Thomas Hobbes vs. Moral and Legal Responsibility

Is legal responsibility the same as moral responsibility? This requires two questions and answers. On the one hand, are we, as citizens of the United States, required to follow every law? My answer: “yes.” The government creates the laws in order to better our lives (at least, they believe the laws will help improve daily life). Do we have a moral responsibility to follow them? My answer: “yes.” If we aim to be moral human beings, then we should not be breaking the laws that are (supposedly) set up for our betterment.

 

However, the idea that we are going to follow every law is not realistic. For example: do you know anyone who has ever driven above the speed limit even by a couple of miles an hour? If so, then you broke the law. Are you no longer considered morally responsible? CORRECT! Even if you are going 35MPH in a 30MPH zone, you are putting others at risk. Obviously there can be some extreme circumstances where such action is required (i.e., driving a birthing mother to the hospital, driving someone who is injured to the hospital, etc.), but aside from those times, breaking a law such as the speed limit is not being morally responsible.

 

What makes this question so hard to answer is another question – where do we draw the line? How are we, as humans, supposed to know when it is acceptable to break the law? In a perfect world, there would be a specific list of actions that would be recognized as viable reasons to break the law. However, we do not live in such a society because even this would provide problems – as technology advances, the court system would have to find ways to adapt to the laws to fit the ever-changing society. This, of course, would fall completely out of line with Judge Scalia’s perspective on the law (law should be interpreted as it was written and there should be no modern interpretation).

 

While we are morally responsible for the following of the laws, it is not fair to think that following every law is possible. Thomas Hobbes believed that men are inherently evil. I tend to agree with this idea more often than not because of our basic instincts. Due to our natural survival instincts, and what I believe to be generally selfish nature (always wanting to be better than the next person or believing we simply are better), we are not being “good” or “moral” people. With that in mind, is moral responsibility the same as legal responsibility? No; for as immoral people, we cannot be expected to follow every law. 

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Moral Responsibility vs Legal Responsibility

When watching shows such as Law and Order  there is usually a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. If a defendant is found guilty, they are often painted as a morally corrupt person. However, sometimes this judgment is not so cut and dry. There are people who did not mean to harm anyone, but caused physical or emotional pain, and in some cases death. There are also some people who intended to cause harm, but were not able to do so. How do we set about to judge these people? How do we differentiate between moral and legal responsibility?

The law does not punish an attempted murder in the same way as an actual murder. It does not prioritize intentions over outcomes in the same way that many people believe moral judgment should. Everything depends on the results, whether death occurs. The law is concerned with definite results, and second with the intentions. However, knowing someone’s intentions can change your view on their innocence significantly.

Here is an example of differing intentions:

 

Possibility 1:

Abby and Seth work together in a large office building. They are both applying for a promotion for assistant manager. Abby gets the job so she has to go on a three week long business trip for training. She asks Seth to water the fern that is on her desk while she is on this trip. However, Seth is mad that Abby got the promotion. While she is gone, Seth does not water the fern like Abby asked. Instead, he ignores the fern. When Abby gets back, her fern is dead.

 

Possibility 2:

Abby and Seth work together in a large office building. They are both applying for a promotion for assistant manager. Abby gets the job so she has to go on a three week long business trip for training. She asks Seth to water the fern that is on her desk while she is on this trip. However, Seth is mad that Abby got the promotion. While she is gone, Seth does not water the fern like Abby asked. Instead, Seth pours acid on the fern. When Abby gets back, her fern is dead.

 

In these two situations, Seth has two differing intentions, but with the same outcome. In the first one he just ignores the fern. He doesn’t even think about it. But in the second situation Seth clearly determines to destroy the fern. Many people would say that Seth of the first situation was responsible for the death of the fern, but that he did not cause it. At the same time, the Seth of the second situation is responsible and caused the death of the fern.

So with these differing intentions we may be more inclined to judge the second Seth more harshly. This does not fit with the legal importance of outcome and that is where moral and legal responsibility ultimately calsh.

NAACP vs. Department of Education

Eight specialized New York City public schools, including the one I attended, Stuyvesant High School, have recently come under fire for their admissions process which consists solely of a singular examination. Critical members of the NAACP point out that despite the fact that over half of the city’s population is Black or Latino, these races only represented 3.6% of the student body at Stuyvesant (the most competitive of the 8 schools) last year. The NAACP is trying to hold the Department of Education responsible for this appallingly low percentage of racial minorities in some of NYC’s top schools and claims that the test has “breached the Civil Rights Act by having an ‘unjustified, racially disparate impact.'” It remains to be seen what will come of this complaint, however it has definitely stirred up a lot of controversy and is an interesting topic to look at with regards to both legal and moral responsibility.

Regardless of what side you are on, it is important to acknowledge that no test administered to hundreds of thousands of students will be perfect. The test is simply a rough measure of potential academic success and intelligence. It is hard to argue against the fact that for whatever reason Black and Latino students tend to not do as well as, for example, Asian students who make up a majority of the student population in schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science; the question is why. It is widely known that many in the Asian community devote much time and effort to studying for this exam- in fact many people I went to school with have been training to take this test for over 5 or 6 years. It is perhaps then not a coincidence that as a group, they tend to do better on this exam.

In an article about this controversy, the legal director of the NAACP is quoted as saying “Quite literally, a kid could have straights ‘A’s from kindergarten to Grade 8, could have won a national spelling bee. But none of that matters – all that matters is the test.” This is true, however it also brings up another point worthy of consideration. Whether or not it does so perfectly, the test gives us a way to compare people from different schools and backgrounds. Not all A’s are created equally and in fact I would argue that a person’s grades often have little to do with their intelligence and potential in life. Whether or not that means they should not be a factor in admissions as they are for this set of high schools is not a statement I am prepared to stand by; however given the fact that these schools see so many applicants and are percentage-wise more selective than the nation’s top colleges- it is not inconceivable that as a practical convenience a test like this may be necessary. Whether or not the NAACP wins this complaint legally, it is not clear whether or not an alternative to raise the amount of Blacks and Latinos would be something that is more morally responsible and fair than the test as it currently exists.

Source for quoted material and for more information

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/26/naacp-file-complaint-bias-new-york-high-schools_n_1918027.html