The Journal Gazette
Friday, January 08, 2021 1:00 am

The law is our guide only if we follow it

Abe Schwab

I don't know whether President Donald Trump broke the law with his hour-long call to Georgia's secretary of state last Saturday.

And if we need the law to tell us that a sitting president shouldn't pressure a state to change its vote total for his reelection without any clear evidence of wrongdoing, well, to borrow a phrase from the late Justice Antonin Scalia: the nation is in more trouble than I'd imagined.

There are a number of reasons why we can't use law alone to determine what we ought to do. The law cannot provide adequate guidance to govern every interaction.

If it's broad enough to cover all cases, it can't give you clear direction in a specific case. But if it's narrow enough to give clear direction in a specific case, it doesn't cover enough cases.

But there's a more significant problem than that. It's simply not possible for rules and laws and regulations to govern every decision we make. There are too many variables, too many decisions, too many actors and too much change for law to do what we would need it to do.

We cannot determine in advance all of the guidance an individual would need to behave ethically in all their interpersonal interactions, all the phone calls they make or could make, in all the conversations with others they have or could have.

In a certain sense, law sets a minimum bar below which we know all behavior is unacceptable. But if we take the view that if it's not explicitly prohibited by law, then it's acceptable, our culture is socially dead and morally bankrupt. That may be an accurate diagnosis.

In this time of COVID-19, I go to the grocery incredibly early in the morning to avoid crowds. And still, there are workers and customers walking around with their masks down around their chins.

And I'm not going to say something to them because the odds seem to me to be even: Maybe they'll feel shame, but just as likely they won't. They know how to wear a mask and why they should, but they're not going to do it and they might just be hoping someone will confront them so they can show how tough they are.

I shouldn't be surprised. If we're relying on the law to determine whether Trump's phone call was morally reprehensible, then we're relying on the law to tell us what's prohibited and what we should be ashamed of.

Why would anyone else feel any sense of shame or do anything more than what is legally required in a cultural system in which those in the highest positions of power and authority demonstrate no sense of shame and only do that which is legally required?

Abe Schwab is a professor of philosophy and director of Ethics Across the Curriculum at Purdue Fort Wayne who specializes in applied ethics.

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