Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Morality and the Law

We live in a society where morality has been defined downward for years. Many people, elected officials included, believe that the law only applies to others. For example, Republican Senator David Vitter and Democratic New York Governor Eliot Spitzer were both implicated in prostitution scandals. Various other elected officials and businessmen have been implicated in everything from sexual harassment to bribery to tax evasion.

In truth, society is held together by morality. When morality fails, it is necessary to pass laws to resolve issues that good ethics would have prevented. The finance industry is currently in a state of chaos at least in part because mortgage companies loaned money to people who could not pay and then sold the bundled mortgages to other companies. Other companies have normal business practices that include denying legitimate claims, submitting false billing, and the old fashioned bait and switch.

The law is a good place to start in determining morality. It has been said that morality cannot be legislated, but nothing is further from the truth. Our laws reflect our national morals. When we pass laws against murder it is because we, as a republic, have respect for the sanctity of life and believe that it is wrong to deprive another of their life. When we pass laws against robbery, burglary and theft, it is because property rights are strongly ingrained in the American morality. If a limit on carbon emissions is enacted, it will be because we, as a republic, have decided that we believe that it is wrong, immoral, to allow unrestricted emissions of carbon.

What is legal and what is moral are not always the same, however. Some things are legal, but not moral. Others are not immoral, yet are still illegal.

It would be a stretch to argue that driving 56 miles per hour is immoral, but doing so in a 55 MPH zone is illegal. A law in Georgia made it illegal to buy alcoholic beverages by mail order. A similar law made it illegal to buy a car over the internet without involving a local dealer. Neither of these laws is grounded in morality or ethics, instead they were passed to benefit specific industries.

Similarly, what is legal is not always moral or ethical. One of the best examples of this is Nazi Germany. In the 1930s, Hitler’s government passed laws stripping Jews of their rights and property. These laws, which resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews, were both immoral and unethical, even though they were totally legal under existing German law.

Slavery is another example. Keeping human beings in life long, involuntary servitude was once the norm around the world, including the United States. Doing so was legal under national and international law of the times. A growing number of people around the world became convinced of the immorality of slavery and eventually eradicated it in most countries.

Today, there are several moral issues that face the United States and the world. Among these are abortion, gay marriage, pollution, terrorism, and genocide. We must decide what we believe is the moral answer to these issues and then determine what action should be taken, if any.

To lead the way, we need leaders who share our morals. Our leaders should be held to a higher standard of behavior and not given a pass based on the office they hold or which party they belong to. These leaders should set a positive example for the rest of society and initiate a return to ethical behavior from the boardroom to the classroom and beyond.

If we do not return to a moral and ethical society, the very foundations of our country will continue to erode as politicians pad their pockets at the expense of taxpayers and corporate executives sell out their employees and stockholders. The race will not be to create wealth, but to find someone from whom to take it. The resulting morass of legislation will eventually strangle more and more of our freedoms.

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