Lately, Ethics Alarms has been pretty much all about the Kavanaugh confirmation shit show, and I’m just sick of writing about it, so as a change of pace, I’d like to revisit one of Jack Marshall’s posts from January of 2016, and especially one of his responses to a comment that has stuck with me as an example of Jack at his worst.
In the post itself, Jack took on Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who argued that Latino candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz should do more to support “undocumented immigrants.” That’s a phrase that always sets Jack off:
Those who engage in illegal immigration are immigrants, and because their manner of immigration is illegal, they are illegal immigrants. Those who insist on calling them merely immigrants are lying; those who favor euphemisms like “undocumented workers” are engaging in intentional deceit.
Aside from the logical incoherence of accusing people of lying for calling them “immigrants” right after Jack himself calls them “immigrants” — which we can probably put down to hasty writing — there are plenty of legitimate things you can say about immigrants which are true for legal and illegal immigrants alike. Furthermore, it’s entirely accurate to refer to these people as “undocumented” immigrants because, in fact, it is precisely their lack of documents that sets them apart from other immigrants and makes them illegal. And it’s hardly deceitful, because everybody understands this.
I think Jack doesn’t like “undocumented” because it doesn’t carry the same stigma that “illegal” does. Jack is on team “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” and he regards coming here illegally as the one unforgivable sin.
This is a convenient rhetorical crutch for Jack — arguing that once some conduct is outlawed it becomes irredeemably unethical — which he uses it to avoid having to argue for the law itself. I don’t understand how anyone who is familiar with history and seen our elections could possibly believe that our legislatures consist of people who produce only ethical laws deserving obedience — slavery being the canonical counterexample — but it’s an assumption Jack relies on all the time.
In the comments, Pieter van Megchelen challenges Jack on this point:
[…] I fail to understand how ‘illegal’ means the same as ‘unethical’ or ‘immoral’. I can imagine many morally valid reasons to break the law of a country, especially if you perceive that law as unjust or even unethical. […]
Breaking the law has many (other) ethical aspects, I might endangers others, etcetera, but I have always been taught that legality and morality are essentially different categories. What is illegal may be morally right, and what is legal may be morally abject (I know you agree with the last part of this sentence).
Of course, the ultimate ‘proof’ of the first half of this thesis is in historical extremes: there were laws against homosexuality in most countries, there have been laws against Jews and other groups, laws against abortion have endangered women’s lives, etc. Rumour has it that in Iran, it’s even forbidden to smile outside. If that is true, is it immoral to smile in the streets?
Jack’s response is alternately authoritarian and idiotic.
A citizen is ethically obligated to follow a nation’s laws as part of the social contract with that country. If he violates a law on principle, he is ethically obligated to voluntarily accept the consequences.
Jack is thinking of civil disobedience, where the goal is to protest an unjust law by flagrantly breaking it in a highly visible manner. But that only works when the punishment is not too severe. It makes no sense to break the law to make a statement, and then allow yourself to be silenced by a long prison sentence. The demonstrators who staged the Boston Tea Party wore disguises because they did not want to get caught.
Furthermore, protest is not the only reason good people break laws. Sometimes obedience to the law is harmful to society. The “conductors” who ran the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to the North didn’t “voluntarily accept the consequences” by turning themselves in to the authorities. Instead they operated in secret for many years, freeing thousands of people from misery.
Moreover, from a utilitarian standpoint, it is the consequences of a bad law that make it bad. Years ago, many states had laws against sodomy which were enforced mostly against gay people. The harm from such laws did not come from their mere existence in the criminal code. The harm came from the fact that police enforced these laws by dragging gay people away in handcuffs and locking them in cages. By Jack’s argument, people who engaged in sodomy should have “accepted the consequences,” presumably by turning themselves in at the nearest police station.
Just violating laws when it’s convenient or beneficial fails the Kantian test: if that were a universal standards, civilization would collapse.
Any idea will fail the “What if everybody did that?” test if you generalize it in the most stupid way possible. “Dance parties are unethical because if everyone danced all the time, no one would harvest the crops, and we would all starve to death!”
Jack is attacking a straw man by supposing that opponents of current immigration laws are arguing in favor of violating all laws. The appropriate generalization is that they think everybody should be allowed to violate immigration laws, which is a very different proposition.
(As a libertarian, I would consider an even wider generalization. Foreigners coming here to live normal lives — working, making friends, raising families — aren’t hurting anyone, so undocumented immigration is a crime without a victim, and it’s far from the only one. Applying the Kantian test, we should then imagine what would happen to our civilization if everyone was willing to break all laws against victimless crimes. Personally, I think it would be wonderful.)
Illegal aliens are violating the obligation to obey the laws of other countries, and worse, won’t accept the consequences. There is no ethical argument that supports this, just emotional ones.
I’ve never understood what Jack means by calling these arguments “emotional.” I think maybe he’s just tired of hearing sad stories about immigrants dragged away from their lives by the authorities, and he regards these as emotional appeals. And I guess that’s what they are. But they are also evidence of the enormous harm caused by these laws. Take any of those sad stores and multiply it by a few tens of thousands, and you have some idea of the scale of harm caused by immigration enforcement.
What I rarely ever hear from Jack is the argument in favor of these laws, other than the fact that they are laws, which is the rhetorical equivalent of might makes right. Winning the legislative battle doesn’t mean your side is right, only that your side is powerful.
Not to niggle, but saying breaking laws isn’t immoral is absurd, because morality is established by rules and laws. Breaking laws is by definition immoral.
Not to nitpick, but this is completely backward. Morality is not established by law. If law is the ultimate determinant of right and wrong, then by what principles should we determine what the law should be? If law is the ultimate determinant of right and wrong, how could we ever advocate changing the law? Ideally, the law must be crafted to serve morality. And here in the real world, where laws are created by imperfect people following imperfect processes, the law and morality are often at odds, sometimes in ways that justify defiance of the law.
Yes, in Iran, it’s immoral to smile in the street.
God, Jack is such an authoritarian bootlicker.
First of all, to use one of Jack’s favorite phrases, res ipsa loquitur, “the thing speaks for itself.” A law against smiling is too fucking stupid to be taken seriously. Everybody should just ignore it.
Second, you can’t talk about the immorality of disobeying Iranian law without taking into account what kind of government Iran has. It’s one thing to argue for a norm of obedience to the laws of a republican democracy like we have in the U.S., but it’s crazy to expect that of people in a country like Iran, which is at least partially under the control of a theocratic dictatorship. It is not a free country. By the American standard — “of the people, by the people, for the people” — it doesn’t even have a legitimate government. It’s absurd to think there is any ethical duty to obey these laws just because autocrats with guns say you should.
(Note: I’m pretty sure that the the Iranian law against smiling is a myth. On the other hand, the Gasht-e Ershad really do try to enforce equally vile and stupid rules on how women can dress in public.)
I really don’t understand what’s going through Jack’s mind when he writes stuff like this. Maybe it’s a hazard of his day job as a professional ethics trainer. In that role, he can’t very well advise his clients to break the rules. He has to take things like laws and professional ethics codes as given. He can’t tell someone, “That law uses a bogus public safety justification to protect politically powerful business interests, so there’s nothing wrong with disobeying it.” Not even when, in a case such as Louisiana’s florist licensing law, there’s nothing wrong with disobeying it.
But that’s the wrong approach to ethical thinking when discussing issues of public policy. In fact, saying “the authorities have ruled and it’s unethical to disobey them” isn’t ethics at all. It’s the abdication of ethics in favor of power.