Ben Hsu

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Laws, Morality, and US

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In the early 2000’s I was making my first attempt at a 4 year college degree when someone forced some pamphlet sized literature on me. Those of you who’ve been to the more traditional 4 year colleges know it’s not unusual for people to hand out (or force into the hands of) random pamphlets, magazines, postcards, and other assorted documents urging you to take action, but in this case the person handed me a pocket constitution and a quick reference to my rights if I should be arrested. Thus began my first exposure of the world outside the wealthy Chicago suburb I grew up in. I’m kind of ashamed to admit it, but at the time I was so wrapped up in myself that I barely leafed through the documents and they’ve long since been recycled (or trashed, I can’t remember). It was a little more than 10 years later (and 2 more attempts at getting a 4 year degree) before it really started to sink in that not all police were helpful Officer Friendly at your local school, here to lend a hand to law abiding citizens. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of helpful and friendly police officers out there. It just seems the number of helpful and friendly officers is significantly lower if you’re not white, cis-male, straight, christian, and at least middle class. At the same time I needed to stay on my parents’ insurance by claiming overaged dependency and I was starting to encounter the agonizing reality of trying to navigate a bureaucracy, something that can leave you crippled both financially and emotionally if you don’t have a lot of spare cash and time on your hands. I was confused, and I needed to do some thinking.

The core of my problem was that I, like many others, had been taught (brainwashed?) that legal and moral were synonymous. Laws were there to ensure immoral people were punished. If you were a law abiding citizen, you were a moral person. If you broke the law, you were being immoral. To be fair, that’s not a horrible way to think of things when you’re a young child, and from a well to do family. It just gets challenged if you ever notice that people are being treated differently than you, or if you move, lose your ‘honorary white’ status and start getting treated differently in turn. I found the solution to moral people breaking the law, and law abiding citizens being immoral to be relatively simple: separate laws and morality. Morals are what you look to when you’re trying to be a better person, it’s being kind and fair to your fellow humans (and often animals). Laws exist to ensure the society that created them continues to limp along the collective historical timeline. These two things should be in alignment. It’s immoral to kill someone. Ending someone’s life is generally thought to be the meanest thing you can do to someone. It’s against the law to kill someone because if everyone could go around killing everyone else, we very rapidly wouldn’t have enough people to have a society. But morality and legality are just as often counter to each other. South African apartheid, pre-Civil War American slavery, and Nazi Germany were all completely legal and extremely immoral. Laws are amoral and the fact that a huge number of Americans seem to look to them to decide what is moral and what is immoral is causing quite a few problems.

A core part of any society (though not the only part) is that everyone in the society agrees to follow the rules(laws) they’ve created. Ideally, there should be as few rules as possible enacted in order to keep the society running. Theoretically, we shouldn’t need a rule that says ,”don’t kill people,” people should just know not to kill people, or at the very least have no inclination toward killing other people. But that clearly doesn’t happen so…here we are. The other fun thing about laws is that you can tell what a society values not only by what laws it passes (voter suppression, refusal to acknowledge non-cis genders, etc.) but also by how the system chooses to enforce those laws (compare the average punishment for a white man vs a black man in possession of drugs). All of this is extremely amoral, immoral even, but that’s okay from the law’s perspective, the law, as stated, is not interested in morality, it’s interested in keeping society functioning.

I like to take some time right now to define what I consider a functioning society. Personally, I like to define a functioning society as: a society in which as many people as possible are free to go about their daily lives with minimal stress and worry. I use this definition because most people seem to implicitly agree with me, or at the very least have a hard time finding arguments against it. In an ideal society, everyone would be completely content with their lives and have no immediate worries or concerns. That’s obviously never going to happen, but every society should at least be creating laws with the intent to keep the “content people” numbers high and the “stress and worry” numbers low. This is the practical version of how morals and laws interact. People who constantly suffer due to others immoral behavior because “it’s legal” tend to be discontent, and societies that have large populations of discontent people tend to stop existing (usually in a slow decline, but occasionally very suddenly and violently). That’s the core of why people protest. It’s a show of the number of people who can’t continue to live their lives free of excessive stress and worry unless conditions change. In our particular society it’s also a show of the number of people who aren’t going to vote for the people in power come next election. Theoretically, this type of behavior should allow our government, and society, to continuously update its laws in order to keep up with the constantly changing needs of society, thus allowing our society to function for much longer than previous societies.

Henderson lives in the ideal society.

I say, ‘theoretically’ because the current shut down of the US government is proving otherwise (and you thought I wouldn’t write about it). For those of you reading in the far future, I’m talking about the 2018/2019 shutdown of the US government, currently the longest shutdown in US history (hopefully that record will never be broken). The fact that this shutdown is still happening and there hasn’t been an open revolt to start a new government has me thinking there are two possible, mutually exclusive situations happening. First, is that we’ve achieved an ideal state of social morality and everyone is now, not only capable of treating everyone else kindly and fairly, but does so inherently. If this possibility is true then we’re living in a utopia and the need for a government is obsolete. Given the recent, weirdly loud controversy about a shaving commercial and the number of news stories I’ve reading about people who can’t afford rent/food/medical treatment, I’m tempted to say this probably hasn’t happened. The alternative theory is that our governmental system was so inherently broken, and our society is so far from my definition of a ‘functioning society’ that the hardships brought on by the government shutdown are just another drop of diarrhea in the already shit filled bucket of life. I’m leaning toward this being the actual state of things. I’m open for debating this, if you can think of other alternatives, or think we are, indeed, living in a utopia, go ahead and comment. Otherwise, the rest of this article does assume the United States is one of those shithole countries.

The questions that come immediately to my mind are: “How did we get to this point?” “Is there anything we can do?” and “What the hell does this have to do with morality? I thought you were going to talk about morality as it relates to laws!” Remember when I said that laws have no interest in morality? Well, it’s not a two way street, morals and moral people are very interested in laws. I already mentioned the reason in a previous paragraph: People that constantly suffer at immoral behavior because it’s “legal” tend to be discontent, and societies that have large populations of discontent people tend to stop existing. Ideally, a society wants its most moral people in charge of laws (making, enforcing, and interpreting laws in the case of the United States). Moral people try to be as kind and fair to other people as possible (which is how I define morality). This should create a system in which the highest number of people are content and society is functioning at its best. The problem is that in order to be a moral person you need to either have the empathy and open mindedness needed to imagine the problems other people have, or have lived through enough conflict that you have the perspective to understand the problems of other people. Either way, you also need to be smart enough that you can then apply that governing a large society. Most of our elected leaders are not moral people. Arguably, most of our elected officials can’t be because they were born and raised wealthy.

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat for vilifying the rich, or bitches me out for being a communist or whatever, let me explain. I mentioned the requirements for being a moral person and I list those requirements because in order to be a moral person you need to be as kind and fair as possible to your fellow humans. It’s stupidly hard to be kind and helpful to someone if you don’t understand why their problems are problems. At the same time it’s hard to be fair if you don’t have a broad enough concept of how people can and are treated. Think of it this way: Me and random example person named Morgan decide to go in together for a large pizza. The fairest thing to do is that we each pay half the price, and eat half the pizza, right? Well, what if I told you that Morgan can only afford to eat once a day? Meanwhile I’m a fat, lazy fuck that can eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I’m sure many of you would say, “Well, that’s his problem. You paid for half the pizza, you should fucking get half the pizza.” Okay first of all, I never said Morgan was a “he” so let’s stick to “they” shall we? And second I never told you why Morgan can’t afford food. What if they’re trying to save money because their mother has cancer and they need to pay for treatment? Meanwhile I’m still a fat, lazy fuck that can eat whatever I want whenever I want. And some of you might reply, “Whatever, Morgan should have been smarter financially, or they should have found a job at a company with better health benefits. You should still get half the pizza.” Personally, I think that’s a bit callous, but thank you for using ‘they’ instead of ‘he.’ Now, what if I told you that Morgan did have a job at a company with great benefits, but lost it just before the cancer diagnosis because technological advancements made their skill set obsolete. Now, they can’t go to school to learn a new skill set because all their money is tied up in inflated cancer treatment costs, and no company will hire them for on-the-job skill training because that means the company might potentially lose money if Morgan turns out to be a bad at their new skill set. Meanwhile, all my wealth was inherited from my rich great-grandfather, and investments made before I was born mean I can basically retire out of high school. Instead, I think I’m going into politics. This thought process can just keep going if we want to, but the point is: if I want to be a good, moral person, in which area of Morgan’s clusterfuck of a life should I help them out, and how? I don’t have an answer, but I feel like, given I did nothing to obtain my wealth and Morgan and their mother are struggling just to stay afloat, the least I can do is buy the poor sod a goddamn pizza. Expand this type of thinking dilemma out to the entire population of the United States and you’ll see the type of thinking our leaders should applying to the issues plaguing our country. Keeping a society running is complicated, to say the least.

Which brings me back to why it’s so hard for people who are born and raised rich to be moral. You see, the rich will never have to be in Morgan’s situation because like the theoretical me in the example, they can just buy whatever pizza they want, whenever they want. And they can shell out for good health insurance out of pocket. Additionally, because we all tend to live, work, go to school with, hang around people of our income level, etc they will probably never meet and interact with anyone like Morgan and their mother. Morgan is just another number in a report to the rich that will never be read. Since the rich will more than likely lack the experience needed to truly be good people, we’re dependent on our leaders being empathetic and open minded enough to draw the proper conclusions when they read a report about how high the homeless level is growing in the United States, or how out of control our healthcare costs are, or any other number issues that plague anyone that isn’t rich.  Last I checked, empathy and open mindedness weren’t part of the regular school curriculum. It’s not impossible for the rich to be good people, it happens with surprising frequency, but they do have a handicap.

In our society money basically equals power and those who have the most money are often those that are willing to do the most immoral things to get it (remember, my definition of morality is to be as kind and fair to your fellow humans as possible). Basically, we’ve let a bunch of selfish, amoral sociopaths write the laws of our society for the past who knows how long. The only time the rules change are when enough of us get together that one of them feels threatened, and then only when they don’t have another option (like sending police or Pinkerton agents). Even then, the laws will only change just enough to quiet us down. This government shut down proves we’ve let the worst people be in charge of writing the laws in our country. Countless American citizens are facing homelessness, starvation, and death from lack of medical treatment all because a few individuals want more than everyone else is willing (or capable) to give. The insane part is that they are within their legal right to do so. Any functioning society would have these people dragged out into the street and shot; they are literally stopping society from functioning, and using the law to do it, which is the opposite of what laws are explicitly supposed to do. I cannot think of any better proof to show how dysfunctional our society is, and how immoral the bulk of our leaders are.

I tempted to say that the solution to the problem is very selective application of fire, but that would be completely immoral. All I’ve got is that we keep threatening these asshats, in their wallets and their power base. We keep voting and protesting. We don’t like these fucks run unopposed on any level of the government, and we don’t become single issue votes because so much evil can slip past if you only care about one thing. Most of all, whenever we see the law and morality get mismatched, we do everything we can to change it.

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