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I am Singaporean XIX – Legality and Morality July 23, 2009

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean, Vol. II.
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A more serious take on MRT’s new, Nazi-esque ruling on eating and drinking in MRT trains, where this woman was fined $30 for chewing on candy, despite the reasons she gave for doing so:

Legality and morality are two areas which are easily confused, and people tend to set the equation legal = moral as valid and true.  But is it true?  Is that which is legal also moral?  Also, are lawbreakers per definitionem immoral?  What is, firstly, morality?  Here are two possible definitions:

  1. One can say that morals evolved as a means of dealing with each other, by agreeing on a certain set of rules of conduct which each must obey.  With this definition, laws can be seen as a codification of these rules of conduct, and laws can be equated to morals.
  2. Morals are defined as that through which the individual can attain happiness.  In behaving morally, one remains psychically in balance (Aristotle, Nic. Eth.) and does not have to deal with his worst enemy, his conscience.  Here, laws are a guideline as to how one can attain the most happiness possible, and have to be interpreted with regard to every situation.  The individual is aware that morals and laws are not the same.

However, definition (1) is problematic – even if morals were originally a means of communal life, this view of laws and morals leaves out one important aspect of ethics – the reflection on morals and if need be, laws.  A case in point is this: in Nazi Germany, harbouring a Jew was illegal.  But given the knowledge that this Jew would probably end up in the gas chambers, would it be moral to lie to the authorities about harbouring a Jew?  A similiar case is this case about candy in MRT trains.  Obviously, Roger Foo didn’t reflect about the law he was about to enforce.

Laws mean exceptions to the law, and laws are, despite their attempt to attain generality, are not universal.  Some laws are universal, like those against murder or rape, but this is a grey area.  Laws need interpretation, but most Singaporeans, indeed most humans, like to see an equivalence between what the law says and what morality says.  It simplifies the world.  But we pride ourselves on being an educated society.  Being educated also means being able to apply laws and rules in a way suitable to the particular situation.  The image of the unthinking civil servant who follows a particular law blindly, without reflection, shows how desensitised, or maybe even stupid, or maybe fearful of authority, we have become.  We follow rules, even when our common sense says we should reflect, NOW.

The unreflected application of definition (1) leads to the view that morals are slippery things which are always threatened by decay, thus the laws are required as codified morality.  There is always the slippery slope argument, which says that: if i let this pass, others will follow suit and soon everyone will be eating on the trains again.  But without reflection, how can there be progress?  How can a society progress in terms of its maturity?  The equivalence of laws and morals mean that any and every law can be introduced arbitratily and will be followed to the word, which leads to the possibility of abuse.

The Films Act may be moral in denying minors access to pornographic movies – but what about the Films Act with regard to political films?  Is that moral?  How will the human, the political animal, know his place in society if he is just depoliticised?  How will he unlock his highest potential if he doesn’t know where his highest potential belongs?

According to definition (2), morality is a means to an end, namely happiness.  You can be happy through moral behaviour, because through moral behaviour, you are realising your personal goodness, and if Plato is right in saying that every soul wants the good (Republic, Book VI), then moral behaviour is the way for achieving happiness and being at peace with oneself, because the soul has taken one step closer to the good.

The problem here is the definition of “good.”  Moral goods are immaterial – they can neither be seen nor felt, and that is why this definition is often ignored or snorted at, especially in increasingly materialistic societies like Singapore.  If we do not know our position in society (following the unreflected application of definition (1)), then the only good we know will most probably be a material one, since we can compare with others and see ourselves as good or bad.  But this view, that the goodness of humans are defined by how much they have, must be certainly one met with revulsion.

What about Jesus?  Buddha?  Gandhi?  Mother Teresa?  What about religions?  Do our laws really reflect on our agreed code of conduct on how to live with one another, and if so, what does this say about our society?

We can bring both views together:

  1. Morals are agreed rules of conduct for communal life.
  2. Morals are the means through which one can be good.
  3. (1) + (2) Assuming that humans want to, by their nature, attain the good, then morals are agreed rules of conduct for communal life, through which the community can be good.  The laws are then guidelines on how to attain the good, and require interpretation on how to attain the good in any particular situation.

This view may be overly optimistic, foolish and idealistic, and it leads to the ultimate conclusion that the moral person does not need laws, because he already knows what is good.  But without the conviction that humanity desires the good and abhors evil, what is there left for our existence on this Earth?

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1. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 24 Jul 2009 - July 24, 2009

[…] ERPains, Trains & Automobiles – Die neue Welle: I am Singaporean XIX – Legality and Morality […]

2. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 30 - July 25, 2009

[…] ERPains, Trains & Automobiles – Diary of A Singaporean Mind: No eating on the MRT.. – Singapore Life and Times: A fine society – The fire in my life: Can anyone please help Roger Foo? [Thanks Joel] – Dee Kay Dot As Gee: Public Service Announcement: No sweet allowed on SMRT – The Lycan Times: SMRT To Reinforce No Drinking / Eating On Trains – Sgpolitics.net: Ignoring the spirit of the law: Woman fined $30 for eating sweet on MRT to relieve motion sickness – Die neue Welle: I am Singaporean XIX – Legality and Morality […]


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