Sunday, September 26, 2004

Legal v Ethical

In the New York Times yesterday, Randy Cohen identifies the clear distinction between legal actions and ethical actions. Here's an excerpt:
I have an opportunity to buy the property of my dreams. The problem is that the elderly couple who have lived there for more than 40 years love the house and assume that I will maintain it. I intend to tear it down and build a more modern house on this beautiful property. If I reveal my plan, they may refuse to sell me the house and land. Am I ethically bound to tell? W.S., Maryland

The elderly couple can put a covenant in the deed to limit how a buyer uses the property. If they do not, you have every right to flatten the place or convert it into an Anti-Elderly-Couples Party Barn -- or so a two-fisted free-marketeer (or his lawyer) might argue. Similarly, one company might buy a competitor simply to shut it down, contrary to the wishes and expectations of the original owner.

This position, while legal, is ethically dubious. You should volunteer your plans. An honorable business transaction can occur only if both parties have access to all pertinent information. By deliberately withholding facts the seller regards as paramount, you are practicing tacit deceit, and there's nothing ethical about that.
I remember learning about this distinction from my days studying philosophy in my undergrad. Before we would tackle an ethical conundrum (like the one above), my Phil prof would invariably say something like, "now don't ask yourselves if this is legal or illegal. Remember: what is legal is not necessarily ethical." And, sure enough, as pointed out yet again, it's true: just because it's not against the law doesn't mean you should do it. Guys, help me out here. Is this a good thing?

Ethics is based on principles - simple, universal principles that guide our actions. When Randy Cohen answers the readers of the New York Times, he backs himself up with an overarching principle (above, in bold). Our (common law) legal system, in contrast, is built on lengthy legislation and precedence that goes back centuries. Is it so difficult for our legislators and judges to take the simple principles (like the one above) and make them law? Am I just advocating for a civil law system?

An analogy: the law is a loose net, and ethics fills in the gaps. In this view, law and ethics have a symbiotic relationship where the lines of one naturally blend into the other. Maybe we don't want the net to be impermeable and all-encompassing. We might not want the law to cover buyer A's intentions to seller B if we do not want cops to hunt down buyer A for buying on unethical grounds. Sounds like 1984. Maybe, instead, buyer A should just act ethically and she should not need anyone to tell her what is the right action.

In Japan, for example, I believe there are fewer laws, and certainly fewer lawyers, than on this side of the Pacific. Continuing with the analogy, the net of the Japanese legal system is very loose, with large holes - and ethics is taught vigorously in school to fill in the gaps. Singapore, on the other extreme, doesn't rely on anyone to be taught ethics. If you haven't been taught not to spit on the sidewalk, get regular haircuts and not to chew gum then the police will help your pedagogical development with a nice fine. Although I've heard that they're recently repealed the anti-chewing gum law. Anyhow, I'm starting to ramble so I'll shut up. I'll continue this another time.


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