Legislating Morality

An ethical person ought to do more than he’s required to do
and less than he’s allowed to do.

You can’t mandate morality.

Call it what you want — morality, ethics, or character can’t be codified. Laws, rules, and regulations are always lowest common denominators. Attempts to legislate moral behavior simply create a cottage industry aimed at finding loopholes or avoiding detection.

I think that’s one of our biggest dilemmas as a society. We seem to believe that “legal” equals “ethical” and debate endlessly the government’s proper role in determining “right” behavior. But it’s simply a fact that the best laws can do is determine minimum standards, and those can never be the same as proper ethics.

As a wheelchair user, I see this principle constantly in the public access requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). People use reserved parking spaces “legally” because they have someone else’s permit. Ramps or doors meet ADA requirements but are difficult to access because or location. Accessible seats at a ballpark are more desirable because they have a bit more legroom.

This isn’t intended as a complaint. I appreciate the ADA both for access requirements and for the awareness it’s created. The ADA is really a legal acknowledgment of society’s collective belief that everyone should be able to contribute to, and participate in, public activities.

But the ADA, like any law, can’t change the hearts of those who seek ways to circumvent its spirit. Morality isn’t concerned much with what I’m allowed to do, because it’s about doing what I know I ought to do. Ethics isn’t about my rights; it’s about what’s right.

Ethical questions are difficult, because they arise in the grey areas that can’t be legislated. Some would argue that right and wrong are relative, but I disagree. Just because a concept can’t be neatly wrapped in words with no ambiguities or gaps doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent or irrelevant.

I believe that absolute truth and right exist. I also believe that the best I can do is a closer approximation of behaviors that align with what’s right. My goals are to proclaim truth and do right as I understand them and to always seek deeper, better understanding.

See my article on the filter for ethical choices.

What’s your take on ethics, morals, and laws?

One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Martin Luther King, Jr.