Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Breaking the Law

Michael Goodgame, a college freshman commentary writer in today's Star Tribune, described the ethical confusion he feels, having grown up within a two-tiered world of legality and illegality.

At 7, he noticed his mother speeding and ever since has been wondering. Similarly, he wrote, 18- to 20-year-olds drink, with authorities mostly looking the other way.

So why not cheating? What's wrong with that? he hears his age cohort asking.

Here's the clue, young man: Look for the victims.

Is there a victim if your mother drives 62 in a 55? Do the people who drive 55 suffer for her behavior? An argument can be made that speeding leads to crashes, and clearly at some point it does, but your garden-variety speeder, going at the overall rate of traffic, isn't causing crashes. Inattention and driving too fast for conditions cause crashes.

Yet it's still worth having speed limits -- even if they're largely ignored -- because they set an expectation that drivers will maintain reasonable speeds, rather than treating the highway like a drag strip.

If a 19-year-old drinks, does it harm a 19-year-old who doesn't (assuming she doesn't have to clean up the other's vomit)? Does it harm anyone younger or older than the age group, any more than drinking alcohol in general does? No, it doesn't. Goodgame even described the rule that applies to underage drinking: "You can pretty much drink underage in America -- just (please) don't act like an idiot." Kind of like going the speed of traffic, but not texting or fixing your hair behind the wheel.

Now compare drinking and speeding with cheating. If you cheat, is there a victim? There certainly is -- the people who don't cheat are robbed of their honest accomplishment. Don't let yourself be seduced by that old lie, "Everyone is doing it." "Everyone" is not doing it. That's just cognitive dissonance speaking.

What about other supposedly victimless crimes? In theory, prostitution could be victimless, a business arrangement between two consenting adults, one selling her (or his) body to another. However, in all too many cases, the one selling her body didn't start doing it without coercion, and usually at a much younger age than those underage drinkers. The coercion continues even in adulthood in many, many cases.

What about drugs? If they were legal or decriminalized, I wouldn't have a problem with someone deciding to use them, but in the current situation, using an illegal drug supports a whole host of terrible consequences for innocent people, here and in other countries, and even for the land, such as our national parks. (Medical marijuana, however, if grown by a known source that doesn't involve any of those faults, is fine, in addition to being legal.)

Goodgame concluded by saying, "The rule has turned from 'do it right' to 'don't get caught doing it wrong.' Our society needs some lessons in why that's the incorrect method before we're going to learn how to run this world."

That lesson is one simple question: Is there a victim?

If the answer is clearly yes, obey the law.

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