Just for a moment, try to think of a culture that regards the law of the land immutable and absolute. People who have this common strain of thought rooted in them often say things like, "the law is the law" and "it's the law." While the laws are often necessary and conducive to a well-rounded, civilized society, they are often contrary to good sense and morality.
It is safe to say that people typically regard human laws to be fundamentally disconnected from morality, or perhaps they have never formed an association between these two ideas. Note that I am of the opinion that laws ought to conform to and be derived from accepted standards of morality, which ultimately spring from human nature and reason. This view is known as the natural law theory and has been an object of speculation by philosophers and political theorists for years.
Since childhood, we are taught to respect authority. We are told to respect our elders, parents, our teachers. We are instructed to respect police, legislators, the legal system. We are taught to respect the law. But then, we are also taught how often the law has failed us.
We learn in school about the laws that made women property, that treated rape as a theft against a man rather than an assault against a woman. We read about centuries of legalized slavery, followed by a Jim Crow era that condoned rather than condemned heartless racism and brutal assault. Call it a thread woven through the fabric of our nation – all of the times that the laws have been wrong. Morally wrong, ethically wrong, and often based on ideology that is factually wrong.
Political leaders are always talking about making the world a better place but they will most likely seek practical expedients to achieve their political ends, disregarding what may be considered virtuous in any moral, absolute sense. Here comes the lesson of History. Political leaders have, or at least should have, one objective: to uphold the welfare of the state, over which they have dominion. This, however, doesn't come without a grievous cost.
I am of the belief that political leaders have lost touch with their moral sensibilities, combining law with what is good, virtuous, or moral. They seem to believe that law dictates morality, though it ought to be the other way around. The law is not absolute; it is a human convention. Morality may likewise be of this nature but, upon reflection, it seems to dwell closer to human nature, passions and sentiments.
No, I am not here to define any specific ethical or moral theory, as that may take a while. It is not always clear what is moral and what is not. I am here to say, however, that before law and policy makers execute or contrive the rules of the land, they must ask if it conforms to some standard of morality, or if they find it in agreement with their moral intuitions. This, I am sure, is not a question those in power often ask themselves.
“Where is the humanity in our laws? Where is the humanity in us?
Many laws from the past are now considered immoral and heinous – slavery, women's rights and Jim Crow Laws, just to name a few. Immigration is a sensitive topic, but it seems fundamentally immoral to shoulder the blame on immigrants, especially if they're law-abiding and educated. It's the government that needs reform. To scapegoat immigrants is fallacious and rash. But only after the crime is done, and the immigrants have been discarded and shamed, will we, just like with slavery, understand the malignity of our actions. And I do hope it does not reach that point.
The reality is that sometimes laws, like the people who make them, are simply unethical. Not all, but still quite a handful. An inescapable reality really, and the best that we can do is stand up against injustice when we see it and do our best to be better in the future. Many people love to use alleged criminality as an excuse to condemn others.
For example, a man stealing deserves to be shot; a woman buying cocaine deserves to be imprisoned; a protester who trespasses deserved to have mace sprayed in their eyes and attack dogs released to scare them away. If this is the truth, then here is my question: “Where is the humanity in our laws? Where is the humanity in us? If we can truly turn a blind eye to tremendous injustice simply because our laws condone it, then what is the point of democracy, of free will?”
I neither condone violence nor do I condone illegal behaviour. I will far more strongly condemn actions that fail to recognize people’s humanity. I’m not interested in descending into anarchy, but I do think that we must be vigilant of what’s going around us. And we must never, ever stop fighting against the laws that fail us, as many have throughout history. Remember how we were taught to respect our elders? Well, maybe you don’t have to respect that one old racist aunt who calls you names and insults your family members simply because she is older than you. And maybe, just maybe…
Laws aren’t right just because they have been written.
In the end, the essential question still stands: Should lawmakers and political leaders be strictly concerned with the welfare of the state, which may be achieved by any means necessary, or should they also concern themselves with the metaphysics of human morals, which often play a deep-rooted role in our psychology and spiritual life?… We’re all still searching for an answer. Being human is a given. But keeping our humanity is a choice. And to quote St. Thomas Aquinas, “An unjust law is no law at all."