A few days ago, I was jogging on a two-lane road, facing traffic as required by law. A car approached. There was a double line in the road at that point, though clear visibility of oncoming traffic showed that no one was approaching. I could see the woman in the car through the windshield struggling as she tried to stay within the lines instead of swerving to avoid me as every other car had. She was obeying the rules, but in doing so, she came within inches of hitting me. She had not learned that rules are there to protect people, not to be obeyed no matter the consequences.
It’s a basic ethical dilemma often taught to grade school children. What do you do when a law prevents you from doing what is right and helping people? The usual scenario is that a man walks up to a lake and sees a little boy drowning, but there is a fence around the lake, and signs surround it saying, “No swimming.” What is he to do? Young children and those with an underdeveloped sense of ethics believe they should follow the law no matter what. More advanced students and those with keen ethical reasoning understand that the fence and sign were only there to keep people from swimming and drowning and ought to be temporarily disregarded in order to save someone ignorant of them. Between the two laws – man’s law to not swim and God’s law to save life – the higher law trumped the lower, for the lower was made to enforce the higher. In these situations, you don’t necessary break the laws but simply bend them to allow you to help others. Most of the time, you would continue to enforce the same law.
We find this same ethical dilemma throughout life. The speed limit on a road is 25 miles per hour, but you drive 50 to get your injured or pregnant wife to the hospital. Do you follow the law and risk her having a miscarriage? Most police officers would escort you instead of giving you a ticket. You accidentally turn the wrong way on a one-way road, but a sign says no U-turns. Do you continue going the wrong way or do you turn around? Most would choose to turn around since continuing the wrong way has a greater chance of causing injury to someone. Practicing medicine without a license is illegal, but someone becomes injured, and it’s half an hour to the nearest hospital. Do you treat the injuries and perform CPR though not certified, or let the person die? Someone is threatening to break into your house. Do you shoot a firearm at them to protect yourself or let them enter the house and possibly injure you and your family? In these cases, juries tend to bend the laws to allow people to protect others, which is why the laws exist.
Of course, there is a point where this dilemma becomes untenable. Usually, it’s when someone else is injured by the same actions. For example, the police might be willing to overlook someone who is hungry stealing bread or medicine they need, but they usually don’t if the person is stealing televisions to pawn and make a buck. One is immediately lifesaving, the other is merely theft. If too many people steal bread from a baker, he may end up going out of business, which harms the lives of his employees. You might get away with one time, but repeat offenses often still result in conviction. In these cases, a difference in degree is a difference in kind. A recent example of that dilemma is the extension of rent relief despite the expiration of benefits to renters. In this case, protecting those unable to work because of the pandemic must be weighed against landowners and their employees who no longer have a means of relief. Giving relief to one means injuring the other, so which is ethically correct? Usually, another solution can be found that avoids the dilemma, for example, by providing economic assistance to renters to allow them to pay their rent and avoid inuring the landowners.
The rabbis have a saying that man is not made for the law, but the law is made for man. In other words, we pass laws to serve, protect, and help people. Insisting that people follow a law that no longer does this is unethical and makes no sense. Though we are a law-abiding people, we are not slaves to the law. Rather, the laws were made to serve us. Most people believe there is a higher law guiding our actions, which is God’s law. It is this that all laws ought to serve. We must be careful to violate man’s law, for often we cannot see secondary effects that injure others unseen. Nevertheless, we ought to make loving others the measure of all we do and not merely follow laws if they result in our harm.
© 2021 J.D. Manders