Article by Bob Podolsky republished by permission on Jan. 20, 2016
Originally published at Titanians.org
While lawyers and politicians often parrot this lie, it is amazing that anyone else believes it; but it is so much a part of American folklore that we must needs discuss it here. Let’s dissect it a bit to make it more comprehensible. We all know that a law is a rule, or a set of rules, that defines permissible behavior, usually by forbidding one or more behaviors that are deemed not to be permissible by those who made the law. We also know that every profession, be it law, medicine, social work, dentistry, accounting, or whatever, has a set of rules known as the “ethics” of the profession. This is a misnomer. These are not ethics; they are just rules that the practitioners of the profession are admonished to respect, ostensibly in the hope that if the rules are obeyed the resulting behavior will be ethical.
To explore the distinction between laws (rules) and ethics, let’s consider an illustrative example. Suppose a young student asks you to teach him how to read. Would it be ethical for you to do so? The sixth ethical principle states that it is ethical to learn; so, in the absence of contradictory information, it must be ethical to teach. So, initially, your reaction to the student’s request might be to say, “Yes. I’ll teach you to read.”
Now imagine that before you act on this decision the student reveals to you the fact that his reason for wanting to learn to read is so he can then read a book on bomb-building and subsequently build a bomb to assassinate a prominent politician. “Aha!” you say. “Assassination is not ethical, so it would NOT be ethical to teach this student to read.”
Can you think of another set of circumstances that might change your mind yet again? Suppose you engaged the student in a discussion of ethics, and he became so interested in the subject that he promised you he would master the subject to your complete satisfaction before advancing his bomb-building project. If you believed him, if he seems sincere, and if you remember that it is always ethical to teach the ethics, you might conclude that it would indeed be ethical to teach him to read.
In “real life” we never know all the facts that pertain to an ethical decision. We gather all the information we can, apply our best ethical judgment, and decide – for better or worse. Knowing the ethics vastly improves our chances of making a good (ethical) decision – yielding an ethical outcome.
Now let’s ask ourselves whether it would be possible to construct a set of rules, or laws, that would definitively determine whether it is a good thing to teach a student how to read. Clearly, the rules would have to encompass all possible circumstances that might pertain. Since this is obviously impossible, we conclude that any set of rules we might contrive would be inadequate to the task. This is why laws often result in outcomes that are unforeseen and unethical. They are not a substitute for the ethics.
In fact, many laws are themselves unethical, because they violate the E+ Ethic and one or more of the ten Ethical Principles. They forbid acts that are are ethical and require acts that are unethical. From Ethical Principle number 10 it follows logically that in a just (ethical) society we must require that all valid laws be ethical and that all unethical laws be declared invalid. By this criterion, government edicts that are not ethical are not valid laws. Given the true purposes of government, it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of its edicts are unethical.