Sunday Sermon: Ethical Versus Legal Behavior

One of the disturbing trends over the last decade, give or take, has been how ethical behavior has become synonymous with “a conviction overturned on appeal.” Just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s ethical. With that, I give you Matthew Yglesias (boldface mine; italics original):

They’re not actually saying that what they did was right. Rather, they’re saying that it was selfish but also legal. …one is within one’s rights, under certain circumstances, to insist on one’s ability to inflict suffering on vast numbers of people in order to make more money for your rich self and your rich clients. But it seems very odd to characterize it as “unfair” to be subjected to moral criticism for one’s conduct.
This, however, is one of the signal properties of our age. It’s one thing to model human activity as driven solely by the relentless pursuit of money. Such models can enlighten various situations. But it’s another thing entirely to actually recommend such a lifestyle as optimal or moral, or to make the claim that any conduct that rationally serves the goal of increased personal wealth is therefore “right” or that to criticize self-interested and socially destructive behavior is “unfair.” I think Obama is to be congratulated for his handling of the situation. He didn’t have the FBI storm in, guns blazing, and take these people’s money. He respects the law. He respects property rights. He’s going to go through the bankruptcy process. But he also didn’t respect the ethic of greed that’s come to dominate American public life. He reserved the notion that some conduct is wrong and worthy of criticism and held out the ideal that selfish people might someday be motivated not only by acquisitiveness but by some kind of shame and a desire to behave–or, at a minimum, be seen as behaving–in a public spirited manner.
Reclaiming the idea that there are ethical issues in life that don’t relate to gay marriage or abortion will be an uphill struggle, but it’s an important one.

I’ll blame this on two things:

  1. Libertarianism run amuck. In practice, libertarianism seems to be nothing more than a justification for preventing society from disincentivizing unethical behavior, as well as legitimizing the economic advantage of the powerful.
  2. The legalization of the rule of men. That is, our political system currently allows destructive behavior (e.g., usureous interest rates). Worse, it is not only allowed, but our so-called leadership (including the Fourth Estate) socially legitimates this behavior.

This is an opportunity for the Left to make moral arguments, not technocratic ones.

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10 Responses to Sunday Sermon: Ethical Versus Legal Behavior

  1. Russell says:

    “The legalization of the rule of men”? Are you implying a gender issue? And if not, then what?
    Let’s stick with the technocratic arguments, please. I’ve had more than enough moralizing from the right, and the last thing I want to see is power pass to the moralizing left.

  2. Michael says:

    Why do you think this is libertarianism run amok? Libertarians are usually the first to recognize the distinction between legality and morality. Traditional conservatives and liberals both want to take anything that might be immoral and forbid it: conservatives through laws, liberals through regulations.

  3. R. Ward says:

    “The legalization of the rule of men”? Are you implying a gender issue? And if not, then what?
    Let’s stick with the technocratic arguments, please. I’ve had more than enough moralizing from the right, and the last thing I want to see is power pass to the moralizing left.”
    Wow, nice try. But I’m pretty sure the legalization of the rule of men is in opposition to the rule of law. It has nothing to do with gender.

  4. natural cynic says:

    Michael, it’s not what pointy-headed ivory tower libertarian theorists think, it’s what Randians do to the market.

  5. Russell says:

    The law currently allows usurious interest rates. An appeal to the rule of law is made when one thinks the law is being ignored or for some reason isn’t being properly applied. The great contemporary example was the Bush policy of torture. Torture isn’t legal in the US. The Bush administration didn’t try to legalize it. Instead, it spilled a lot of legal sophistry to try to work its way around the law.
    Mike isn’t complaining that laws against usury were ignored, but that it is legal. I don’t see how an appeal to the rule of law helps that argument, and because of that, remain confused as to what he means by “the legalization of the rule of men.”

  6. Silent Bob says:

    Here is a pointer that explains the difference between rule of law and rule of men: http://www.prisonplanet.com/articles/may2005/260505ruleoflaw.htm
    It does indeed make sense to complain about using rule of law to legitimize the rule of men.

  7. Russell says:

    That doesn’t help much, Silent Bob. Nothing in our Constitution prohibits usury.

  8. Michael says:

    natural cynic, if you think “it is what Randians do to the market”, I think the market could use a few more Randians like BB&T ex-CEO John Allison — under his leadership, the bank refused to write negative-amortization mortgages. The reasoning: Customers who did that would be in financial trouble (and therefore not very profitable) before too long. Consequence: BB&T has, at least so far, fared relatively well in the financial storms, and they have not inflicted that particular kind of usury on their customers.

  9. seksi says:

    anon: Look again at the Taubenberger abstract (“avian source”). Just because you can’t get a copy doesn’t mean it isn’t public. It is available to anyone with access to a library that carries the journal or has a subscription. You have jumped to an unwarranted conclusion.

  10. Mark P says:

    “Nothing in our Constitution prohibits usury.”
    So what? Nothing in our Constitution prohibits theft, rape or murder. Those are all things that are determined by laws. The Constitution simply sets up the legal framework for the government and, by amendment, tries to protect some enumerated rights.

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