Could versus Should

Nov 22, 2013 by

“It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.”

-Edmund Burke

Burke, here, gives sound advise to people.  Too often are we concerned with the question, “Can I do this?” and not concerned with “Should I do this?”  Today, we concern ourselves with what the law says we can do.  The mindset of today is:  if the law says that it is acceptable to smoke pot and sleep around, then I can and will do it.  We only stop ourselves when the law prohibits us.  Moreover, we only act when the law allows us.  If there is a man who is being beaten by underage teenagers, he will not raise a hand in defense, because he may be charged with assault on a minor.  Moreover, no one will come to his aid, for the same fear.  Moreover, there are some things that we will not do unless the law orders us to.  For instance, many people complain that the government does not raise taxes in order to feed the poor, yet these people don’t give their excess money to the poor on their own.  We have become so preoccupied with what the law tells us to do and not to do, we no longer concern ourselves with what we ought to do.

Burke is on point with what we should consider when thinking about what we ought to do.  When considering what we ought to do, we must think about what humanity tells me I ought to do.  Notice, he does not say the majority of people, but humanity.  By invoking humanity, he is not saying what the people want, but rather appealing to the nature of Man.  A Nature, not as a random being, but one of purpose.  When considering what we ought to do, we must consider what it is that our purpose as human beings requires us to do.  Second, what does reason say we ought to do?  This goes hand in hand with humanity, since reason is the tool by which we discover our purpose.  However, here. Burke is drawing a distinction between reason and passion.  Many times, when deciding a course of action, people act as they ‘feel’ they want to.  However, we should, rather, act according to what action our unbiased, rational thoughts tell us serves the greater good.  Finally, we should think about justice in terms of what we ought to do.  Justice is every person receiving what they rightfully deserve.  When someone works hard, but no law requires me to pay them a decent wage for their service, it is justice which dictates that I should.

If it was the case, that we took these three things into consideration more often and what we can do into consideration less often, we would see a much better world.  The law is something strict and rigid.  It will always be flawed for this reason.  It is up to us to determine what we ought and ought not to do.  If we leave it up to the law, we are allowing the law to choose our actions for us.  When we allow the law to choose our actions for us, are we really free?

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