by TK

Our recent history has been one of intangible controversies. Big corporations evading taxes, bankers accepting bonuses after they were bailed out, or the NSA tapping our correspondence: none of these broke the law, yet we are left with a profound and uncomfortable feeling that somehow we have been wronged. The root of this feeling lies with a philosophical dichotomy. It’s a clash between what we think it means to be human, and the ethical implications of that condition.


In contemporary society we are all individuals. The Enlightenment has lifted humans from their divinely predestined position in society and placed them on their own. In centuries past, farmers ploughed fields and kings ruled lands in the belief that these were their categorical positions in creation. But in the eighteenth century the idea took hold that we are all created equal, and endowed with rights as individuals.


This shift inevitably carried ethical implications. Western societies are now based on relativistic notions. Voltaire, quoted ad nauseam, perhaps summarized this best when he proclaimed that “I do not agree with what you have to  say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. We accept radical notions, as long as others are allowed to disagree. As such, we live in a world where the only moral absolute is that there are no moral absolutes.


With the divine now removed as anchor of morality, there is no omnipotent power to sit in judgement over what is good and evil. The closest thing now to an accepted ethic is the law. Deontological ethics -- originating from the Greek ‘deon’ or duty -- evaluates the morality of an action by its adherence to a set of rules. In essence, whatever is

codified in the law is ethically just. However, it’s not hard to see how this line of thought can snowball, and become increasingly contentious as it does so. One could, for example, argue that anyone involved in the resistance during the Second World War was acting unethically.


The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that one should "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction." This way a law cannot be morally wrong. Although certain rules aspire to this, such as the Geneva Convention, nowhere is the law of the land as pure as Kant’s theory.


Aristotle argued that virtue lies somewhere between two extremes. Cowardice is a vice, but so is hubris. Instead, he suggested that we should aspire to the golden mean: courage. Yet our laws do no such thing. Rather, they lay down the lowest expectation as a line that shouldn’t be crossed. This is why we may be wronged by those that do not break the law. Aristotelian ethics hold that there is a separation between law and morality; something can be right or wrong legally, but that has no relation to what is good or evil ethically.


In short, we may expect certain persons to behave more respectably than they do. Nevertheless, as long as we simultaneously believe we are all individuals, we have philosophically no handholds, and ultimately no right to do so.