The other day I found a faux advertisement in Delaware Libertarian, for the 1800 election, which reminded me of a story I have admired ever since I first found it. On looking it up I decided to publish it in full as it has great relevance at present.
My reference is 'Rip Van Australia' by John Singleton, and Bob Howard, chapter heading, 'Decency'. My copy is very old, dog eared, and well used, but I cannot replace it as it appears to be out of print.
The real test of a person's morality is whether or not they act only on the basis of legality, or rather on the basis of a sense of what is 'the right thing'. This sense of, 'the right thing,' was traditionally very strong in England ('it's just not done, or 'it's just not cricket').
Suppose, for example, you found a loophole in the law that offered you the opportunity of legally making a lot of money, or of gaining a crucial advantage over your business competitors. But, even though it was legal, you felt it was somehow wrong.
It would involve taking an unfair advantage, or the taking of something that, really, by any decent standard of fair play and justice, you did not feel you were entitled to. The question then, is set. Do you, legally and safely, take advantage of the situation, or do you do 'the right thing' and act in accordance with your conscience and sense of decency and morality?
While the obvious answer is that the latter is unquestionably the right answer, it yet remains a fact that increasingly in this modern world, people are opting for the former. That this is so is probably due in no small part to a curious inversion that has taken place during the history of modern democracies.
It was originally the case that the government could only do those few specific things detailed in its Constitution and nothing outside those. We, the people, on the other hand, were prevented from doing only a few specific things, and allowed to do everything outside them.
This situation has now almost completely reversed, with the government of today almost unlimited in its powers, and we, the people, severely restricted in our freedoms all, it must be noted, under the same Constitution. Such are the inroads made on the simple meaning of language by generations of rationalizing lawyers and politicians.
As the law came to be more involved in regulating behaviour, the concepts of individual responsibility and morality came to be displaced by the concept of legality. Ideally, of course, legality and morality should coincide, but strict adherence to that would leave very little scope for political action as it would almost completely eliminate the State in one stroke.
Most of our laws today violate the rights of some, if not all, citizens, and are thus legal, but immoral. In an essay titled 'A Study in Manners,’ Albert Jay Nock cites a case that all modern politicians could take a lesson from.
In 1800 in the U.S.A., there arose a contest between the Federalists and the Republicans for the presidency. John Jay was the Federalist governor of New York, and a fierce opponent of Thomas Jefferson, the Republican presidential candidate. It so happened that John Jay was in a position, by a process of which the details are unimportant, to stop Jefferson from being elected.
Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist colleague of Jay's, urged him to act. Hamilton assured Jay that, 'in times like these in which we live, it will not do to be over scrupulous', and that 'the scruples of delicacy and propriety, as relative to a common course of thing,., ought to yield to the extraordinary nature of the crisis. They ought not to hinder the taking of a legal and constitutional step to prevent an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics from getting possession of the helm of State'.
Jay did nothing he did not even acknowledge Hamilton's letter.
After Jay's Death nearly thirty years later, the letter was found in his papers inscribed, 'Proposing a measure for party purposes which I do not think it would be becoming to adopt.'
Jefferson duly won the election, an event which was so distasteful to Governor Jay that he soon after retired from public life, although in the prime of life. As Nock put it:
One rubs one's eyes in astonishment. What an extraordinary reason to assign for a decision of such profound political significance! What an extraordinary standard by which to appraise political conduct! That an act is illegal might conceivably give some shadow of reason why a politician should object to it. The exceptional politician might even, indeed, in an atrabilious moment, object to an act because he found it immoral or dishonest. Objection, however, to an act which is neither illegal or dishonest merely because it is unbecoming. This represents a distinction which, to put it gently, few politicians of today could be expected to draw under any circumstances, let alone such circumstances as pressed so powerfully on Governor Jay.It is easy to see how far, in the course of two hundred years, our standards of morality and decency have declined.
And let's not dismiss this as an amusing anecdote only. Let's not start in with arguments about practicability, necessity and pragmatism, of political reality and 'the art of the possible'.
This issue goes to the very centre of our modern problems. To return again to early American history, Thomas Jefferson once remarked that 'it is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour.
A degeneracy in these is a canker, which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitutions'. Evidence of this, unfortunately, we see all around us in Australia.
This does not mean, however, a blind following of convention. Social customs change with the times and there is no harm in that. Indeed, much that passes as manners today is unnecessary, because they are largely empty and mechanical gestures. But what is needed is a genuine respect for the values of conscience, decency and 'doing the right thing'.