Differences in Ethics
When a young adult in a college town, I chanced to meet a young woman one night. Since we were walking in the same direction, we struck up a conversation, and I learned that she was a law student with a concentration on family law.
At one point, I asked her, “What if you were representing someone in a custody struggle and you came to the realization that the children would be better off with the other spouse?”
Her answer, “It doesn’t matter. My job will require me to advocate for the person who hired me. That’s legal ethics.”
This made sense to her, but I suggest that this why we have lawyer jokes. Most people would have a different answer to the question I proposed. If the children would be better off with the other spouse, they would say the children should go to that spouse. The ethics of most people diverge from the ethics of the law.
Justice is not a game
Take another example. Let’s say a serial rapist is eventually caught by the police. He’s brought to court, but the defense discovers that the search warrant that police used to collect evidence wasn’t legally proper. As a result, all the evidence collected against him is thrown out of court and the rapist is released back into society. He is now a free man, and because of the laws of double jeopardy, he cannot be tried again for the same crimes.
During my criminal justice course in college, this was explained to us as ethical. The police had broken the law. So it was only right that the criminal be released.
But I submit that this isn’t a game played between criminals and the police and only the police are hurt if the criminal is exonerated because of a technicality. Society is part of the “game”, and society is the one who suffers when this happens, not the police. Even though not convicted, the man was guilty, and many a woman suffered under his hands. But he is now free to do it again. And if he isn’t caught when he does it again, he can do it again. And again.
And yet, this is our law. Perfectly legal. And a lawyer may say, “It’s imperfect, but it’s the best we have.”
And you might agree … unless or until this man rapes someone you know or love.
And so, we have a difference between law and justice. The law isn’t really just, because the guilty can go free, or the innocent can be convicted.
Another Difference between Law and Justice
I know a man who stood to inherit money from his mother’s estate. On the advice of a lawyer, the man’s step-father moved all the money in accounts shared jointly between the man, his mother, and his step-father. Once he did that, the step-father had all the inherited money, and the man was left to pay the taxes.
The man and the step-father’s lawyer had been Boy Scouts together. Did this matter to the lawyer? I don’t know, but the man wonders if it would have mattered. The lawyer had the step-father as his client.
The lawyer’s advice was perfectly legal, but I submit that while legal, it wasn’t just.
Moreover, does anyone think the had the mother still been alive, she would have consented to the step-father’s actions? Of course, she wouldn’t. It had never been her intention for the step-father to take all the money and her son to pay all the taxes, but that’s what happened. And, so, it wouldn’t even have been ethical.
If we lived in a perfect world
If we lived in a perfect world, our laws would be crafted to marry two considerations: justice and ethics. Our laws would ensure justice was done. And they would reflect our ethics.
Why law, justice, and ethics don’t agree: part 1
The reason our laws are imperfect are two-fold. The first is that we aren’t omniscient. We can’t completely know everything that might happen. As a result, we can’t craft laws that can foresee every contingency, and so we craft our laws as best we can.
So, the law was crafted to ensure the state got its taxes. Who got the inheritance was unimportant. What was important was who’s name was on the account. Because my friend’s name was on the account, he had to pay the taxes, even though he didn’t get the money. Why did the state write a law like that? I think it’s obvious. The state could easily prove whose names were on the account, but it couldn’t easily prove who actually got the money. The law wasn’t written for justice, but the convenience of the state.
Perhaps I’m being to hard on the state. After all, this man could have taken his step-father to court, right? The man explained to me why he didn’t do so. His step-father was ill. His mother had taken care of him for years. She had handled all the finances. The step-father was sick with grief and afraid there wouldn’t be enough money for him to live on. He was old and physically sick and couldn’t work. Confused, he became convinced the son was attempting to steal his money. And this step-father had helped raise him and been a grandfather to his children.
My friend explained that the apostle Paul wrote in one of his letters, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” He decided not to take the man (who had helped raise him and had been a wonderful grandfather to his children) to court simply because, sick and old, he had convinced himself that my friend was his enemy. He decided to accept the loss, financially painful though it was.
This story has a kind of happy ending. Now even older and sicker, the step-father has forgotten all his suspicions, and my friend is now on good terms with his step-father. His step-father has forgotten what he did, so my friend will never see that money, but my friend is happy with the bargain.
Why did my friend do what he did?
He acted as he did because of Christian ethics. Jesus said, “You can either server God or Mammon (money).” Knowing this, the son decided to serve God. It had been a hard decision, because my friend was hurt and angry at his step-father’s unjust accusations. At first, he acted angrily, because he could have stolen the money himself if he had really wanted to so. His mother was dying. His step-father sick. He could have asked his mother to sign all the money over to him, and neither would have known what he was doing. So, the accusation was unjust, and he was angry. Eventually though, he responded to the ethics of his faith. He would tell you himself that someone else might have done a better job at it, but someone else might also have taken his step-father to court, and taken him to court quite legally.
Why law, justice, and ethics don’t agree: part 2
And this brings us to the the final reason why our laws are not always just or ethical: our ethics are not identical. The son decided to follow Christian ethics, in which money is less important that following God, and he turned the other cheek. I can only hope I act as well when given an opportunity. But not everyone is a Christian, and so, other people may follow a different ethic.
To be blunt, we can’t agree on our ethics. Our laws are written by flawed congressmen and arbitrated by human judges, full of the biases and sins the rest of us have. They are no better than the rest of us. (To judge from lawyer jokes, they are worse, but I suspect that they are no worse than the rest of us!) Perhaps the laws we write are wanted by the majority. Perhaps they are influenced by lobbyists. But from abortion to gay marriage, our laws follow some form of ethics.
Final justice — and mercy
This is why there is final justice. God can’t be fooled. He isn’t so much concerned with law as he is with justice. No secret deed will be hidden on the last day. No good deed will be overlooked. No one will be acquitted based on a technicality. No one will be convicted out of error. Even those who follow the law to the letter will discover that there is a higher law, and they are at fault. God’s ethics will trump all our ethics. The lawyer who follows legal ethics and wins custody for an abusive parent will stand before a higher court, and she won’t be able to exonerate herself by saying “that was the law.” God has a higher law.
But God is also concerned with mercy. And this is why he’s provided a way of escape that is both simple to obtain and extremely difficult to follow. There is forgiveness in God through belief in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
But not everyone believes that ethic, either.