Morality, Ethics and Liberty

It seems that not a week passes these days without reports of some sort of reprehensible human behavior.  Most recently we heard of a bunch of kids laughing and jeering a man as he was drowning.  We might be inclined to blame violent films or video games for “teaching” people to take pleasure in the suffering and death of others.  But, so far as I can tell, the ancient Romans did not have XBox and they regularly enjoyed such spectacles.  Worse yet, the spectacles were actually staged to indulge their appetite for violence and death.  As much as things change, the dark side of humanity remains.

We also received the news this past week that Senator John McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer.  Now this is clearly a man who has sacrificed and sought to serve his country throughout his life.  I rarely agree with his views on much of anything.  But he is a fellow human being and he has a family and friends.  He undoubtedly has many wonderful personal qualities.  I wish him nothing but the best and hope he beats this and has many more years of life ahead of him. But there are those who took perverse pleasure in hearing of this man’s pain.  I suppose the ultimate in political enmity is to wish your opponent dead.  I have little doubt that many would cheer the passing of our dear President.  There would probably be celebrations in the street.  

So we are once again reminded of just how ugly human beings can be.  We say awful things.  We take pleasure in one another’s suffering and death.  Perhaps we react so strongly to such things because we know we ourselves are capable of doing the same things, as much as we wish it were not so.  We disapprove so loudly to scold not just these individuals but to beat back that dark part of ourselves.

As is often the case, such outrage leads to calls to punish these people.  But simply taking pleasure in the suffering of others hardly passes muster as a crime.  If I push a man into a river to watch him drown, I have violated his rights.  If I see a man drowning in a river, I should not be obliged to risk my own life to rescue him.   In my case, as I cannot swim, I would most certainly perish as well.  While taking pleasure in someone’s demise is pretty awful, it doesn’t change the outcome one bit. And so we draw a line between law and morality.  What is immoral should not always be illegal, as much as we sometimes want it to be.  The old saw “there ought to be a law” is, quite rightly, mostly used ironically.  A wise man knows that the law is not the best tool to use in such cases.  Public censure and ostracism can be just as effective.

And it is precisely because of the dark side of human nature that we seek a more limited role for government.  Human beings will never be angels and it is those same human beings who exercise the police power of the state.  As we have too often learned, simply putting on a badge or a uniform does not guarantee ethical behavior.  And, in some cases, it may excuse unethical behavior.  I fear the organized sadism of the secret police far more than the sick minds of a few random people, awful though they may be.  And, yes, liberty does include the liberty to be a shitty human being.  We all know a few.

Thanks for reading.  I hope all of you will do your best this week to be better human beings.   I’ll be back at the end of the week to check out how you did.  Until then, take care!

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