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, paying for 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 versus immoral 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.
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


anthonynorth said...

Excellent and deep thinking musings on ethics. And so true.

Rinkly Rimes said...

An interesting comment on legality and ethics. Of course, power comes into it too. If the power's benign then the laws will be ethical. But when does this happen?

Catherine Denton said...

Thank you, that was thought provoking. I'll be considering it all day.
Winged Writer

Ann said...

I agree that we should all hold ourselves to a higher standard. We have come so far and yet we have far to go.

Patois said...

Very good distinction. Very good examples.

Nita Jo said...

Wonderful! There is such clarity in the way you define ethics. Also, thank you for your comments on my story. You are so right... Ethics should be more than paper thin! It's a sad thing to realize that some sail under the radar.

keiths ramblings said...

Your piece has really set me thinking. Tan you for that!

oldegg said...

What a nuisance ethics are! They get in the way of profit, and advantage, and cheating, and so on.

Great work.

jaerose said...

Very well said. Some real food for thought here - and I can imagine your classes having some debates on those final statements. Thanks for your visit. Jae

totomai said...

there's always an argument about what is ethical and what is not. sometimes its too difficult to think deeply and sometimes answers are not handed out.

this is thought provoking entry

Carina said...

Very apt. Great examples!

JP/deb said...

Love this take on the prompt. Legal but not ethical - a true distinction.


aftergrace said...

Certainly makes one ponder...