me that I have to live with--a higher standard. If I don't, I will have to answer for it, and a poor defense will be: "but it was legal"

Our Sunday Scribblings Prompt was: Ethics/Ethical


  1. It's easy for people to hide behind the fact that the law is a set of minimum standards. We should all aspire to be better than just the minimum.

  2. Thank you and well said...we need to remember to live the intent of moral and ethical law not the letter of that law. There is a very big difference.


  3. Can you hear me applauding all the way from east Texas!! You go girl! The word that comes to mind is pharisees.
    Love that your student is catching you at your own game - means the lesson will "stick". Well done.