The Four Quadrants of Legality and Ethics
America is known to be among the most litigious countries in the world. Hence, adoration to laws is high, and many times considered to be at higher levels than ethics. Laws are written by human beings, commonly by the legislative branch of a government, while ethics is the moral principle or code that guides any person in his or her daily acts. Those who write the laws are generally representatives of the majority, and are not always looking after the minority’s issues and concerns.
Ethics is in higher grounds, usually coming from philosophy or religion, applies to all of us, and is blind to race, religion, gender, and any kind of categorization of human beings.
There is a picture of four quadrants shown below that should help understand my points.
In the top left quadrant we have acts that are legal and ethical. We don’t argue with these types of acts. For instance, paying back a debt is a legal and ethical act.
In the lower right quadrant we have acts that are illegal and unethical. We don’t argue with these types of acts either. For instance, not paying back a debt is an illegal and unethical act.
The other two quadrants are the interesting ones.
In the lower left quadrant we have acts that are illegal and ethical. Here resides one of the confusions for some people. When they read illegal, they don’t keep reading. They say “if it is illegal, just don’t do it, no matter what.” When Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat in the bus colored section to a white passenger, after the white section was filled, she acted illegally but ethically. When Mahatma Gandhi freed India from the British he acted illegally but ethically. When Miep Gies hid Anne Frank, the Jewish girl, from the Nazis, she acted illegally but ethically.
Finally, in the top left quadrant we have acts that are legal and unethical. These acts are another source of confusion. Again, as soon as people read “legal” they don’t keep reading. They say “if it is legal, I can do it, no matter what.” However, history is full of unethical laws. It was legal to have slaves; to kill Jews; to have separate water fountains for black people; to jail Nelson Mandela for opposing apartheid laws in South Africa. It is legal to deport an illegal resident mother in America and separate her from her American 2-year-old girl; All these are unethical legal acts.
I hope this short writing helps you think a bit more before condemning any person because he or she is breaking the law. Ethics comes first, laws second. If not, we become herds of people following laws written by the majority that disregards the human quality of each minority sector of our society. All religions have one common principle: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and lawmakers should use this principle when writing new laws and repealing the old ones. If done right, we will all be acting in the top left quadrant.