A friend of mine just started law school after working in the human services and community development fields for several years. She recently commented that one of her first lessons covered one’s obligations to others in need. She reported with sadness that one is under no legal obligation to render aid to someone in distress, beyond a perfunctory and perhaps unenforceable obligation to call 911. In her mind, this begged the question how law serves humanity.
The distinction she discovered so early in her law school career reveals a particularly painful dilemma all of us face at one time or another: How do we reconcile the high standards we set for ourselves with the expectations we are willing to accept from others? And, at the same time, how do our own moral beliefs require us to respond when others’ actions do not match our expectations?
These questions have not just troubled philosophers for centuries, they also form the basis of most of what we regard as organized religion. Religious precepts like the civil law focus much of their attention on how we should behave toward one another. The points of divergence reflect the distinction between what we must do (or not do) and what we think (or believe) we should do.
We all fall short either of our own or others’ expectations from time-to-time, and sometimes fail to meet either. While we may accept responsibility for our failings, few of us wish to be held fully accountable for them, often for good reason. Failing to live up to our own standards, especially when we set our sights high enough, helps teach us our limitations. In contrast, failing to meet others’ expectations often creates limitations, which can inhibit our opportunities to learn and grow.
We must not confuse laws with justice any more than we should confuse religious practice with faith.