07 June 2005

Wednesday May 4, 2005
Laws that promote good

The other day I watched in fascinated horror as a man crossed a busy road while sms-ing. Completely oblivious to the cars passing by him, his confidence that they would avoid him was something to behold. If any of them had hit him, and God forbid, killed him, there would have been much anger thrown at the “careless” driver and mourning over the loss of a human life. But it was a human being who was pretty careless with his life nevertheless.

This little incident illustrated a rather typical attitude of my fellow citizens, something I call the abrogation of responsibility. If there is something that necessarily endangers our lives, we expect others to take responsibility to ensure that we are not endangered, rather than taking our own responsibility to prevent such a danger to ourselves.

Like the man crossing the street, we expect others to avoid harming us and we will blame them if they do, denying our own responsibilities in contributing towards that harm. Similarly, if we as drivers run red lights and then get into an accident, we rarely blame ourselves for breaking traffic rules. Rather, we blame the other person for not looking out for us.

This attitude carries over many different situations. To give an example from a field I know too well, one of the main reasons why many people want to know who is HIV-positive is so that those people can be blamed if we become infected. We need to put them away, some people say, so that the rest of us will be protected. Even though the fact is that it is our own behaviour that determines whether we get infected or not. If it is other people’s fault when we become infected, how is it that so many people, including doctors and nurses, can mingle with those who are HIV-positive and stay perfectly healthy? Surely it is because they take their own responsibility not to become so? The odd thing of course is that if other people become infected, it is always their own fault. Whereas, if we ourselves were to become infected, we expect people to understand that we are not to be faulted. Such is our logic of denial.

Not too long ago, a local newspaper asked the public if they knew of harsh penalties that could be imposed on them for trespassing so-called moral laws. Most did not know but, whether truthfully or not, said that these laws were needed because otherwise they themselves would go wrong. I find it odd that people who do not see themselves as particularly immoral should feel that they needed such laws to control their lives, laws that they did not even know existed just a minute before. Do we really need laws to ensure we behave ourselves? Or do we behave ourselves because our own values tell us that certain behaviours are unacceptable? Which comes first? Putting the entire responsibility on the law to control our behaviour suggests that we are all essentially bad people who would be completely wild if we did not fear punishment.

I don’t steal because I think stealing is inherently wrong. I also think most people think so too, although we need the law to take care of the few people who decide to steal anyway. Similarly with lying, cheating, driving dangerously and any number of things that, because they would harm others and myself, I simply would never do. But as far as things that I think about or do privately which does not affect others, I don’t think there needs to be laws to make sure I do or don’t do them. It’s a bit like those metal detectors at airports these days. They may be able to detect weapons, but even if a person walks through them clean, what the machines cannot do is detect an evil heart.

What we need are laws that do promote goodness in the best sense of the word. Laws that promote care and compassion, that send a message out that goodness gets rewarded, rather than bad behaviour gets punished. We could have laws that prevent discrimination against people with HIV for instance, or that ensure that disabled people have equal access to opportunities and facilities just like able-bodied people, just because non-discrimination is an ethic that is right. Or ensure that the poor are not left behind in our development. We need a well-intentioned and tolerant environment that enables good behaviour, rather than having an environment that simply tries to limit bad behaviour. If someone pushes that tolerance to the limit with unsociable behaviour, then punitive action needs to take place. But the point is whether it harms others or not immediately, not speculatively in some future time.

We need to enable everyone to take responsibility for their own actions. Most of it is done through education. It can be done; all it takes is the will and the patience. Considering that patience is a virtue, it also seems odd that some people have totally lost faith in education, and believe that punishment is the only way to get people in line. Are we therefore saying that the only way to get other people to be virtuous is for us to put virtue aside? Now that’s really abrogating the responsibility of being good role models, no?