[Micah’s note: Upon reviewing this post, I realize that I seemingly gave unfettered approval to the idea of “laws of morality.” When I use the word “morality” in this post, I’m referring to the idea of morality on a societal level… I guess what most people would be more comfortable calling “ethics.” I do not believe in legislating morality on a personal level.]
As I exited the MARTA fare gate tonight, a guy concurrently jumped fare by wedging himself in between the doors next to me, entering the station and presumably going on his way.
I had no intention of reporting his activity, but in the interest of critical thinking, I asked myself why. Was I too lazy? (Yes.) Was I convinced the likelihood of authorities catching him was small? (Yes again.)
But if I knew I could get him in trouble and prevent him from completing his trip (at best) or get him carted off to jail and banned from the transit system (at worst), would I do so?
This time the answer was no. I reflected on that answer, and I began to flesh out an idea that’s been running around in my head for some time.
The idea is that are two types of laws: laws of morality and laws of control.
I don’t claim to have invented this dichotomy. Having never taken a class in legal theory, philosophy, or political science, I’m quite sure I’m unintentionally parroting some well-established concept. But the ideas here, however familiar, are completely my own.
I would maintain that the law that you must pay a fare to board public transit is moreso a law of control than of morality. Yes, it’s a form of stealing, but even as self-righteous as I can be, I must concede the added expense burden of one train passenger is negligible to non-existent.
Everyone can’t stop paying fares, but if 5% of passengers have hitched a free ride, there’s negligible additional burden on the system unless it runs at greater than 95% capacity. In Atlanta, I can assure you this is not the case.
Because there is some risk to fare evasion, though, MARTA can assure that no more than 5% (or whatever agreeable percentage) of its passengers are freeloaders. This makes fare evasion laws a way of controlling undesirable behavior rather than a way of unconditionally punishing all instances of the behavior.
I don’t want to waste space justifying fare evasion, but I’m sure we could all relate to a dilemma where it would be preferable to break a law than to face the consequences of not making it where you’re going (being fired from your job, not seeing a sick loved one, missing a friend’s surprise birthday party). Most of us, given the correct circumstance, would break the law.
This may all seem like philosophical musing, but you have to know with my liberal tendencies I’m heading somewhere with this.
So much of the moral confusion among Americans (and presumably elsewhere, but I’m only going to generalize as much as I’m comfortable) lies in the fact that people don’t discern the difference between laws of control and laws of morality.
Laid bare against the framework of history, failed laws to enforce segregation, discrimination, and prohibition are clear as efforts to control people rather than make them more moral. Laws regarding different types of discrimination and prohibition are crumbling around us as we speak. The generation behind us would have argued strenuously that these laws preserve morality; the generation ahead of us will likely shake their heads at how obviously they were designed to control people.
So in some ways it’s a matter of perspective. And beyond that, laws of control are not always bad. Sometimes, the greater good is at stake. Driving 71 miles per hour is not immoral, but the speed limit is a useful control for preventing traffic accidents.
It’s important to know the difference, though. Where those in charge feel the most nervous, there are the most laws of control (sex, women, the marginalized). Thinking strategically about why certain laws exist and how they are enforced can give a great deal of context to the correlation of legality and morality.
That guy going through the fare gate was traveling well under the speed limit and could not possibly have injured anyone through his reckless fare-hopping. So I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.