Someone has noted that ethics is like love which cannot be forced. Ethics cannot and should not be legislated despite the notion that majority of people thinks that legislation should be just. The law is the legal framework developed with the aim to protect citizen’s rights, and it is almost impossible to satisfy the needs of all people at the same time. Nevertheless, the law and justice are similar concepts, and it means that ethics and legislation sometimes overlap. As Thomas Aquinas has stated “where there is no consensus, there can be no law,” and it means that legislation just like ethics has the aim to find the best decision that meets the needs of the involved parties.
Ethics and law are closely intertwined. For example, in Ancient Rome the Law and Ethics were even used interchangeably – the love for the ruler was the forced legislation. However, neither law nor ethics can generate each other because they are inter-dependent. The legislation is based on some ethical values, nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that each person makes decisions based on his ethics (what is good for him) (Barnet 1998). Therefore, what is ethical for one person might be inappropriate for another. For this reason, the law should not be dependent on ethics.
Let’s consider an example: if the legislator thinks that capital punishment is wrong because of his inner position on the issue, the justification of the corresponding law will be based on his interpretation rather than a legal basis. As Oliver Holmes has noted
“We practice law, not justice. There is no such thing as objective justice which is a subjective matter. A man might feel justified in stealing a loaf of bread to fill his belly; the baker might think it mostly just for the thief’s hands to be cut off, as in Victor Hugos Les Miserables. The image of justice changes with the beholder’s viewpoint, prejudice or social affiliation. But for society to function the set of rules agreed on by the body politic must be observed – the law must be carried out”.
It is true that each person thinks of justice from a different perspective. Just like in the above quote I would justify the thief because he was forced to commit the crime, but from the other side, the baker was also the victim in this situation. Without the law, this situation would be a difficult ethical dilemma, but legislation states that the stealing has to be punished.
The Microsoft anti-trust case is an example of how it can be difficult to decide whether the particular operations are not only unethical but also illegal. From one point of view, it is unethical to require only Internet Explore flagship to be used with the operating system because it restricts the competitive market and leads to monopoly. However, from another point of view, Microsoft should have the right to require the copy of this program to be used with operation system the company has developed.
The case of Paul Cronan is even more difficult. A lot has been said in the protection of Paul’s position, but many critics forget about the situation the employer was. The New England Telephone leader had three ethical issues to consider – the duty to protect the interests of the company, obligation to maintain the rights of all employees and the duty to provide safety and privacy of Paul Cronan. When Paul has returned to the workplace, many of his co-workers have left the company, and it led to the work stoppage. In this case, taking either ethical or legal position results in the destruction of one component – if Paul did not return to work, it would be both unethical and illegal. However, as I see this situation, the primary concern here is improper, I would say dishonest, the reaction of co-workers to his disease.
In contrast to the other examples, justice and law overlap in the case of Ann Hopkins when the sexual discrimination against her was both illegal and unethical. Only several decades ago women could not even dream about equal treatment with men. However, today any inequality is diminished by law. It is the perfect example when ethical reasoning has impacted the legislation.
The sex stereotyping has played a significant role – Ann was denied in partnership only because she was a female. Unfortunately, this point of view is still valid in the United States and men are quite confident that women should not be in leading positions. This case has raised the issues of barriers the companies have to overcome in their way to diversity in management.
Justice is different for each person because everybody has their interests and each person’s self-interests coordinate how he acts. Fortunately, the law restricts these interests if they impact the interests of others. Legislation based on ethics has the aim to make sure that interests of others are not hurt. The United States has a comprehensive legislative system which, to some extent, is based on ethical believed and it is how the law should operate (Manderson 2000). The legislation was developed with the objective to protect human rights, those rights that are granted to all individuals and the issue of justice has a direct importance in this instance.
It is worth to stress that what is just for one person can be perceived as unfair by another person.
A mother can punish her child if he has done something wrong because in this way she teaches him not to repeat mistakes and it is ethically correct for her to do so. The parallel can be drawn to legislation branch – the law punishes those who commit crimes, and it is also ethically correct to do so. As Henry Thoreau has urged is the law requires the person to become the agent of injustice to another person, it is ok to break such law.
In conclusion, law and justice are not mutually exclusive concepts and can co-exist side by side. Those who believe in the validity of legal authority and ethical codes often have to answer the question whether their actions are based on professional judgment or personal self-interest. For sure, the law should be based on the protection of the rights of individuals even though in reality it is very hard to determine who is the victim and who is the offender.
Barnet, R. E. (1998). The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law. Clarendon Press.
Manderson, D. (2000). Songs without Music: Aesthetic Dimensions of Law and Justice. University of California Press.
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