Thursday, 28 June 2012

Why Do We Confuse Ethical And Legal?

Last time I posed the question: why are people so keen to conflate questions of ethics with questions of legality? One possible explanation is that the law offers people a ready-made ethics, backed up by social pressure and convincing punishments, so it's easier to just go along with that than put in the effort to think up an ethics of your own. That explanation is very self-congratulatory, though, so for that reason alone I'm inclined to reject it. What other options are there?

Well, you might say that discussing ethics is pointless, since there's no way institutions are going to respond to ethical accusations. They might respond to legal accusations, though, so discussing legality is useful. However, discussing ethics can help you decide whether you support the way an institution is acting - it won't affect the institution, but it might prevent you from taking unethical actions later (say, joining the army).

You might argue that the law, in general, is ethical - that the existence of the law is morally a good thing, despite the problems with it. To obey the law is to maintain it, since the law in part is sustained through constant obedience, so obeying the law is a good thing. This doesn't seem like a major consideration, though. If we're debating whether to drop bombs on some Middle Eastern dictatorship, is general social attitude towards the law really that important?


  1. How scary would it be if they already all knew that, and you were one of the few just figuring out that the proffered story didn't quite make internal sense?

    It's kind of like watching all the teachers wonder why politicians so confusedly hurt public schools, kids, and teacher jobs with misguided educational policies.

    "Don't they realize there's nothing logical about what they're doing?! Those cwazy administrators! I must raise awareness!"

  2. Who's 'they'? The people in power? I'm not talking to them, I'm talking to the people in comment threads making bogus arguments - the other teachers, in your analogy.

    My goodness, I'm not claiming to have thought of this first! I'm clumsily re-treading very old theoretical ground here, not making huge insights - what little value I add comes from my own particular perspective. Isn't that what blogging's all about?

    1. "They" would be those who "conflate questions of ethics with questions of legality". In comment threads, or elsewhere.

      The teachers in this one's example have it wrong, when they wonder at the apparent "stupidity" of their attackers. They back up, raising their palms, waving white flags, and crying, "Why, why are you doing this? Don't you see that you're hurting us, the children, and all of our futures?"

      Expressing incredulity at the attack is a common mistake. What if they're not confused about ethics and legality? What if this is on purpose?

      What they are doing is using "legality" as a shield in order to express an ethics of force and power--which they really believe in--while pretending that, in their heart of hearts, they believe in a separate "ethics" that would be different, if only they had the luxury to think beyond what is legal.

      You've probably figured out, say, the Obama administration, to some degree. They pretend that they want peace and justice, while doing things in service of the opposite. They pretend their hands are tied, when convenient.

      What if the various commentators you're questioning already know how this game works, and you're one of the few who actually believes that others believe in, and are motivated to act or speak by, this split between "ethics" and "legality"?

    2. I just wanted you to know that I haven't forgotten about this - it's a very weighty point and I'm taking my time to think it over.