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Ethics and Law



Ethics and laws are found in virtually all spheres of society. They govern actions of individuals around the world on a daily basis. They often work hand-in-hand to ensure that citizens act in a certain manner, and likewise coordinate efforts to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. Though law often embodies ethical principles, law and ethics are not co-extensive. Based on society’s ethics, laws are created and enforced by governments to mediate our relationships with each other, and to protect their citizens. While laws carry with them a punishment for violations, ethics do not. Essentially, laws enforce the behaviors we are expected to follow, while ethics suggest what we ought to follow, and help us explore options to improve our decision making.

Ethical decision-making comes from within a person’s moral sense and desire to preserve self-respect. Laws are codifications of certain ethical values meant to help regulate society, and also impact decision-making. Driving carefully, for example, because you don’t want to hurt someone is a decision based on ethics. Driving carefully and within the speed limit because you see a police car behind you suggests your fear of breaking the law and being punished for it.

It is not always a clear delineation, though. Many acts that would be widely condemned as unethical are not prohibited by law -- lying or betraying the confidence of a friend, for example. In addition, punishments for breaking laws can be harsh and sometimes even break ethical standards. Take the death penalty, for instance. Ethics teaches that killing is wrong, yet the law punishes people who break the law with death.

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau has an interesting perspective as to how we evolved from a “natural state” of ethics, to needing formal laws. According to Rousseau, people initially lived solitary, uncomplicated lives, with their few needs easily satisfied by nature. Because of the abundance of nature and the small size of the population, competition was non-existent, and people rarely even saw one another; therefore, they had much less reason for conflict or fear or inclination to cause harm to one other.

As time passed, however, and as the overall population increased, the means by which people could satisfy their needs had to change. People slowly began to live together in small families, and then in small communities. Divisions of labor were introduced, both within and between families, and discoveries and inventions made life easier, giving rise to leisure time. Such leisure time, and closer proximity to one another, inevitably led people to make comparisons between themselves and others, resulting in public value systems being created. Most importantly however, according to Rousseau, was the invention of private property, which constituted the pivotal moment in social evolution where initial conditions of inequality became more pronounced.

Rousseau argues that because now some have property, others with less are forced to work for them, and consequently, the development of social classes begins. Eventually, those who have private property notice that it would be in their interest to create a way to protect it from those who do not have it (as they can see the possibility that it can be acquired by force). So, law, i.e. government, gets established, and ethics (and decision-making) is formalized through a type of “social contract.”

Rousseau's social contract theory(ies) may form a single, consistent view of the reasons for conflict and competition from which modern society suffers. We are born with freedom and equality by nature, but this nature has been corrupted by our contingent social history. We can overcome this “corruption,” however, by reconstituting ourselves with new laws and agreements—guided by ethical decision-making that is good for us individually and collectively. There is precedence that shows, while not easy, that this is possible.

Teaching Strategy: The Syllabus as an Ethics Contract

Your syllabus is a form of a social contract with students, so why not use it to raise awareness about ethical decision-making and laws? Most syllabi already contain policy about about ethics including statements about academic integrity. Perhaps it is time to use the syllabus to bring awareness to larger campus issues. Add a paragraph, for example, about Title IX, and remind students about issues of sexual violence:

"Title IX makes it clear that violence and harassment based on sex and gender is a Civil Rights offense subject to the same kinds of accountability and the same kinds of support applied to offenses against other protected categories such as race, national origin, etc. If you or someone you know has been harassed or assaulted, you can find the appropriate resources here…"

A statement like this in a syllabus could send a multipronged message: that survivors are supported and will have the information needed to report any violence they have witnessed or suffered, and that the campus community as a whole is watching and will hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. It is a simple way to launch a discussion about ethics, ethical decision making, and the law to demonstrate how much they matter in your class.

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