A nation of laws … instead of ethics

Often you will hear that we are a nation of laws, spoken as a matter of pride. But the truth is we are a nation of laws as a substitute for being a nation of people who live by an ethical standard. The prevailing attitude is that it is up to law enforcement to keep us in line. And if we aren’t caught it must not be wrong.

I have been planning to write about the exploding number of laws on the books. I was struck by some new California laws – as of July 1 it will be illegal to talk on a telephone in your vehicle without a hands-free device. It is a proposed solution to a real problem – careless people preoccupied with their cell phone telephone call rather than paying attention to driving. In my home town it is illegal to de-claw a cat. Sensible if you think of it from the cat’s point of view.

It seems to me we have way too many laws. We have hundreds of thousands of laws most of which one never knows exist. Many of those we do know about we ignore or obey only when we think we may be caught by law enforcement.

So many laws attempt to put the police power behind one set of moralities or another. Some are purely religious, many are subtle forms of racial, ethnic and sexual prejudice. Many are simply a way to favor one economic interest over another.

But why do we need to have a law telling us we cannot smoke in a restaurant? Is it not abundantly clear that it is rude and an assault on the lungs of everyone within range of smoke? Why is that not a sufficient basis for holding off until out of range of those not smoking? Why do we need to have a law that says one cannot ignore the task of driving to focus on that all important story about who is doing what to whom?

Why? Because we have abdicated the responsibility of living by the golden rule, by any ethical standard at all. We remain children until our death because we wait for someone to tell us not to do something before we take into consideration the consequences of our actions. Self centered as no people have ever been in history as far as I can tell, we are the eternal child evading the parental government in a game of hide and seek. We cut corners, we tell ‘white lies”, we evade those laws we feel inconvenient or that were probably intended for other people to follow, but certainly not ourselves.

In other times religion took on the role of regulating our conduct. People report that they still attend religious services, but the impact seems to wear off as soon as they leave the building. Nothing has taken the place of the threat of eternal damnation to moderate our behavior so we turn to the law as a substitute. It doesn’t work.

I don’t have an answer for this breakdown. Most of those reading this already have adopted and do a reasonable job of acting according to an ethical imperative that is responsible and takes others into account. But it does not seem that the population at large have this concept.

It seems to me one of the harmful impacts of the “love generation” was further breaking down the hold of conventional power centers such as religion, politics and “authorities” in general. “Do your thing” was heard as a call to simply do whatever idiotic idea popped into your head – like driving while texting someone, shaving or putting on makeup.

That was not the real intent, but if you are prone to look for a justification for being self-centered, anything will do. It would be great if at least a few of the most prominent leaders of politics, religion, commerce and culture both grasped the concept and encouraged others to do the same. Some have. Most have not.


  1. bjiller

    Not a nation of laws.

    We aren’t even a nation of laws anymore. If we were, Bush and company would all have been impeached and/or on trial for violating statutes on torture, for outing Valerie Plame, for illegal warrantless spying, and for engaging in aggressive war.

    And isn’t it interesting that Bush’s greatest remaining support is from the evangelical “Christian” “values” voters. Religion and ethics don’t necessarily go together.

  2. pollchecker

    My point is that the cost of ATTEMPTING to enforce some silly law such as this (NOT enforcing, ATTEMPTING) PLUS the cost of prosecution and incarceration are most likely more $$ spent than the cost of paying someone minimum wage to cut all the grass.

    You can create jobs on the front end by paying some small business man to cut the grass or can create jobs on the back end incarcerating those who don’t.

    But you can not reallistically prosecute and incarcerate all that don’t cut the grass so then once again justice is about money spent and not justice. And then you wonder why people don’t respect the laws?

  3. Phil Hoskins

    Ted, I don’t know about Canton, but in California where weed abatement is done for a property owner, the property owner ends up paying or loses their property.
    I know of no city that mows citizen’s lawns, but it might be a practical solution.

    I could be wrong, but my sense is the American people would like to hear some sensible, post-partisan ideas and then have a chance to discuss them like adults.

    Problem is we don’t seem to know how to get that to happen.

    Phil Hoskins

  4. Ted Remington

    1. Why the hell should I, as a taxpayer, allow tax money to be spent to mow someone else’s lawn? That city spends a quarter of a million bucks a year to mow lawns of people who won’t, for whatever reason, do it themselves, and you are not outraged? Everyone says they want smaller, less intrusive government and here we have an advocate for creating another bureaucratic mess to collect taxes, hire contractors, worry about liability issues, etc.

    2. Is there any reason why we should allow my or your neignbors to run down property values because they are unwilling to take care of the houses in the neighborhood?

    3. I don’t favor the jail time, particularly, and I would probably vote instead for putting liens against property, and charging interest, so that eventually the tax dollars have a chance of coming back. But in an economy where house values are falling precipitously, the liens might not be satisfied. I don’t know what all is going on in Canton, but you have to remember that the city council answers pretty directly to the voters. One of the things that has always puzzled me is how much attention we pay to Federal elections when it’s the local ones that impact us the most. Most people I know cannot tell you the names of their county commissioners, the names of their city council members, or even the name of their mayor. These are the people who affect our lives on a daily basis, and most of them operate behind doors closed by our ignoring them. The doors may not be physically closed, but no one goes through them.


  5. pollchecker

    This is a PERFECT EXAMPLE of the problem.

    Mow your lawn… or risk jail time in Canton, Ohio

    Why not just mow everyone’s lawn in Canton and leave the law enforcement for more important tasks. If you figure out the cost to enact, and enforce stupid laws like this….in the end it would cheaper for the city to mow everyone’s yard itself.

    Give me a break!

  6. Flapsaddle

    The Confucian system of values prevalent in imperial China made no distinction between ethics and government. Social harmony, the goal of all levels of that venerable culture, was obtained not by a mass of laws but by placing men of high ethical standards in public office. The properly trained functionary applied his best judgement – not necessarily a codified law, and perhaps even in contravention of it – to assure harmonious resolution of problems and a continuation of the placidity of the system. You can get a bit of that feeling in those lines from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, where the judge declares that “…the object of justice, all-sublime/ is to make the punishment fit the crime!”

    In Western culture we have now generally divorced law from morality and ethics. Law is now little more than a codification of what one can or cannot do and often has absolutely no basis in any construct of morality or ethical behavior. Morality and ethics remain the construct of what one should or should not do in a particular set of circumstances. Consequently, we are often confronted with the dilemma of having perfectly legal actions that may very well be immoral/unethical, or with a perfectly moral or ethical action that may very well be illegal.

    However there are occasions when the can/cannot of the law and the should/should not of the ethical constitute a vector sum that is positive, and as a case in point – quite the contrary to an erroneous assertion made above – the Texas courts upheld both a legal and a moral principle in ordering the release of the children seized at the FLDS compound. As a matter purely of law, the Texas Supreme Court, concurring with an appellate court decision, ruled that the state had not made a case for the children being in imminent danger and, therefore, their seizure by CPS was not justified; they cannot do that! As a matter of morality and ethics, the principles that the state may not arbitrarily deprive us of liberty, and that our consciences may not be criminalized simply because there are those who do not like our beliefs and practices; they should do that!

    I’ll not repeat the cases already ably illustrated by others where the vector sum was in the negative.

    Most sincerely,

    T. J. Flapsaddle

  7. michaellgooch

    Organizations such as XXX, have negative results because the people on board cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. Due to scope, these consequences usually take longer to materialize, but is the result the same? You can find a ton of articles and books about business ethics about businesses “losing their way,” e.g., WorldCom, Tyco, Enron. You can also sign up for seminars where they preach to “do the right thing.” They paint the world in stark black and white. These resources ask one-dimensional ethical questions, such as, “Should you take kickbacks from suppliers?” For me, ethics in the workplace is varying shades of gray. You have to rely on moral law, that is, does it ‘feel’ wrong? It’s easy to say, “There is right, and there is wrong.” In my management book, Wingtips with Spurs, I address these issue in detail. All major corporations have their written code of conduct. Each one is pretty much just a copy of the others and is a major dust bunny. The next time you walk into someone’s office, ask to see the company code of conduct. Good luck on finding someone who will produce it within five minutes. The moral law is much easier to find and digest. It resides in each of us. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR http://www.michaellgooch.com

  8. Thomas Bonsell

    Laws are not created to make us nice little boys and girls; they aren’t intended to change our behavior or tell us how to live our lives or to define ethical behavior.

    The sole function of laws is to give government or a department of government the power and authority to punish people for their behavior or actions. There is no requirement for us to obey the laws other than our desire not to be punished.