Dave was late so I began the class without him. We were team teaching an undergraduate class in psychology. It was unusual for him to be tardy.
“Sorry to be so late,” he said after class. “I got a parking ticket and was arguing with the officer who ticketed my car.”
“Were you guilty?” I laughed.
“Yes and no” he said. “I parallel parked the MG in a tight spot and it was probably 20-25 inches away from the curb. The law states vehicles must be no more than 18 inches from the curb. My old MG is a very narrow car — much narrower than any American made car. It was not sticking as far out into the street as the car parked behind me or the one in front.”
I stayed quiet as he kept talking.
“I know that law was made to keep cars from protruding too far out into the traffic. My little car did not. It is too narrow. So I argued that obeying the ‘spirit’ of the law was more important than the ‘letter’ of the law and that I did not violate that spirit. The letter of the law doesn’t make sense for such a small car.”
“Good point,” I said. “Did you get only a warning?”
“No. The officer didn’t buy it. He just smiled and said, ‘The law is the law,’ and handed me a ticket.” Dave managed a brief laugh.
Our country was founded on law. The second President John Adams wrote, “We are a nation of laws, not of men,” and with that he may have understood that law is the best possible foundation to protect and defend a large, diverse population founded on the twin pillars of equality and freedom.
Law is not perfect. It is often vague, incomplete or unnecessarily confining but at
least it is the same
for all. It provides
a route to a more
safe and civilized life with others. Laws are not banners of absolute truth. Laws are meant to protect us from the worst of us. Law and law enforcement doesn’t guarantee we’ll be at our best. Morality may do that.
Morality is tricky. There are many moral positions that may justify an action or decision. In 1958, social psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed six internal questions that one might ask to make moral choices:
1. Will I be caught and punished?
2. What’s in it for me?
3. Will I look good to my peers?
4. Is it law?
5. Is it helpful for other people?
6. Is it what I believe in as truth?
COVID 19 is still in our midst. Vaccines are being researched and developed and antidotes are being tested but the chances for final availability soon are slim. We have few weapons with which to fight this plague.
We do know some actions that decrease the likelihood of its spread: maintain a 6-foot spread from others, wash hands thoroughly, wear face masks covering the mouth and nose, and avoid confined and inhabited indoor spaces.
Public health professionals say wearing a mask is a simple precaution that is necessary and important to curb viral spread. Many elected officials also say citizens should wear masks while shopping, dining, being entertained or in worship. So, “To wear a mask or not to wear a mask? That is the question.”
Citizen compliance of the “wear masks” recommendation has been mixed. Many simply don’t mask-up and unthinkingly may jeopardize the health of others. Some consider masks as useless but grudgingly comply and refuse to cover their nose. Still others refuse indignantly to wear masks and feel that the requirement violates their personal freedom.
Our Constitution established us as a nation of laws. We have the constancy of law both to provide a shelter for our uniquenesss and to help curb our selfishness in the group. We each can make personal moral decisions but it is law that can regulate us for the good of the whole.
I once wrote that people are not like cattle. You can close off gates to drive cattle home by only one route but people keep climbing over the fences. Even
with law there
would still be some who would scale the wall.
But as my friend Dave found out long ago, “The law is the law,” and there can be consequences for noncompliance. We need a law.