The Way We Live – and Views that Divide

It’s a course I usually don’t teach. But an instructor was needed. While it’s outside of my program (graduate psychology), I agreed to be available for this undergraduate course because of the topic: ethics.

As the course began, I explored the differences between ethics, morality and law. People understand law, so I begin there discussing the rules that govern society including speed limits, tax regulation, and various aspects of civil law. Laws are social constraints that can change based on governance. If you break the law, then you’re subject to punishment.

Morality is different from law. After all, the 30 m.p.h. speed limit on my street could be higher or lower and it wouldn’t make much difference. It’s simply the law. But morality is different. Morality reflects the ultimate sense of right and wrong in life. Morality draws on values, beliefs, and, yes, religion. Because people have different beliefs about what’s ultimately right and wrong, there are different moral perspectives. People can have different moral views while still functioning within the law.

Ethics gets more complicated. Ethics are norms that have to be applied. Depending on the situation, ethical applications can have very different results. That’s challenging for most people to understand. Most people want ethics to be laws, or at least they think they do. What’s ethically correct for me as a psychologist, like withholding information from a person-in-need’s family because that person is my client, may not be right thing to do if I were the person’s friend. As a psychologist, it’s ethical for me to maintain confidentiality; as a friend, it’s morally right to help a friend. The situation changes so the ethics are different.

I asked the question – a trick question – meant to get discussion going. The question was, “Should law be subservient to ethics or ethics subservient to law?” Of course, since law and ethics are separate, putting one ahead of the other just doesn’t work. But this was not the perspective of the students in the class. To my surprise, the very quick consensus of the class was that law must always supersede ethics.

There it was: nice and neat. Obey the law; it doesn’t matter what your ethics may be. Now you will understand why many of my students complain about me and say that I’m so hard. Hearing their response just led me to ask more questions. I asked in my most ponderous and professorial manner: is it possible that for a cause of social justice that one would take an ethical stance and disobey a law? Without much hesitation, the group agreed: one should never break a law.

This led me to tell stories from the women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century when brave women were tormented, arrested, and beaten by the captors for working to win the right to vote. Then to the middle of the twentieth century and stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr, and the civil rights movement that broke laws to win equality for all races. Then later in the twentieth century when drag queens led the charge against police in the Stonewall Riots resulting in the birth of the modern gay movement. And the 1980’s activism so much a part of my life that led to better treatment of people with AIDS and changes in drug research and other policies in the United States for the benefit of all people with serious illnesses.

While most of the class was silent, one woman was brave enough to say, “It doesn’t matter what your ethics or morality are, you can’t break the law. Those people were wrong to do what they did. They should have worked in the system to bring change.” No one disagreed.

I took a further step back and noted that there has been oppression of people’s rights throughout history. It happened in Germany under Hitler. It happened in South Africa with apartheid. It’s happened in the United States – and continues to happen – when one group subjugates the rights of another. Today, the favorite target in many countries are immigrants. I attempted to explain that when one reaches the ethical or moral conclusion that the treatment of a group is wrong, then there is a responsibility to act. Further, when one acts outside of the law, then there may be a penalty incurred. But ethics requires that one push that boundary even it means paying a price.

One may be tempted to write off the opinions of the members of this ethics class as the opinion of young people without much life experience. But the students in the class were almost all in their 30’s and 40’s – working adults returning to school. They were mostly women – single mothers raising kids while working one or two low paying jobs and taking one class at a time in hopes of earning a degree. These women have developed a belief to get ahead in life that one must follow the rules. They follow the rules, working long, hard hours, with a goal in sight for themselves and their families. Yet, I fear that many of them will not achieve those goals because they will be burdened with debt from student loans.

I’ve stated before that spirituality is about the way we live. These women live by the rules. The spirit that animates them draws them to something clear and concrete with very little room for ambiguity. What is it like to believe it is necessary to always live by the rules even in the face of injustice? Have these women have been limited by the ways life has been unfair to them that the rules give life a certain sense of order? Clearly, my life experience has colored my world view just as their life experiences have colored the way they see the world. While it’s easy to say that one is right and the other is wrong, perhaps these moments of encountering fundamentally different perspectives are occasions to look and think again at how such different perspectives and values have developed. Perhaps empathy could help build bridges in the midst of the social, political, and economic divides that are such great sources of tension in the United States and in many other countries. Perhaps rather than judging the positions people take, we need to step back and consider how they developed those positions. Well, perhaps….

© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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