The Law vs Morality
May 12, 2021
Recently I was in a discussion on law enforcement and social morality as a general rule.
It started with a sentence or two promoted on a social media platform, and took off in unexpected directions. It quickly felt like I was reliving a college philosophy class or retired and sipping a warm cup in a coffee house somewhere.
To start with, unless we discuss a specific official contact with a police officer, we need to use generalities, which will always have exceptions. We can say doctors are in medicine just to help people, and across the street observe an exception.
We can talk of politicians and journalists and the perceived corruption, and still know exceptions. In this case, there is what I call a baseline of behavior that will minimize if not eliminate abrasive confrontations with police.
The discussion should have had an educational back-and-forth. Some yes, some no. However, the discussion quickly moved from official contact with a local officer to when a federal agency does what is debatable decades later. Along the way, the discussion took a hard right into why so many rules are needed in society, who has authority to enforce those rules and down the path to whose rules/laws/truth/morality is most important.
The discussion continued to the point of generalizing morality to mean Christianity. Much as the Christian focus is worthwhile, and can be an all-day discussion, philosophically morality can be addressed before introducing Christianity.
I remember, albeit somewhat vaguely, discussions in college philosophy of “Am I a moral being?”. In a class of late-teens or twenty-somethings who tried to guess what the professor wanted, Christianity was brought up. But that wasn’t the answer. Focus on the wording of the question: Am I a moral being?
If you say yes, and can identify at least a framework of beliefs, what makes your beliefs more important than your neighbors? If yours are based on truths, as does your neighbor, who wins in a conflict? Wouldn’t it make sense an organized society needs at least a baseline of expected values and behaviors? Otherwise, we bounce between rose-colored anarchy and gang control i.e he who is strongest rules all.
The problem, where people need to pay attention, is society overall, and apparently American society strongest, has accepted a type of moral relativism. What’s good for one, the other can do almost verbatim and be publicly chastised, or worse.
I’ve known people who claim in court, in a city council meeting, during official contact with a police officer, they are exempt from needing a driver’s license, that the government has no authority over them.
That person created an unique argument since they needed permission to drive in the country they were living in.
I’m often reminded of a discussion I had with a friend from a South American region. She said one of the advantages the U.S. has over other areas is the structure of law. The question from our side of the border is do we, from the general citizen to the top office, want the law consistently enforced.
When I first heard this comment, I thought back to a trip I made to a Central American region where it is common for police officers to stop and check cars, busses, etc. without cause. We experienced that on more than one occasion. I found out afterward best practice is to not look up, not make eye contact with the officer. It was implied a little cash in the hand and the officer would be friendlier. A friend from the area later said no matter how difficult the stop, paying the officer is never a good move. Even that level of corruption, and the good will intended, could come back on a person.
In the U.S., as a general rule, a traffic stop needs cause or some kind justification. So the question comes full circle. Here if you or I am stopped while driving, the question we usually ask ourselves is how fast was I going, and did I remember to pay that last ticket, or whatever. The facts, as well as can be understood when stopped, is were we going faster than the speed limit. The officer’s immediate understanding isn’t if the car had a mechanical problem, you were having a health issue or any other cause. What he or she knows is you were seen driving a car at a speed faster than the posted limit. The officer has the obligation to find out why. People by nature are tempted to know where the limits are, and often push them even with that knowledge.
So, yes, we are moral beings. We have a need to have, know and decide what to do with rules and laws that keep us organized. Are they biblical? That is another discussion. Absolute freedom and anarchy are close cousins. We should instead be seeking a framework that is best for those who live in this society.