In ethics, what should take precedence – the letter of the law or actions with good intentions?

Several weeks ago, Mr TotallyNotACommunist Senior, found himself at odds with the law, albeit for a minor infringement. Every few weeks, TNAC Snr. heads into the city in order to help prepare free food for currently homeless individuals. In order to do so, and avoid the extortionate parking charges which the Council levies in their car parks, TNAC Snr. parks on the street outside of the centre where he does his charitable work. However, in doing so he must park on double yellow lines, which contravenes Rule 238 of the Highway Code but the coordinator of the group says that he has a verbal memorandum of understanding with the parking officials, who recognise the good intentions of their activities and thus won’t ticket them. Seemingly however, this understanding was ignored by one parking official who proceeded to ticket the vehicles of those volunteering. At face value, this seems wrong – the parking attendant was punishing people who were acting for the common good but in reality can this relationship between the law and good actions either work or even be right?

One of the key principles of law is that of proving liability. Therein can be found an important difference between criminal and civil law and may be able to point as to how individual morality can interact with concepts of justice. Parking fines, in England and Wales, fall into the category of civil law, in which liability is proven on balance of probability. In criminal law, liability depends on the prosecution being able to prove that the defendant has both the intention to commit a criminal action or mens rea and has committed the action of which they are accused, the actus reus. To apply the parking ticket incident to this, liability for the fine lies solely with the volunteers which is proven through photographic evidence from the Parking Enforcement Officers – no question, but is it just that a penalty is levelled in this circumstance? The decision lies with the local Council authorities which have the power to ask for fines for parking infringements under the Traffic Management Act 2004 and can pursue, where they see fit, compensation under the authority of the act. Therefore it is established that in this instance, the execution of justice falls to the Council, to be levied on the individual. But it should be said that no crime has actually been committed. A crime would be that which breaks the criminal law, in this instance, it is civil.

That being said, would it still be just to levy some form of compensation? If there is no victim, no crime committed, no infringement of the criminal statute books, would it be right for the Council to ask for money when the inextricable intention of the act was for the good? From a Utilitarian perspective, as understood by Bentham, the answer would be a no – the good created through the charitable action outweighs the pain created from breaking a broadly meaningless law which manages where you can park. A Situational Ethics approach would also reach the same conclusion. It is likely that deontological ethical theories such as those of Aquinas or Kant would be in favour too of the intention for good over the human law which manages parking offences, taking into account that no crime has been committed which may infringe upon the rights of another person. A majority of people would also say that it would be unjust for an apparent punishment to be levelled. It seems common sense that in this instance, the good of the action, outweighs the loss of money to the Council and that in that instance it would be just. But, taking this thought process into account, can this be applied to criminal law?

British Police Officers during an arrest – Can principles of justice be applied relatively, or does that destroy the very meaning of justice? (Credit: Paul Townsend under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Let’s apply the relativistic principle of good intentions being more just than dealing out punishment to a hypothetical crime. Imagine a homeless individual is walking along the pavement and sees an obviously wealthy man step into his Mercedes and drive away. Not known by the rich man, he dropped his wallet onto the pavement. The homeless gentleman picks up the wallet and finds it contains £500 in cash. He takes it and goes to buy some food for himself but is arrested by a Policeman who saw him take the wallet. Would it be just for a prosecution to take place? This scenario is highly similar to that of the civil case presented earlier except this time it is a crime against the Crown as per the Theft Act 1968 and liability is proven according to mens rea and actus reus. Does the distinction between this and a civil case warrant a different answer? Many would say no. To bring back the philosophers, Bentham would say punishment should not be exercised, as would Joseph Fletcher – however Kant and Aquinas would likely disagree, for either breaking the Categorical Imperative or for breaching the Primary Precepts. But common wisdom would point towards no punishment being distributed – fair enough.

Let us take the scenario to the next step however – would it be morally acceptable not to bring prosecution in the instance where the rich man is mugged for the wallet? Surely, by the same logic of intention over the law, the pleasure garnered by the homeless would be far greater than the temporary pain suffered by the rich man? Taking it further, would it be worth killing him? For £500 perhaps not, but what about £5,000 or £50,000 which could be used to enhance the lives of potentially hundreds of others? Some would argue yes, others no, but in that instance, who or what establishes what is just or when punishment should be applied?

From this, it can be established that the balance for whether the intentions of good actions are higher than the authority are, at heart, completely subjective. This begs the question – could a justice system ever work on such a relativistic basis in which it is decided on a case-by-case basis whether punishment should be given? In my opinion, the simple answer is no. For the Law to be practical it cannot be subverted according to intentions or consequences – the letter of the Law must be gospel, under most circumstances. The idea that in certain cases justice would be best served in ignoring the punishment as mandated by the Law may seem common-sensical but functionally impossible. This principle is extended to crimes such as murder, but the very definition of the crime depends on proving intent – whether it was committed for a good intention or end is unimportant. Whether you killed someone for the good or not, you must still be punished for murder. Supposing we ask why this must be, in my eyes, it seems that if we did not then we would fall into anarchy. From my admittedly somewhat statist perspective, it seems that the purpose of the Law is two-fold. The first is to exercise moral standards which have been agreed on through due process. The second is to provide the state and society with a concrete, universally applicable set of rules on which order can be based and anarchy avoided. Without a deontological law, a society cannot function and if the idea that good intentions can trump the agreed law, then the entire system would collapse.

Unfortunately, it seems TNAC Snr. is deserving of his parking ticket.

Thank you for reading this week’s somewhat longer and perhaps more rambling, theoretical pondering article. What are your opinions on justice and how it should interact with morality? I may well return to this in the future, with a slightly more focused article.