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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.