(credit: Elliot Brown CC BY)

Technicalities and voluntary morals

Is what is technically right also morally right?

Maybe I should have studied law instead of engineering. One day when I was eight, my best friend and I were chatting in class when we shouldn’t, and the teacher gave us each 200 lines to write by the next day (a common punishment at the time). Writing lines was, of course, not how we had been imagining our leisure time after school.

So during the rest of the school day we forged a plan. What were the facts? We each still had our pocket money for the week (10 BEF, about £1.70 or €1.5 in today’s money). My friend had a big brother — I guess he must have been 17 or so at the time. We reckoned that he could write a lot faster than we could. What if we asked him to write the lines in return for our pocket money?

We did, and he did. The next morning, as we both handed in our lines, our teacher evidently spotted immediately that we had not written them ourselves. That was OK: we had never intended to pretend otherwise. “However,” I said, “you only told us to hand in 200 lines. You did not say that we had to write them.” I cannot recall the exact reaction of the teacher, but I do remember that this technicality did the trick: ‘our’ lines were accepted.

I was reminded of this anecdote last week when a judge ruled that David Beckham would not be convicted of speeding thanks to a legal technicality. On 23 January of this year, the former footballer had been caught driving at 59 mph (95 km/h) on a London road with a limit of 40 mph (64 km/h). The Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, section 1(c)(ii) states that “a person shall not be convicted of an offence […] unless […] within fourteen days of the commission of the offence a notice of the intended prosecution was […] served on him [or on the registered keeper]”. It appears the notice was sent on 2 February, but not received by the keeper until 7 February, one day outside the fourteen-day limit.

This caused some commotion in the media and on social media. A spokesman for Brake, a road safety charity, said Beckham is “shirking his responsibility” as a role model — a statement carried by numerous papers and news sites. The Daily Mirror even quoted his lawyer (known as Mr Loophole) as saying Beckham should have been convicted from a “moral standpoint”. The comments on Twitter, for example to this BBC tweet, are generally of a similar nature.

Moral legality…

This affair, though relatively trivial compared with some other issues that the UK faces at the moment, highlights two important aspects of human behaviour: a legal and a moral one. First, there is the question of these so-called technicalities.

Is the law being applied fairly by the judge for the sake of just one day? Should Beckham not, within the spirit of the law, have accepted his punishment? When his lawyer was confronted with this question in the BBC Radio 4 current affairs programme Today on 28 September, he pointed at the letter of the law which makes the 14-day term very clear, “for good reasons”.

Let us imagine there was no such limit: anyone could be prosecuted for an offence, months or even years after it allegedly took place. As an outsider, we may wonder what the big deal would be — if you did do it, then you deserve punishment, no? Yet trying to prove your innocence would be increasingly difficult, the farther in the past the alleged offence took place. I once received a notice for speeding in a town 50km away from my place of work, on a day that I had been in the office. Neither I, nor my car could possibly have been at the time and place stated. As the date of the alleged offence was just a week earlier, I could easily ask my boss for a formal statement that I had been at work — which he produced, and that settled the matter. It would, however, have been a lot more difficult to do this months or years after the event.

So it seems pretty reasonable for the legislator to require the prosecution to be prompt in notifying an alleged offender of their intention to prosecute. Allowing two calendar weeks for the administrative process and the sending by post seems reasonable too: there’s no conceivable reason why it should take longer. (A legitimate question might be why it took 10 days to send Beckham’s notice.)

This clause is no less part of the law as the actual offence of exceeding the speed limit: while the spirit of the law is that you should not speed, it is also that if you have been speeding you should be notified within a given time period. The judge’s decision seems therefore entirely defensible.

…or legal morality

But there is a second aspect worth bearing in mind, beyond the legal perspective.

Should Mr Beckham have accepted the punishment on moral grounds ‘as a good citizen’ in any case? We all know (and he apparently does not dispute the fact) that he was speeding.

There is a good societal argument to be made here. If you are caught speeding (or committing another offence), you are indisputably morally in the wrong. Legal technicalities do not change the moral significance of what you did. Even if the law, both in letter and in spirit, exonerates you, that moral transgression is not undone, and accepting the corresponding punishment would be the right thing to do to.

But wait. I said “if you are caught”. Should our morals depend on getting caught?

If not, then it follows that the moral obligation to accept punishment arises as soon as we ourselves know we have committed an offence. No need for a law enforcer to catch us in the act. Whenever we exceed the speed limit, drive through an amber or red light, park illegally, or indeed get behind the wheel after drinking more alcohol than we should have, we should voluntarily pay the fine, request the points to be added to our driving licence, or hand it in for a voluntary suspension.

But it is not sure whether many, or even any people would be willing to commit to such unconditional, voluntary, rather than legal morality. Nevertheless, one of the fundamental tenets of a fair legal system is that everyone should be equal in the face of the law (this principle is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Perhaps we should adopt a similar view with regard to moral obligations, and only demand that others fulfil them if we are committed to do so, unconditionally, ourselves. Because we are consistent people, of course — are we not?

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on October 5, 2018.

Many thanks for reading this post — if you enjoyed it, then could I ask you to recommend it to others by clapping for it (see below), and maybe to share it in your networks (use the handy Facebook and Twitter buttons nearby, or just copy and paste this link). Also, if you like this kind of short-ish essay about how we humans behave, do have a look at my other posts (they’re here). Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius