Is our duty only to obey the law? This question was asked by Iain Martin recently during an article about tax and finance. The issues involved are recent touching upon the way people and corporations may try to pay as little tax as possible. Should capitalism be limited merely by the rule of law so that business can do what it pleases so long as it is legal? Or should there be a moral dimension to how we act financially? Do we have duties to others when we make business deals, or should we only be concerned with profit? These issues however, are quite ancient and go to the heart of the distinction between law and morality.
While law is grounded in morality it is distinct. Ultimately, the reason to obey a law is that I fear being punished for breaking it. There are other things however, that are usually considered to be wrong without their being illegal. Telling lies is wrong, but unless I do it in court, I am not going to be punished by the law. Likewise, volunteering for the Red Cross may be considered to be a good thing to do, but if I fail to do so, I won’t be punished. Morality covers whole swathes of life that the law doesn’t touch. But crucially morality also underpins the law. It is not merely illegal to kill someone, it is morally wrong. Moreover, without morality, law on its own would struggle. The reason for this is that our ability to catch criminals is highly limited. Law would soon collapse if the whole country decided to steal. It’s only because most people don’t steal because it is morally wrong that the police have time to catch those who don’t care whether it is right or wrong. The real danger of morality collapsing is that law collapses, too.
The question arises however, from where do I get my morality? Practically speaking, I no doubt get it from my parents and from the society in which I live. But why should I listen to my parents, why should I follow the norms of society? What is to stop me creating my own standard of morality different from theirs if it suits me to do so? As a child I have to follow parental rules and if I live in society, I have to appear to follow society’s rules, but in my heart why can I not rebel against all of these things? Given that I don’t break the law, what is stopping me? Nothing apart from disapproval. Well I can live with that.
The trouble though is this. If I can make up my own rules of morality as I go along, how will they limit my actions? If morality is subjective, whenever I am faced with temptation, I can simply change the rules to suit me. Practically speaking, a subjective morality is barely a morality at all. As soon as I reflect that society’s rules are arbitrary and not grounded in any objective reality, why should I follow them to my disadvantage? In this case those areas of life that are not governed by law become more or less a matter of taste and what I can get away with. But here is the problem. If I no longer have an objective morality, those areas of life that are covered by law also become a matter of taste and what I can get away with. If I can successfully get away with a crooked business deal, why not do so? If I can steal with impunity, what is stopping me? Of course, the law will still deter me, but then it simply becomes a matter of calculation. Can I get away with it?
It was not always this way. I like reading books from the past because they provide a window into how people lived and how they thought. I recently read the novel Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, which came out in 1930. In this novel the character Harriet Vane is accused of murdering her lover. But she is condemned not only because she supposedly murdered him, but also for the fact that she lived with him outside marriage. The court thinks that it is evidence of her bad character that she lived in sin. Not only does the court and society in general think this, but Harriet Vane agrees.
From where did people get their morality in 1930? Was morality a subjective thing that you could pick or choose? Not at all. There were clear rules on all sorts of conduct that were not covered by the law. Sex before marriage was wrong. Having children without being married was wrong. Adultery was wrong. Fundamentally, pretty much everything that Christianity taught to be wrong was considered by most people to be wrong. The rules of society were more or less the rules of the church. Because these rules were generally accepted as universal, they were followed even by those relatively few people who didn’t believe in Christianity. Were these rules subjective? No, not at all. Ultimately, they were grounded in God.
Many people today would look back on 1930 and its rules with horror. I sympathise. There is a lot about life in 1930 that I don’t much care for either. But try to see the world from their point of view also. From the perspective of an adult in 1930 there would be much about 2016 that would fill them with horror, too. One of the most disorienting things for someone from 1930 is how our whole reality has changed. Things that someone from 1930 would consider to be objective facts have turned out either to be subjective or even not facts at all.
This change may have had some positive effects. People in old books are full of prejudices that we enlightened, modern people no longer share. We dare not share them, because if we say certain words, or repeat certain prejudices we in 2016 will find ourselves just as condemned as Harriet Vane was for her adultery. There were unforgivable sins in 1930, but you try breaking any of today’s taboos, and you will find yourself just as much a pariah. They had lace curtains that twitched and condemned, but we do also. They are just a different sort of lace curtain.
But I wonder if people today are aware of quite what we have given up in order to be so enlightened and liberal. Think of all the things that were immoral in 1930 that are permitted or even encouraged today. Think of all the things that nearly everyone believed in 1930, that we simply are not allowed to believe today. The rules that governed a Christian life have been dispensed with. The church might have put up a bit of the fight to begin with, but finding itself fighting a losing battle has at times gleefully cooperated in dismantling its own rules.
I can now have as many partners as I wish. I can have as many children as I wish with or without marriage. I can marry who I wish. Whatever is to my taste is permitted. Moreover, words that were once objective such as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘marriage’, have become more or less subjective. Words mean what I want them to mean.
Whole areas of morality that everyone believed in 1930 have turned out to be lies and nonsense. But if the morality touching on these aspects of life can be dismissed, what of everything else that used to be part of the Christian life? This is our problem, when you start dismantling the teachings of the church, what use is there for teachings like ‘love your neighbour’? If I can choose to throw out rules of conduct that have governed life for centuries, what can I not throw out? What indeed am I left with?
Someone in 1930 who believed that morality was objective might be deterred from putting his money in a tax haven, because it was wrong. He might feel that he had a duty towards his neighbours and his country, because it was the right way to live his life. But why should I do any of these things now? What objective standard of morality tells me to have a duty towards anyone or anything?
We have learned in the past eighty years that whatever feels good is permitted. Wish fulfilment has become our religion. The church can no longer regulate anything, because people don’t bend to the will of the church, rather the church bends to the will of the people. It is always the church that changes its rules to conform to public opinion. But this is to simply give up having a church, for it is to show that the church is human all too human. The idea now is that if I disagree with God, then God must change his mind, not me. But this is just to say that I am God and that I am the standard of morality. No wonder I can do what I please. But with the destruction of God and the destruction of objective morality we are left with the idea from Dostoevsky that if God does not exist, everything is permissible.
This, I think, is where we are now. Everything is permissible as long as I can get away with it. There is no longer any objective basis for any morality I may choose to follow. There is no objective reason why I should do my duty. All that there is, is societal pressure, virtue signalling and the law. But it’s not enough. If I see nothing objective in morality, then really I am left with the position of Macbeth after he has committed murder.
From this instant
There’s nothing serious in mortality.
All is but toys. Renown and grace is dead.
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.
There is nothing serious for Macbeth because after committing murder there is no question of him acting morally or immorally. For Macbeth everything is permitted. He only has to fear the law. But if everything is permitted for us, having successfully dismissed morality in the past eighty years, we too are in the position of Macbeth. We have murdered morality. All is but toys.
Why obey the law? Because I am scared of being punished. But what if I can get away with it? Why not, for I no longer have any sense of duty. Why risk my life to serve my country? Why be altruistic and kind to others? Why indeed? I threw all of those things out long ago.
Today everyone is encouraged to be a libertine. No-one may be criticised no matter how they fulfil their desire or how often. Why be faithful? In the competition between my duty and my inclination, my inclination will always win, for what can possibly underpin my duty in these circumstances. Anyway, whatever promises I may have made they are only contingent. They are only valid until and unless my inclination tells me to keep them. But the laws that were made to regulate human conduct depended on a morality that no longer exists. The law was clear in 1930 because the morality was clear. Now we are in the position where everything is permitted until it isn’t. It’s as if we all live in one enormous 1960s free love commune, but once in a while the law gets involved because the participants can’t agree or were too drunk to remember what happened. Without morality human relations soon descend into chaos and require oddities of behaviour that Harriet Vane could not have dreamed of. Law eventually becomes nonsensical and unjust when the morality that underpins it is disposed of.
We have a new religion in 2016 and a new conformity. Our religion is called equality. Everything must be equal and all difference must be erased. So long as I conform to this, the net curtains will not twitch and I will be allowed to do everything that I please. But given that I can do everything that I please in life, don’t be surprised that I do everything that I please in business. What is to stop me? Morality? Well, I’m sorry we abolished that around the same time we abolished God. Pity really.