One of the few television shows that I really like is NCIS. The plots are creatively constructed and I enjoy the interaction of the actors in their portrayals.
In one of the episodes, Dr. Mallard (Ducky) is preparing for an examination, aided in this effort by his assistant Jimmy. Jimmy poses the question, “What is the difference between ethics and morals?”
Ducky responds, “The ethical man knows that it is wrong to cheat on his wife; the moral man doesn’t.” It is perhaps the briefest and most concise explanation of those two terms and the writer who penned those lines deserves congratulations
The implication is that an awareness of what is ethical logically precedes the ability to act morally. In the absence of an understanding of ethics, moral behavior simply will not happen.
Perhaps the easiest way to describe the word ethics is to say that it is generally accepted “good behavior,” as it should be practiced by individuals and ultimately the societies into which they form. Certainly early man who viewed his personal survival as the most ethical kind of behavior had little difficulty in extinguishing the life of a fellow who might have threatened him and his clan’s security. But early man evolved and realized that there was a benefit in banding together, ceding certain rights to others and receiving benefits in doing so. Thus early societies came into being.
As we continued to evolve, we looked beyond mere survival to question higher matters. Who knows when the first man asked the question, “Why am I here and how did I get here? And where am I going?” Those are the same questions that haunt us today.
Most of us, in one form or another, have a belief in a higher power, God though he or she takes many names and forms. We began to recognize that this higher power had higher understanding – and we accepted the rules that were laid down for us to follow by the Deity. The Ten Commandments is an obvious and familiar example of how “the law was made for man; not man for the law.”
Most of us would agree that it is not ethical behavior to kill, to rape, to steal, to commit adultery, to covet. And if we all acted morally in accordance with that we would have no need for police forces or courts or armies. But it is obvious in reviewing human history that we don’t. Now comes the reason for the existence of laws made by men.
As our higher power does not actively intervene in the affairs of men on a day to day basis – and, despite the fact that we have received an ethical code by which we are supposed to conduct our lives, there needs to be a practical remedy when those rules are broken. (That they are broken regularly can easily be demonstrated by reading any local or national newspaper on any given day).
Can you imagine a society in which we all stood aghast on hearing that a murder had been committed? “My word, that’s the first one that I’ve heard about in thirty-seven years.” What a Utopia. The truth is that murders occur about every thirty-seven seconds.
Laws made by men are, of their nature, punitive. We presume that an infraction of our ethical standards will be breached and then turn our attention to an appropriate punishment for that. I have no doubt that, for the most part, those who crafted these regulations did so with the best intention of society as a whole in mind. Most of us would agree that we do not want homicidal maniacs roaming our streets carrying assault weapons.
But what if those who craft our laws are themselves devoid of an ethical standard and are morally bankrupt? What result might we expect to find in the rules and regulations which they enact? The answer is nothing that is desirable.
It is always difficult and often inaccurate to paint any group with a broad brush. However, it is always “politically convenient” to do so. Hitler found it to be an effective tool in his rise to power. Great dictators have always used this divide and conquer strategy to attain their ends – focusing the attention of the unthinking mob against some group and using their distraction to usurp more power for themselves.
Fortunately, living in the United States of America we have protections against that sort of tyranny. In our case it’s called the Constitution.
The Tea Act was the final straw that broke a fledgling giant’s back and patience and tolerance and started a new nation with a higher ethical standard on its way for what has now amounted to almost two hundred fifty years. But has the pendulum finally begun to swing in the opposite direction?
The American Patriots’ anger at the imposition of British-made rules on them was that they had no voice in the matter. The British who imposed the rules had the right to collect the monies they had levied on the colonists – but had no obligation to pay a similar tax themselves. This was aristocracy operating in the way that aristocracy always operates – making rules for others and ignoring them for themselves.
In my posts I often refer to the Washington aristocracy. I use the term specifically and for the reasons that I cite in the preceding paragraph. Those who run the government (as our elected representatives or appointed officials) typically exempt themselves from being bound by the legislation that they craft and deem fit for the rest of us.
This is in direct contrast to de Tocqueville’s comments in, “Democracy in America” when he said, “the greatness of the American nation is that all are bound by the same laws.” It was an obvious differentiation between the fledgling America about which he wrote and the entrenched aristocracy that then ruled in Europe.
Let’s look at one of the laws which passed, commonly known as “Obama Care” and, putting aside the emotion that surrounds some of its provisions, try to examine the passage of this law from a purely cold and logical basis. While there is always a middle ground, I have decided to undertake this brief review by deeming it either a “good” or “bad” law.
Case One – Obama Care is a good law.
I defer to the legislators who spent their time crafting together this two thousand page document. At least some of them probably know the provisions better than I as I have only read it once and then only with the aid of many pots of coffee.
My question, as a logician is, “If this is such a good law and has so many benefits, why did you specifically exempt yourselves, the President and Vice-President, members of the Supreme Court and thousands of other appointed officials from being bound by its provisions?”
Case Two – Obama Care is a bad law.
See Case One.
Two hundred fifty years ago the American people overthrew one set of aristocrats. With few notable exceptions, those in power now seem to have forgotten that most basic American tenet, “Of the People, By the People, For the People.” To exempt themselves from the laws they pass for the rest of us can only be an act of insanity or of gross calumny. In either case, why would we continue to return these aristocrats to office – unless we ourselves are deranged or masochistic?
My hope is that we can purge ourselves of those with an aristocratic mindset and start electing people who are firmly entrenched in an ethical standard to bring guidance and inspiration to this land. After we accomplish that, we can work on the question of morality.