Friday, June 1, 2012

Morality, legality, etc.

The Dharun Ravi - Tyler Clementi case hits home for me on a lot of accounts. This sentiment is perhaps what drew me to re-visit my blog after a brief (ok...not-so-brief...) hiatus. I feel strongly about gay bullying and discrimination and watching the case and Ravi's defense made me think about our / the government's framework for value judgement.

First, let me note that Ravi got off easy -- with a slap on the wrist and 30 days in jail (not prison), he has the rest of his life ahead of him, perhaps with diminished job / educational opportunities to constantly remind him of his fatal misdeeds. His technical / legalese-soaked apology won't be able to (or remotely begin to) assuage the Clementi family.

But beyond this, another aspect of the case sparked my interest. The constant reference to Ravi's mean-spirited intentions, and the public / court's demand for an apology seemed to be an outright critique of Ravi's values rather than his crimes. So, where, on a personal, moral, level, do Ravi's actions become unconscionable? What he did was a malicious act of bullying. But  it took Clementi's suicide to substantively criminalize his actions.

I feel that through the ruling, and through the demand for an apology, the courts, in some way, try to dictate society's moral schema. And I think there is a fine line here: for example, where, exactly, does morality end and the law begin? To me, they are very distinct forms of assessment, sometimes with an overlap (it is mostly both immoral and illegal to commit civil murder, but neither if you're in the military; it is perhaps immoral to cheat on your wife, but not illegal; it is illegal to smoke marijuana, but maybe not immoral -- again, all of this depends on your fundamental set of values).

To me, morality can exist in an extra-legal context. Certainly, for example, there are "moral" people operating in criminal organizations -- perhaps working in an illegal framework, but still, nonetheless, "moral" or "good." These people might be faithful to their families, honest in their transactions, and loyal to their friends, but these values are fundamentally overwhelmed (to the criminal justice system) by the illegality of their professions and/or deeds. To us, they are "bad"... "criminals"; to their spouses and children, they are "good" people...dependable, even scrupulous, caretakers. Being a good person doesn't mean you're not a criminal; similarly, being a criminal doesn't eliminate the possibility of you being a good person.

Personally, I think that the law is a weak standard by which to assess someone's character. We are taught early on to conflate the moral with the legal, but I think there is a distinction, and it's an important one when we critically evaluate our reasons for judgement. Certainly I wouldn't want to grab Starbucks with Dharun Ravi, but I'm just trying to create space in our psyche for this young man's potential to evolve -- and for you, me, whoever, to reassess the judgements we make that are perhaps clouded by our learned adherence to the law as a moral standard. I think it's the best way to get closure for Tyler Clementi's family and best way for our society to reach a higher level of social consciousness and/or progress.

Alright, that's enough for today; time to get my chai latte on (even though I really need to cut back on the empty calories). Peace.


Unknown said...

Meghana said...

thanks for the share -- interesting article!