Living in a society means following the rules and principles established by it. However, in a range of cases, the necessity to depart from the black and white world of ethics appears to evaluate a certain dilemma. As a result, a person that has committed a crime may arouse more sympathy than their victim.
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At this point, the fact that there are laws of ethics and legal laws should be brought up. What is viewed as a crime (e.g., stealing medicine) may be viewed as redeemable from a certain ethical dimension (e.g., stealing medicine to save someone’s life)? Therefore, the question to be answered can be paraphrased as “is it impermissible to break a legal regulation even once committing a crime means following the laws of ethics?” This triggers an immediate question concerning the need to punish such a criminal.
Since the very existence of the society is based on compliance with a specific set of regulations, breaking the law must never be regarded as a permissible action; however, the ethical implications that a certain crime may have should be used as extenuating circumstances.
The issue of crime and punishment became a literary trope quite a while ago; as a result, a range of novels, poems and other types of literature feature the ethical dilemma in question, also known as the principle of double effect (Kelly, Magill and Have 108). Among the most famous literary characters, who were forced to step on the slippery road of crime for the greater good, Jean Valjean should be mentioned.
While the punishment that he took was entirely out of proportion to what he had done, the fact is that he still was a criminal. Valjean’s severe punishment displays the failure of the judicial system of the time, yet it would be wrong to claim that Javert is a monster because he does not let the thief go.
Quite on the contrary, Javert does exactly what he is supposed to do, i.e., he catches the thief. It could be argued that Javert’s attempts to bring logic and justice into the chaos of the French Revolution seem rather pathetic; however, he believes that his efforts keep the society from disintegrating completely (Kang 165).
Real World Reference
The principle of double effect is part and parcel of reality as well. The discussions around the issue of euthanasia are a graphic example of people fighting over the conflict between the ethics of justice and the laws that make its basis. On the one hand, killing another person or assisting someone with suicide is clearly against the basic regulations, which declare that human life is the greatest value of society.
On the other hand, the suffering, which one may put a dying person through, may be truly torturous compared to a comparatively painless procedure of euthanasia. The problem becomes all the more difficult to address as soon as other people factor in, therefore, making a case for suspicions regarding them benefitting from the patient’s death (e.g., the patient leaving someone an impressive inheritance).
Again, the healthcare professional, who agrees to carry out a euthanasia procedure, face the threat of becoming a criminal based on the legal principles, according to which the society works, i.e., committing a murder. Agreeing to help the patient end their suffering will mean challenging the societal norms, which prohibit murder in any form (Bernat and Beresford 159).
The issue of law breach is beyond merely complicated, and in some cases, committing a crime may seem permissible. For instance, when the lives of many people are at stake, breaking the law to save them can be viewed as the right thing to do (e.g., killing a terrorist, who has hijacked a plane and is going to crush it). In such cases, the ends may justify the means.
Still, the idea of crossing law, even though it may be justified by high morals, is obviously in conflict with the very principles that the society is based on. True, the existing legal system is far from being perfect.
Nevertheless, there is a range of exceptions and amendments as to what crime is – for instance; the current U.S. Penal Code has a clause concerning the permissible level of self-defense (“Self-Defense and the Prevention of Crime” para. 8). Therefore, the instances in which committing a crime can be the only possible way of avoiding dire consequences, have been reduced to a minimum. Hence, there is no way that a crime can be permissible in the context of 21st-century society.
Relying hard on the legal and ethical principles that it is founded on, a society cannot exist in the environment, where crime is considered permissible. Therefore, breaking the law will trigger a demise of the entire structure of the society in question, thus, causing global problems.
Granted that there are situations, in which commutation of a penalty should be considered, punishment for crimes must remain the basic principle of the legal system. Otherwise, the line between a crime and a law-abiding behavior will soon be blurred, which will eventually lead to chaos within the society.
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Bernat, James L. and Richard Beresford. Ethical and Legal Issues in Neurology: Handbook of Clinical Neurology. Vol. 3. Amsterdam, NL: Newnes, 2014. Print.
Kang, Chang-Wuk. The Last Journey of Jack Lewis: A Conversation of C. S. Lewis with Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2013. Print.
Kelly, David F., Gerard Magill and Henk ten Have. Contemporary Catholic Health Care Ethics (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013. Print.
“Self-Defense and the Prevention of Crime.” The Crown Prosecution Service. 2014. Web. 8 Oct. 2014. <http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/s_to_u/self_defence/>.