Laws, Rules, Regulations and Conscience as Sources of Ethical Guidance

Laws, Rules, Regulations and Conscience as Sources of Ethical Guidance

This article deals with topic titled ‘Laws, Rules, Regulations and Conscience as Sources of Ethical Guidance .’ This is part of our series on ‘Ethics’  . For more articles , you can click here

 

 

First we will try to answer the question that what is law and how it is different from Ethics?

Laws vs Ethics

Law 

Ethics

  • It is the codification of mutually agreed values .
  • In modern democracy (not authoritarian regimes) , it can be said to be minimum ethical conduct that society decides for itself through elected representatives.
Ethics are values held by society used in deciding right & wrong
Law has legal backing It has societal backing
Breaking laws has legal sanctions. Voluntary  in nature .  If you do unethical work, you will not land in prison (although you can face social isolation )

 

Whether law guides ethics or ethics guide law

  • Sometimes law can be more progressive than ethics and in that case Law guides Ethics . Eg Sati Abolition law when it was enacted by William Bentinck . In that case , it was the law that guided the ethics and made society more progressive. ( keep in mind also the example of apartheid regime of South Africa where laws were regressive)
  • But most of the times, Ethics guide the laws and law in most of the cases is minimum ethical conduct which state want each person to uphold. Eg : Although in highest form of ethical conduct , we shouldn’t take anything which isn’t rightfully ours. This include something we have found by chance like ₹500 note lying on road . But as minimum ethical conduct, state want that person shouldn’t indulge in theft. He is punished if he indulge in such activity because it is the minimum ethical conduct that we are expected to hold and is codified in law .

 

Disobeying the unjust laws / Philosophy of Civil Disobedience

In earlier Authoritarian and Colonial Regimes

  • Earlier most of the regimes were authoritarian and colonial  and they didn’t consist of the elected representatives of the people. Laws were made by them with motive of increasing their control over lives of people and to protect their own financial and commercial interests.Along with that we have to keep in mind that they didn’t have any moral sanction to rule on people since they were not elected by people . Those  were despotic governments .
        • Taxing salt production may have been just for financial convenience of the British Indian administration; it was totally unjust for the millions of Indians.
        • Slavery laws were made for the benefit of few landed magnates and they justified exploitation of millions

Hence, disobeying those unjust laws without any doubt wasn’t  wrong . Gandhi advocated the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws through non-cooperation and civil disobedience .

 

Modern Democracies

  • But real issue is should one go for breaking law in case of Modern Democracies. We have to keep following points in mind while going for conclusions
        • First of all these laws are  made by elected representatives of people . People have given them moral sanction to make laws
        • Secondly , those people will again need votes of people and hence , it is unlikely that they will go for unjust laws of nature that they need to require agitations like Civil Disobedience
  • Still, some actions of the government may be considered as grossly unjust and unfair to a large section. In such situations, peaceful protests and pressurising through building up of popular opinion should be resorted to.
  • Resorting to Civil disobedience should be avoided because:
        • Resort to unconstitutional methods could be justified in past as there was little rule of law or adherence to constitutionalism. In the present, we must hold to the constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives.
        • It may result in anarchy: While disobedience may be helpful to some, it may spiral out of control soon, undermining peace and benefitting none.

 

 

Side Topic : Moral Dilemma of Enforcement Officer in Demonstration against unjust law

The law enforcing officers face a moral dilemma – whether and when to use force during civil disobedience.

  • His traditional role is maintenance of peace and order. If the demonstrations are peaceful, he should allow it to continue .
  • It should be assured that the maximum lawful expression of the cause is not stifled.
  • Also, in his official capacity, the officer should not become involved in rendering moral judgments concerning the propriety of such actions. He should not be actively engaged in advancing or repressing the cause of the protest.
  • But in case , protests goes to violent mode, then to diffuse the mob strict action can be taken. Taking leaders of the demonstrators in protective custody till emotional outburst of mob is diffused is also advisable (EI)

 

 

 

Some acts which are

Ethical but not legal

  • If some old age person don’t have age proof but it is clear that he is senior citizen. Starting his pension without taking documents
  • Stealing medicine to save somebody’s life

 

Legal but not ethical

  • Removing slums because they are not legal owners of property without giving them any shelter
  • It  is  ethical  to  not  give  capital  punishment  as  it  is  against  the  dignity of human life but  according  to law  it  is  correct  (mainly  for  heinous  crime)  for  maintenance  of  law  and  order  in  society.
  • Old  apartheid  laws  of  South  Africa.

 

 

 

Law versus Conscience

Laws and Conscience also act as Source of Ethical Guidance for all humans living in society and can be broadly classified as

Laws It is the outside actor of Ethical Guidance

 

Conscience It is the inner actor of Ethical Guidance .

 

conscience  is  the  intrinsic  intuitive capacity  to  discriminate  between  right  and  wrong.

  • Conscience  is also  important  as  a tool  of  ethical conduct  where the  law  is  silent  or  where  a  person  whether  in  public  or  private  life  has  to  exercise  her/his  discretion.

 

Law as Source of Ethical Guidance

What is Law ?

  • It is the codification of mutually agreed values .
  • In modern democracy (not authoritarian regimes) , it can be said to be minimum ethical conduct that society decides for itself through elected representatives.

 

Characteristics of Law

Common Good
  • Law must result in common good of the society
  • Eg : Outlawing murder & thuggery – There is common good of society if we punish this by law . Hence , this law is resulting in common good of society
Compliance
  • Law can be implementable .
  • Eg : Although there is common good in outlawing Lie but it cant be implemented . Hence, no such law is made
Create minimum Morality
  • Law creates minimum morality in the public life
  • Hence, we can say that law represents minimum morality/ethics that society wants in each of its member. Citizen can have more than that in himself but lower than that will land him in jail.
  • It is desirable and practicable that we make laws for minimum morality only because if laws cover each and every aspect of our behavior , it will become so cumbersome that it cant be implemented .

 

Law as source of Ethical Guidance

  • Law is the minimum morality that is placed on all the members of society . Whether a person wants or not , he have to possess that much morality in himself. Hence, by this notion itself it is clear that Laws surely act as Source of Ethical Guidance .
  • But we have to keep in mind that, morality and legality arent identical. Morality is much more than legality and it is expected that Moral Standards of the person should be higher than Legal Standards. But tragic plight is that , we have started to equate Morality & Ethicality with letter of law . The old adage “If it isn’t illegal, it must be ethical” is deeply flawed in the context of modern society.
  • Outlawing something takes back legitimacy of that action. Eg : Banning Alcohol by law is easy but it is very difficult to implement it. But even after this limitation, banning it takes legitimacy of drinking back.

 

 

Conscience as Source of Ethical Guidance

  • Conscience  is  the  intrinsic  intuitive capacity  to  discriminate  between  right  and  wrong.
  • Commonly used metaphors for conscience include the “voice within”  .  Conscience is something within human beings that determines the morality of human actions.

 

It comes into play when Compliance Ethics and Cognitive Ethics both fail

Compliance Ethics
  • It includes civil services conduct rules, service compliance, what to do and what not to do.
  • It is guided by professional ethics.
  • Violation of service rules invites disciplinary proceeding by the organization.
Cognitive Ethics
  • It is ethics at intellectual or cognitive level.
  • They tend to offer, in varying degrees, intricate, abstract, impersonal principles to resolve tempting or complex choices.
  • When both fail, conscience ethics help. These two can cover only a limited ground of infinite variety of circumstances. Hence, Conscience is very important .
  • When laws become outdated and require renewal, conscience not only helps in recognising the need to initiate the process but in also progressing towards the most suitable form.
  • Conscience  is also  important  as  a tool  of  ethical conduct  where the  law  is  silent  or  where  a  person  whether  in  public  or  private  life  has  to  exercise  her/his  discretion.
  • It supplements the role of law and rules in providing for ethical governance. In absence of conscience one may adhere to the letter of the law  but may violate its spirit with impunity.

 

Quote : there is  a law higher than law of government . That is the law of conscience. -Stokely Carmichal.

Limitations of Conscience

  • Conscience is not necessarily a product of a rational deduction but is something that can be influenced by the indoctrination of one’s parentage, social class, religion or culture. Hence, it is subjective and not objective
  • Conscience often promotes social dogmas . Eg Somebody’s conscience may not allow him to allow dalit to eat in his shop if values of his family are like that.
  • It leads to multiplicity/inconsistency . Unlike law which is consistent and equally applied to all in similar conditions , every person’s conscience can give him different answer when he is faced with same situation,

 

To avoid above limitations, Conscience is divided into different types

True Conscience Which is in line with rational morality
False Conscience Which isn’t in line with rational morality

 

When we should go with our Conscience

We should go with our conscience only when we know it is True Conscience. Although it is advisable that whenever you hear “inner voice” , you must hear it. But because of inherent deficiencies, you must not blindly follow that inner voice. Think about it and evaluate rationally that is it rational thing to do. If answer is yes, you must follow your conscience and act according to that .

2 thoughts on “Laws, Rules, Regulations and Conscience as Sources of Ethical Guidance”

  1. Excellent gist but need to relate more examples from everyday news

    Reply
  2. Excellent gist but need to relate more examples from everyday news and try to include some case studies

    Reply

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