Posts Tagged ‘Law’

When the law is an ass

April 4, 2013

“‘You were present on the occasion…and, indeed, you are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.

“‘If the law supposes that,’ said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, ‘the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.'”  Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Of course any society can make any law it likes to ensure the proper functioning of that society. And such laws are nothing more than rules made by the majority of that time for the functioning of the society of that time. Systems of law are thus just exercises in pragmatism for the current time. But there is an implied “sanctity” and “immutability”  to systems of law which is neither justified nor rational. They are never laws in the sense of the Natural Laws which are not time-dependent and where compliance is inherent in the formulation of the law. Even the laws of God depend upon which religion one chooses to follow and when that religion was invented. The Big Ten as handed down to Moses no longer all apply. Times change, societies change and the laws of man (and those of God as formulated by man) must follow – but they don’t. It should not be beyond the wit of man to make such laws subject to the common sense of the time. Perhaps every law made by man should also have a term of validity. But that would be asking too much. And time and time again “the law is an ass” in its formulation or in its application!

“It is a rule of evidence deduced from the experience of mankind and supported by reason and authority that positive testimony is entitled to more weight than negative testimony but by the latter term is meant negative testimony in it’s true sense and not positive evidence of a negative, because testimony in support of a negative may be as positive as that in support of an affirmative…” Blackburn v. State, 254 Pac. 467, 472 (Ariz. 1927)

Just 3 examples from today’s news.

  1. The Independent: A Dutch appeals court has lifted a ban on an organisation which lobbies for the legalisation of sex between adults and children, after finding that the group was not breaking any laws in The Netherlands. ….. an appeals court in Leeuwarden has ruled that the group, which claims it does not promote sexual abuse and insists it is “a platform for discussion of paedophilia”, could not be outlawed because its existence did not threaten society, the Dutch News website reported.
  2. (Reuters) Amnesty International has condemned a reported Saudi Arabian court ruling that a young man should be paralyzed as punishment for a crime he committed 10 years ago which resulted in the victim being confined to a wheelchair. The London-based human rights group said Ali al-Khawaher, 24, was reported to have spent 10 years in jail waiting to be paralyzed surgically unless his family pays one million Saudi riyals ($270,000) to the victim.
  3. RollingStone: …. Despite the passage in late 2012 of a new state ballot initiative that prevents California from ever again giving out life sentences to anyone whose “third strike” is not a serious crime, thousands of people – the overwhelming majority of them poor and nonwhite – remain imprisoned for a variety of offenses so absurd that any list of the unluckiest offenders reads like a macabre joke, a surrealistic comedy routine. Have you heard the one about the guy who got life for stealing a slice of pizza? Or the guy who went away forever for lifting a pair of baby shoes? Or the one who got 50 to life for helping himself to five children’s videotapes from Kmart? How about the guy who got life for possessing 0.14 grams of meth? ….
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Behaviour, law and ethics: A practical view

September 3, 2010
Le Penseur, Musée Rodin, Paris

Image via Wikipedia

Whether in scientific endeavour, the business world or in politics we see daily scandals where behaviour is considered lacking in integrity or in ethics. In recent days we have had the Hausergate scandal, the Commonwealth Games corruption scandals, the money-down-the-drain in Iraq scandals and the HP procurement scandal.

For clarity in my own mind I reason as follows:

My values lead to my behaviour.

Values are comparative standards or norms and they calibrate and motivate my behaviour but in themselves they have no inherent goodness or badness. My values are my behavioural standards. They allow me to make comparisons (faster, better, pleasing, irritating, bearable, acceptable, good, just, right ….).

Behaviour may be lawful or unlawful or ethical or unethical.

Laws are what the society I operate in, or wish to operate in, uses to define what is unacceptable behaviour. But lawful behaviour does not address whether it is ethical or unethical (though that may be implied). Where law is silent, behaviour is, by default, lawful but may still be either ethical or unethical.

My ethics tell me what behaviour is correct and desirable behaviour. This may or may not be consistent with the ethics of the society surrounding me which specifies what that society considers the right and proper and desirable behaviour. Ethical values and ethical behaviour thus represents a sub-set of all the values I may have and all the consequent behaviour they might lead to. Ethical behaviour is not necessarily lawful. Unlike the limits set by law, behaviour does not become ethical by default if ethics are silent. Behaviour which is not unethical is not therefore necessarily ethical.

Ethical values and moral values are almost synonymous. The only difference I can find is that what I consider ethical codes or values rely more on logic or a rationale and less on faith. And I take faith or belief to be that which exists in the space of the “unknown unknowns” where ” I don’t know what I don’t know”. Faith or belief then allows formulating the answer (and even the question) in the absence of evidence. But both ethical codes and moral codes specify  right and proper and desirable behaviour. Behaviour that is not unethical or immoral does not by default become ethical or moral.

In practice therefore;

  1. My values lead to my behaviour,
  2. Laws tell me what I ought not to do,
  3. Ethics tell me what I ought to do.

Many corporations and organisations and enterprises take the easy way out and adopt so-called ethical codes which are merely  a set of rules (codes of law). But this is merely relying on what not to do and is an abdication of the responsibility to come to a view on what is the right and proper thing to do. The right and proper behaviour must – I think – include a conscious choice from the various options available of what can be done and cannot be merely an exclusion of unacceptable or undesirable behaviour.

A child first accepts its parents view of what is right or wrong. As it grows it brings in and integrates what others consider right or wrong. Eventually a mature thinking individual develops his own views of what is right or wrong and integrates that with the views of the surrounding society. In this sense, most corporations and other organisations are still in their infancy and are content to rely only on what law excludes as being unacceptable. This in turn leads to a minimalist ethical code where anything which is not explicitly unlawful is perfectly OK.

Hence Enron and Satyam and Siemens and British Aerospace and …………

It is the having of an ethical code that matters.


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