Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Legal ≠ Ethical: Lessons about Church Behavior from the Civil Rights Movement

What I posted earlier today has me thinking about all the introductory ethics classes I’ve taught over the years. Ethics intro texts invariably include a chapter on the topic of the relationship between legality and ethicality. They do so because this is a big topic in ethics, one that is unavoidable in the professional lives college graduates will lead. I have always found student reactions to this chapter fascinating.

I’m thinking here of my note in the preceding post that there is a 1929 law on the books in Italy that makes it possible for comedian Sabina Guzzanti to be charged with a crime for satirizing the pope in a comedy skit. Laws exist that, in some cases, permit unethical people to behave unethically while enjoying the protection of the law. As I have noted several times on this blog, having grown up in a household headed by an attorney, I learned a crucial lesson early in life about the relationship between laws and ethics: this is that attorneys and judges can themselves be capable of defending what they know to be unethical. They can, I’m sorry to report, even be guilty of unethical behavior that is protected by the law.

This being the case, I am always perplexed that a majority of students taking intro ethics courses in universities seem to take for granted that what is legal is automatically ethical—that the law provides a trustworthy guide to what is ethical in any society.

I have found that even African-American students in the HBCUs in which I have taught can make that assumption. When they do, I quickly try to provide my students with a short history lesson. I point out to them that those who challenged segregation in the American South in the pre-Civil Rights era were challenging the law of the land. Segregation was not only a social and cultural practice. It was legally enshrined.

Drink from the wrong water fountain, insist on sitting at the front of the bus, ask permission to use an off-limits restroom, sit at a lunch counter and ask to be served: you could be jailed in the pre-Civil Rights South for asserting your fundamental human rights in these simple ways. In challenging legal segregation on the ground that segregation was dehumanizing and unethical, you were breaking the law.

Laws can be bad laws. What is legal can be draconian, from an ethical standpoint. The law can be the last refuge of a scoundrel. The law has been and often still is used as a tool to beat down those who ask for their rights to be protected. It has been and often is used as a tool of those who have money and influence on their side, to trample on the rights of those without money and influence.

It interests me that students often seem unaware of this until they are asked to think about real laws—specific laws—in light of ethical norms. Something in the upbringing of American students, particularly those who have grown up in church contexts, often leads students to equate legality and ethicality very simplistically and naively.

I suspect that “something” is that moral values are all too often taught, in church contexts and within churched families, as a set of dos and don’t’s that are akin to legal prohibitions. Morality looks like legal codes, in the way in which it is often taught in churches and families. It is a matter of learning what is proscribed and what is permitted, and of learning the quasi-legal penalties attached to breaking the moral law.

Morality is too seldom, in the way it is taught within churches and churched families, a matter of learning moral norms and then applying them, with reason and conscience playing key roles, in complex real-life situations in which values and norms often come into conflict.

In my view, churches do a terrible disservice to their adherents and to society at large when they reduce morality to a set of quasi-legal rights and wrongs that are to be enforced by the morality police. Teaching people morality this way infantilizes people. It prepares them for the rule of the unscrupulous who exploit the name of G-d to pursue their own self-interest and dominion.

And, of course, for anyone who grew up in the Civil Rights period in the American South, or who knows that history, this should not really be a shocking recognition. A majority of the churches—most white ones, but many black ones as well—were on the side of law and order when the Civil Rights movement challenged the law of the land.

So is it any surprise today to find churches and church institutions often siding with law and order when people challenge the legal enshrinement of prejudice and injustice today? Is it any surprise to find churches and church institutions fighting tooth and nail—using every legal resource available to them—to combat the rights of workers to unionize, for instance? Even when those churches teach that workers have a human right to form unions . . . .

Catholic hospitals have often combated the right of workers to organize, despite clear statements in Catholic social teaching that the right of labor to organize is a human right. Catholic hospitals have sometimes been willing to use legal clout and money to harass workers who insisted on their right of free speech and right to organize, as human rights.

Given the record of churches and church institutions when it comes to choosing between the ethical and the legal, and given what I saw churches capable of in the American South in the Civil Rights period, I'm never surprised when churches defend (and use) unethical laws to achieve dishonorable goals, even if their own teachings call those laws into question on moral grounds.

I have come rather to expect this of the churches and their institutions, I'm sorry to say.