Where Ethics and Law Come Together… And Grow Apart

Even while this issue seems to have come to some degree of resolution, much discussion continues to be dedicated to the ongoing debate over policies to separate children from their parents at national borders.

I will refrain from addressing this matter from the political perspective. This is because I am not a resident of the US and I feel strongly that those who are located far away and not aware of the complexities of an issue, should not take a political stance one way or another.

However, this debate provoked fundamental questions about the relationship between law and ethics, which are universal one of human behavior and morality..

Part of the discussion quoted biblical sources (albeit not a part of the Bible which I would be quoting…) which serve as basis for why obeying the law is a moral and even spiritual imperative.

I can certainly understand why in a nation that prides itself on separating religion and governance, such a statement would be problematic for many.

But even putting that to the side, the connection between ethics, law and enforcement still deserves expanded analysis.

Adherence to ethical behavior derives from two separate ideals.

The first is the more  commonly understood ideal whereby we act in a way that will limit the harm done unto others.  This is behavior such as do not steal, murder, libel others, etc.

But the second – and far more complex – ideal driving our understanding of ethics is that obedience to legal principles and respecting the rule of law is in itself an ethical principle because it keeps individuals and societies from resorting to anarchy.

However this ideal is complex because it is not universal.

Specifically, when laws are themselves not governed by the first ethical imperative – not doing harm unto others unless it’s necessary and proportionality- then obedience to those laws cannot be protected by the defense that this is ethical (or moral) behavior.

The most pertinent example of this phenomenon of unethical behavior sanctioned by law is in the case of dictatorial and tyrannical regimes.

The actions of the state are by definition legal but they are by no means ethical.  Far too many genocides have been recorded in modern history by regimes that were legally – and in some cases even democratically –elected. To then assume that those actions were therefore ethical is of course absurd.

We therefore do society a great disservice when we blur those lines between law and ethics.

Law ideally must be guided by ethics but that does not mean that all law is necessarily ethical.

The ethos learned from the Bible is that human beings make ethical claims even to God, and this indicates the great weight of ethics in the face of the law.

I am confident that most reasonable minds in modern society understand this reality, yet this recent debate proves the need for it to be stressed.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics

About the Author
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics and a Founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.