Should the provisions of law reflect the morality of the people?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the United States Constitution, is the ultimate authority on ethical law. Should the provisions of law reflect the morality of the people? In other words, should people be allowed to commit ethical errors and then be penalized in accordance with the dictates of the law? If so, is it not also morally wrong for a government to enact laws that are pro-life and thus penalize those who choose to have an abortion?
The question may seem irrelevant at first glance. After all, the writers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence put forth the statement, “All men are created equal,” and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Are these not simply ethical dictates? Yet, the Declaration goes on to state that these rights can be enjoyed by all without respect to sex, race, religion, national origin, or any other category of human dignity. Isn’t this also a violation of the ethical and moral obligations of people?
As it turns out, the writers did indeed intend for their ideas to have broad philosophical and ethical significance. However, many people today are either legally obligated to uphold certain laws by contract, or are prohibited from performing actions based on those laws. Such individuals and groups are often characterized as “anti-government” or “anti-social” by the very governments that enforce laws against discrimination.
One may therefore ask, if the laws protect people from anti-government or anti-social behavior, why do people continue to break these laws? One possible answer to this question is that such actions are often required to uphold the continued existence of socio-economic structures – such as government, its infrastructure, and various industries and business enterprises. A person who steals from a government building or a dam, for example, will face criminal prosecution. Likewise, if he or she burns down a government building or dam, he or she will also be harshly sanctioned.
Beyond questions of jurisdiction, there is also an ethical question here. There are some unlawful acts that may still be performed even when there is a law against such conduct. Is it right to steal when one does not have the money needed to finance such activity? Should the laws be modified so that an action can be lawful despite the fact that it would still constitute theft if carried out?
The other day, I was discussing this with my acquaintance. Indeed, he noted that, although the government has the power to criminalize the theft, the government has also been found to have abused that power in the past. Thus, there is a tension between these two seemingly opposed ethical principles. What do we do when the government exceeds its power and embarasses innocent people? That’s a question that we must ponder.
In addition, it is important for citizens to understand that although the government may not have the power to criminalize wrong doing, it does have the power to protect its citizens from abusive actions. The government may, for instance, prevent its citizens from being harmed by corporations engaged in fraudulent activities. When the government does to protect its citizenry, then the laws become immoral and the violation thereof is not justifiable.
Of course, I also note that the Constitution grants Congress the power to define the punishment for crimes. In essence, the government is the only entity that can decide whether the laws it enacts are immoral and whether the enforcement of such laws is justified. For instance, the government may not make it illegal to work in a factory owned by the Mafia or to participate in a strikebreaker’s union. I submit that it is absurd to apply the morality of laws to such conduct.