What is the relationship between law and ethics? It’s one of the trickier questions.
Sometimes we think they’re the same thing. In government, most ethics committees really investigate people who might have broken the law. The same goes for university life: A violation of my college’s code for students when it comes to sex is also pretty much a crime. To be ethical is to be law-abiding.
Well, that’s a low standard, even if it’s one lots of politicians and business leaders can’t meet. Everyone knows that sexual ethics is about more than safety and consent, and political ethics is about more than not embezzling or not lying under oath.
In other instances, we think the two are not at all the same—in fact that one is, or at least feels, higher. Whereas you obey the law out of fear of punishment, ethics is about voluntary self-restraint or doing more than the law requires.
True enough, this higher bar/lower bar distinction sometimes doesn’t hold up in real life. Take, for example, the academic honor codes that some colleges have the students sign on to before handing in their first paper or test.
Everyone knows that when you act out of honor it’s because you refuse to be governed by fear. People used to talk about the honorable and violent South, which was a good and bad thing. Sure, you end up viewing even small insults as fighting words and you might be itching too much to exercise your Second Amendment rights, but at least fear never makes you back down.
But consider the punishments levied at those real honor code schools, such at Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia. At UVA the penalty for even a small violation of the code is expulsion. And the committee that enforces the code is a scary group of, so to speak, hanging judges. It seems that no honor code would work without the backup of fear. Honor is wonderful but apparently unreliable. Fear might be unworthy of a real man or woman, but no human motivation is more powerful.
In real life, people are always moved by a mixture of things: fear and other forms of self-interest, but also honor or love, the virtues that get us over our materialistic self-obsession. When we say that ethics is really about voluntary self-restraint that goes beyond the law, we’re talking about practicing the virtues.
Clearly the virtues are still around. We all admire the greatness of soul of Atticus Finch and Martin Luther King, Jr., the courage of the American Sniper who keeps his head in the most dangerous situations, the generosity of Berry College’s leadership benefactor Buster Wright, the charity of the Christians, such as the Mother Teresa whom John Kasich wants to put on our $10 bill, and the more natural devotion we all have to our family and our friends, including the only seemingly ordinary virtue of taking care of your own.
If you want to learn about ethics in the sense of the voluntary self-restraint that can make you a genuinely responsible free and relational being—in other words make you what you were born to be—you should read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Berry College’s leadership program—any university’s leadership program—should begin there.
Aristotle says that ethics isn’t mainly about knowing, but about doing. Knowing is an intellectual virtue that philosophers in particular have, but philosophers often aren’t such moral people. The most accomplished professors at my or any other college probably aren’t role models of moral excellence, and the man many call the most profound thinker of the 20th century was a Nazi for a while, and an anti-Semite, and never said he was sorry for either.
Being ethical or practicing moral virtue is mostly about having good habits, about getting in the habit of doing what you are supposed to do and actually enjoying it. If you don’t enjoy being good—if you don’t take pride in it—then you aren’t really good. So the most important thing any political community can do is to develop good habits in young people, to raise them right, work on their character. The students of Berry College, my institution, generally display a high level of moral virtue by today’s standards, and mostly we should thank their parents.
Now it’s true you have to know a lot to be able to really educate young people. Everyone is different by nature, given to different excesses. Some people tend to be too easygoing, too ready to give in to their desires. Other people are too angry, too judgmental; they can’t loosen up enough really to enjoy what life has to offer.
With those who are too easygoing, you have to get them to take self-respect more seriously. You even have to insult them by saying they have no class. I know from experience that this really works.
With those who are ticked off all the time, you have to chill them out with pleasure, such as the pleasure of good conversation that gets them over thinking that everyone who disagrees with them must be an evildoer. They need to experience the joy of shared discovery, and they need to laugh at their own moral complacency.
So we might say that some young people are too relativist while others are, to use the word very loosely, too fundamentalist. Let me add that both the Right and the Left have plenty of fundamentalists. When reading about the atheist socialist Bernie Sanders’ being received so well when he gave a talk at Liberty University, I remembered that Bernie and Jerry Falwell, Jr. have at least one thing in common: they are angry fundamentalists. And I was glad to see each of them lighten up enough to see something good in what the other guy had to say. They were even laughing together.
Aristotle says it’s easier to get people to loosen up than to get them to take morality seriously. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to teach at Berry than at an elite school. In my senior project class last week, the seniors were blaming themselves pretty severely for sliding through their coursework without giving it the attention it deserves as a source of wisdom and character. My response: Lighten up, you know you work hard. It is really a kind of bragging to proclaim, “I could always do more.” I reminded them that the main point of college is to provide some quality leisure time to enjoy themselves in the right way. Berry students are too serious, much more than I am, about not wasting time.
Anyway, one of the most courageous critics of the United States, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, observed that what’s wrong with our country is that we’re too much about the rule of law and not enough about voluntary self-restraint. It’s terrible, to be sure, when there’s no rule of law, as was the case in the country that imprisoned Solzhenitsyn and try to stifle his writings, the old Soviet Union. There what you have is beyond rule by fear: it is rule by the terror of absolutely arbitrary power.
But in America, land of “know-how” and expertise (as well as the land of the U.S. Constitution), we tend to think of every moral issue as a legal issue. Everything is about rights, which means that we have way too much litigation and way too many lawyers. We even seem to think the Supreme Court should weigh in on everything, because everything I don’t like or that constrains my freedom in any way must by definition be unconstitutional.
It really is more evident with each passing day that in our country we think rights—and so the law—ought to intrude into every nook and cranny of human relationships. I have the right to do as I please, as long as what I do is safe and consensual, not violating the rights of someone else. And government—particularly that branch of the federal government created in the Constitution’s Article III—should be lurking everywhere to secure my rights, to protect me from anyone or anything that threatens my safe space and my self-esteem, even a little.
The truth is if people depend too much on government to secure their liberty, then government ends up sucking up all the air needed for virtue or voluntary self-restraint. That means, of course—and despite the intentions of those who invest their hopes the federal judiciary in this way—that security wins out over liberty. It does so because, at bottom, I lack confidence that I can take care of myself, and for that matter, because I don’t have what it takes to live in the truth about who I really am in a risky world from which I am bound to take my leave some day, no matter how I contrive to avoid the many risk factors that are out there.
But there’s another way of looking at it. The reason we limit government is to create a safe space for the practice of virtue: the virtue of citizens, friends, lovers, parents, children, caregivers, neighbors, thinkers, creatures. The only way to effectively limit government is by thinking of ourselves as people with both privileges and responsibilities that go far beyond what the law requires. Love and friendship, everyone knows, are often more demanding than justice, and friends expect much more of each other than merely respecting each other’s rights.
Liberty or virtue wins out over security, for we are not so fearful or insecure that we believe death is the worst thing. Nor do we find there’s any real substitute for taking care of yourself and your own. Freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose; it’s the condition of living well.