Does being ethical require obedience and adherence to the law? Does being moral mean that you never infringe on the rights and safety of others? Does compliance with the law make you an honest person? And if any or all of these questions are to be answered in the affirmative, does that mean that each of us should never break the law, for fear of being immoral, dishonest or unethical?
It is estimated that ten percent of the population never will knowingly break the law, 10% will often attempt to circumnavigate those same rules, and the remaining 80% will, under the right circumstances, bend or deviate from the law. Three decades ago, a survey in Ontario, Canada found that nearly 82% of citizens would cheat on their taxes, if it were risk-free, and 38% admitted that they had already done so. That is an enormous amount of deviance!
But does compliance with the rules make one honest? One individual that I know pushes the envelope regarding the interpretation of the law routinely, justifying his mistreatment of others and his habit of maximizing his personal gain at the expense of others by saying, “If the government thought it was wrong, they would create a law against it.” Yet, he knows that his actions cause others to suffer.
One foreign student at the University of Manitoba approached another student and asked her to write his ethics paper for him. It is difficult to refrain from laughing at this too-obvious paradox! Yet, in his culture, the political regime tacitly encourages such subterfuge, by intruding so aggressively into one’s life that, in order to maintain a semblance of personal power, people look for creative ways to hide their behaviours from the government. In his view, the act of cheating on an ethics course merely was a way to express power. He did not see it as a moral issue.
Then there is the question of whether there are circumstances where to not break the rules is immoral or unethical.
Last week, my wife needed to be rushed to emergency care at a nearby hospital. Her condition, as I viewed it, was desperate, as she tenuously clung to consciousness, her breathing was shallow, she was perspiring profusely, was pale, and had numbness down her entire right side. As I sped along the back roads, exceeding the speed limit, I called 911 on my cell phone. I continued to use the cell phone even after I had intercepted the ambulance. I needed to notify her immediate family.
Using a cell phone while driving is against the law in our jurisdiction. So is speeding. I potentially placed others at risk with my aggressive driving, even if I was inside the letter of the law. Yet, if I had not reacted with such speed, my wife may well have died. If she had succumbed, and I had not given the family an opportunity to learn of and react to her emergency, I would have caused them undue suffering.
I determined that, although I was choosing to break the law, the law needed to be broken in this situation. I viewed my actions neither as immoral nor unethical. How do you interpret supposedly necessary breaches of the law? Now, give us an honest answer, please!