Ethics Blog

previous postprev | main | nextnext post

Ethical and Illegal

October 1, 2007

Any action we undertake, or are about to undertake can fall into one of the four categories below:

I. Ethical and Legal
II. Unethical and Illegal
III. Unethical and Legal
IV. Ethical and Illegal

Situation in categories I and II are rather easy is to resolve but situation in categories III and IV can pose serious dilemmas.

There are instances when what is morally right is illegal.

Ms. Janet Hinshaw-Thomas was arrested last week by Canadian authorities for accompanying Haitians seeking asylum in Canada. She was charged with human trafficking. Ms. Hinshaw-Thomas is the founder of Prime-Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees. Her lawyer said: "She is not running some kind of covert murky operation at all, she was doing this on a purely humanitarian basis to assist refugees who are seeking asylum in a country where they have a right to present their claims." Ms. Hinshaw-Thomas had advised the Canadian Border authorities five days prior to her trip and had provided information as to the when she would arrive and how many refugees she had with her. Yet, she broke the law and could spend the rest of her life in jail.

Peter Steinfels, the religious editor at the New York Times recalls how he was arrested back in 1971 and spent a week in jail. He was a student at the Union Theological Seminary and was protesting against the Vietnam War by holding, with other seminarians, a religious service in front of the White House. He refused the police order to disperse and when arrested, declined to post the $10 bail.

The concept of civil disobedience, which is a deliberate and open breaking of a law for a high moral reason, is well accepted in our free society. The author Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay published in 1849 called Civil Disobedience in which he argues that we have a right to follow our conscience.

How do we know when we are truly facing such a situation? Below are some simple steps that might help in making such a radical decision.

1. Test your motives to be sure that they are truly of higher moral standards.
2. Obtain trusted advice from family and friends to find out if there are any other means to accomplish the same goal.
3. Obtain legal advice to make sure you are aware of the legal consequences
4. Think of the consequences of your action for yourself as well as for others.
5. Consider whether you could live with yourself by either making the decision of breaking the law or to the contrary, by making the decision to break your own moral code.

Remembering as Schopenhauer once said, that: "Compassion is the basis of all morality."

| Add a comment | Permalink


previous postprev | main | nextnext post


Comments (2)

December 23rd, 2007 at 3:33 am Posted by Jim Van Laak

Another very interesting post, and one on a subject that my wife and I have discussed at great length.

In her book, The Challenge of Why - A Secular Search for Human Purpose, she spends considerable time discussing the differences between the following concepts:

right versus wrong
good versus evil
good versus bad
legal versus illegal
moral versus immoral versus amoral

The exploration of these topics covers perhaps 5 pages in the book and is therefore too lengthy to cut and paste to this site, but let me point out that there are multiple layers to this subject beyond moral and legal. The most immediate is the pragmatic one - the question of what is the right thing versus the wrong thing to do at any point.

The clearest exploration of this is in considering war, particularly a defensive war. The entrance of the US into the second world war is the classical example of the pragmatically correct decision that results in widespread immoral action (killing on a wide scale). The fact that we did not start the war does not alter the fact that widespread evil results from our entrance, but following the logic and criteria she develops the answer can normally be found without too much trouble, at least in retrospect.


April 9th, 2011 at 7:48 am Posted by Serkan Aktas


I am looking for an example, where illegal corporate accounting practice was undertaken but was still ethical during 2009 and 2010.

Challenging one! Any help is much appreciated.


Post Your Comment 

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

(you may use HTML tags for style)