Running red lights-can disobeying law be ethical?
When it comes to the law we often want adolescents to think of it in strictly black and white terms, and certainly developmentally they may have challenges thinking of it in shades of gray, but this exercise is designed to do that.
Clearly in retrospect we know of laws that were unethical, such as bans on interracial marriage or laws requiring segregated schools. In contemporary society, we now debate gay marriage, while many states, including Arizona, forbid it by law.
This essay by Randy Cohen in the New York Times explores ethics and the law. Not all illegal behavior is unethical, cites Cohen arguing his law breaking while cycling is ethical.
Likewise, not all legal behavior is ethical–citing the great damage that cars do to our environment.
This essay creates an interesting an entry point for a class discussion that could then turn into a written essay or lead as a segway to other discussions of ethics and the law and human behavior.
While the discussion is important, this lesson is best focused on juniors or seniors in high school or freshman in college. One of the questions that could arise here is if marijuana is illegal, and my use of marijuana doesn’t hurt anyone but myself, then I don’t need to obey the law.
Be prepared for where you’d like to take a discussion like this, should it arise. Cycling is exercise, gets you some place, and is environmentally beneficial. Marijuana use is mind altering.
This could lead to a discussion of what are laws for? Are there laws you don’t obey? Does everyone needs laws to behave? What leads to the choices we make? This direction toward personal responsibility, something also embedded within Cohen’s essay could be a good tact to take.
Some kind of journaling or writing coming out of the discussion would enhance the lesson. Obviously, if the class was studying Kant that could be another direction to go.
If you use or adapt the lesson, give us feedback!
Link to Cohen’s essay:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/opinion/sunday/if-kant-were-a-new-york-cyclist.html
contributed by Dave Wells, Ph.D.
Arizona State University