Laws, rules, regulations and conscience as source of ethical guidance

Laws, rules, regulations and conscience as source of ethical guidance

High ethical standards for the provision of services and the exercise of authority are a prerequisite if the citizenry is to trust the public service. The goal of these general ethical guidelines is to ensure that all State employees are aware of this. The ethical guidelines are to be of a general nature, rather than providing detailed rules. They are intended to be general guidelines that call for reflection on the part of the individual employee. The provisions enshrined in them are not always exact, but rather specify legal standards. The guidelines have evolved from ethical values and norms of universal validity such as justice, loyalty, honesty, reliability, truthfulness and that one treats others as one would like to be treated.


Law, however, is not necessarily the same as morality; there are many moral rules that are not regulated by human legal authorities. And so the question arises as to how one can have a workable set of moral guidelines if there is no one to enforce them. Laws and rules are generally designed to regulate activities that can be publicly observed. This makes enforcement easy. But breaches of moral principles are a horse of a different color. They often involve acts that are not illegal but simply unethical and can include acts that are private and difficult to observe without invading that privacy. Enforcement, therefore, is almost totally left to the perpetrator. Others may work on the perpetrator’s emotions to encourage guilt or shame, but they have no actual control over the perpetrator’s conduct.

To solve this problem, some theologians have given God the attribute of “cosmic spy” and the power to punish the unethical behavior which the law misses — a power that extends even beyond the grave. So even if God’s arbitrariness is granted, there would be no denying God’s power to enforce his (or her) will. Thus, to the extent that this God and this power were real, there would exist a potent stimulus — though not a philosophical justification — for people to behave according to the divine wishes. And this would at least take most of the uncertainty out of the enforcement of moral, but not unlawful, behavior.

Unfortunately for those advancing this proposal, the existence of this authority is not as apparent as the existence of human authorities which enforce public laws. Thus, in order to control lawful but immoral behavior, clergy through the ages have found it necessary to harangue, cajole, browbeat, and in other ways condition their flocks into belief in this supreme arbiter of moral conduct. They have sought to condition children from as early an age as possible. And with both adults and children, they have appealed to the imagination by painting graphic word pictures of the tortures of the damned.

The ancient Romans claimed some success with these measures, and the ancient historian Polybius, comparing Greek and Roman beliefs and the levels of corruption in each culture, concluded that Romans were less inclined to theft because they feared hellfire. For reasons such as this, the Roman statesman Cicero regarded the Roman religion as useful, even while holding it to be false.

But do human beings really need such sanctions in order for them to control their private behavior? Almost never. For if such sanctions were of primary importance, they would almost always be used by moralists and preachers. But they are not. Today, when arguments for moral behavior are made, even by the most conservative of religious preachers, the appeal is rarely to God’s present or future punishments. The appeal is more frequently to such practical considerations as psychological well-being, good reputation, effective reaching of one’s goals, and promotion of the public weal. Appeals are also made to conscience and natural human feelings of sympathy. In Christianity, sometimes fear is replaced by the motive of imitating Christ’s ideal, a general approach established earlier in Buddhism. It is significant that all of these appeals can influence the behavior of the nontheist as well as that of the theist.

But suppose that theists were to cease such practical and humanistic appeals and return to basing every moral preachment on God’s will. One disturbing irony would remain: there are many different gods. The simple fact that religions the world over are capable of promoting similar moral behavior puts the lie to the idea that only a certain god is the one “true” dispenser of morality. If only one of the many gods believed in is real, millions of people, though behaving morally, must be doing it under the influence, inspiration, or orders of the WRONG GOD. Belief in the “right” god, then, must not be very critical in the matter of moral conduct. One can even stand with Cicero and avow hypocrisy and get the same result. And when one adds that nontheists the world over have shown themselves to be just as capable of private moral behavior as theists (Buddhists offering perhaps the best large-scale example), then belief in God turns out to be a side issue in this whole matter. There is something in human nature operating at a deeper level than mere theological belief, and it is this that serves as the real prompt for moral behavior. As with laws, so with morals: human beings seem quite capable of making, on their own, sensible and sensitive decisions affecting conduct.

Rules and regulations

Rules are guidelines that are provided to maintain smooth functioning of an organization and to maintain peace and harmony among its people. Rules are also an informal set of guidelines that state what a person must and must not do. Rules are prone to being changed and altered depending on the place, organization and people. Rules are a less formal set of guidelines which has little or no consequences depending on the person that is enforcing them. Rules are also enforced by the person that is making the rule. For example, rules created in a household are enforced by the parent that created the rules. Similarly, rules established in a classroom are enforced by the teacher or the school administration. Rules enacted inside the household differ from the rules enacted inside the classroom. This is because rules are more detailed guidelines and must be changed depending on the situation. Many people often believe that rules that are established in the childhood helps a person to understand laws that are created by the government and also makes him follow the laws strictly. Rules also have smaller consequences and punishment such as no TV time, or no allowance, taking away of cellphones, etc.

Rule is:

  • A principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement.
  • The customary or normal circumstance, occurrence, manner, practice, quality, etc.
  • To control or direct; exercise dominating power, authority, or influence over; govern.
  • To decide or declare judicially or authoritatively To make a formal decision or ruling, as on a point at law.


Regulations can be used define two things; a process of monitoring and enforcing legislations and a written instrument containing rules that have law on them. David Levi-Faur’s Regulation and Regulatory Governance, Jerusalem Papers in Regulation and Governance states that regulation creates, limits, or constrains a right, creates or limits a duty, or allocates a responsibility. It can come in many forms including legal restrictions, contractual obligations, self-regulation, co-regulation, third-party regulation, certification, accreditation or market regulation. Regulation is basically ensuring that a law or legislation is put into effect and the details of how it is put into effect. The regulations are the responsibility of the executive branch.

Regulation is:

  • A law, rule, or other order prescribed by authority, especially to regulate conduct.
  • The act of regulating or the state of being regulated.
  • A governmental or ministerial order having the force of law As required by official rules or procedure.

Conscience as a source of ethics

Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. Moral judgment may derive from values or norms (principles and rules). In psychological terms conscience is often described as leading to feelings of remorse when a human commits actions that go against his/her moral values and to feelings of rectitude or integrity when actions conform to such norms. The extent to which conscience informs moral judgment before an action and whether such moral judgments are or should be based in reason has occasioned debate through much of the history of Western philosophy. Religious views of conscience usually see it as linked to a morality inherent in all humans, to a beneficent universe and/or to divinity. The diverse ritualistic, mythical, doctrinal, legal, institutional and material features of religion may not necessarily cohere with experiential, emotive, spiritual or contemplative considerations about the origin and operation of conscience. Common secular or scientific views regard the capacity for conscience as probably genetically determined, with its subject probably learned or imprinted (like language) as part of a culture.  Commonly used metaphors for conscience include the “voice within”, the “inner light”,or even Socrates’ reliance on what the Greeks called his “daimōnic sign”, an averting inner voice heard only when he was about to make a mistake. Conscience, as is detailed in sections below, is a concept in national and international law, is increasingly conceived of as applying to the world as a whole, has motivated numerous notable acts for the public good and been the subject of many prominent examples of literature, music and film.

Benedict de Spinoza in his Ethics, , argued that most people, even those that consider themselves to exercise free will, make moral decisions on the basis of imperfect sensory information, inadequate understanding of their mind and will, as well as emotions which are both outcomes of their contingent physical existence and forms of thought defective from being chiefly impelled by self-preservation. The solution, according to Spinoza, was to gradually increase the capacity of our reason to change the forms of thought produced by emotions and to fall in love with viewing problems requiring moral decision from the perspective of eternity. Thus, living a life of peaceful conscience means to Spinoza that reason is used to generate adequate ideas where the mind increasingly sees the world and its conflicts, our desires and passions sub specie aeternitatis, that is without reference to time. Hegel’s obscure and mystical Philosophy of Mind held that the absolute right of freedom of conscience facilitates human understanding of an all-embracing unity, an absolute which was rational, real and true.

Nevertheless, Hegel thought that a functioning State would always be tempted not to recognize conscience in its form of subjective knowledge, just as similar non-objective opinions are generally rejected in science. A similar idealist notion was expressed in the writings of Joseph Butler who argued that conscience is God-given, should always be obeyed, is intuitive, and should be considered the “constitutional monarch” and the “universal moral faculty”: “conscience does not only offer itself to show us the way we should walk in, but it likewise carries its own authority with it.” Butler advanced ethical speculation by referring to a duality of regulative principles in human nature: first,”self-love” (seeking individual happiness) and second, “benevolence” (compassion and seeking good for another) in conscience (also linked to the agape of situational ethics). Conscience tended to be more authoritative in questions of moral judgment, thought Butler, because it was more likely to be clear and certain (whereas calculations of self-interest tended to probable and changing conclusions).John Selden in his Table Talk expressed the view that an awake but excessively scrupulous or ill-trained conscience could hinder resolve and practical action; it being “like a horse that is not well wayed, he starts at every bird that flies out of the hedge”.

Immanuel Kant, a central figure of the Age of Enlightenment, likewise claimed that two things filled his mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily they were reflected on: “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me … the latter begins from my invisible self, my personality, and exhibits me in a world which has true infinity but which I recognise myself as existing in a universal and necessary (and not only, as in the first case, contingent) connection.” The ‘universal connection’ referred to here is Kant’s categorical imperative: “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Kant considered critical conscience to be an internal court in which our thoughts accuse or excuse one another; he acknowledged that morally mature people do often describe contentment or peace in the soul after following conscience to perform a duty, but argued that for such acts to produce virtue their primary motivation should simply be duty, not expectation of any such bliss. Rousseau expressed a similar view that conscience somehow connected man to a greater metaphysical unity. John Plamenatz in his critical examination of Rousseau’s work considered that conscience was there defined as the feeling that urges us, in spite of contrary passions, towards two harmonies: the one within our minds and between our passions, and the other within society and between its members; “the weakest can appeal to it in the strongest, and the appeal, though often unsuccessful, is always disturbing. However, corrupted by power or wealth we may be, either as possessors of them or as victims, there is something in us serving to remind us that this corruption is against nature.

Conscientious acts and the law

English humanist lawyers in the 16th and 17th centuries interpreted conscience as a collection of universal principles given to man by god at creation to be applied by reason; this gradually reforming the medieval Roman law-based system with forms of action, written pleadings, use of juries and patterns of litigation such as Demurrer and Assumpsit that displayed an increased concern for elements of right and wrong on the actual facts. A conscience vote in a parliament allows legislators to vote without restrictions from any political party to which they may belong. In his trial in Jerusalem Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann claimed he was simply following legal orders under paragraph 48 of the German Military Code which provided: “punishability of an action or omission is not excused on the ground that the person considered his behaviour required by his conscience or the prescripts of his religion”. The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) which is part of international customary law specifically refers to conscience in Articles 1 and 18. Likewise, the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) mentions conscience in Article 18.1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood  — United Nations, Universal Declaration on Human Rights Article 1

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance  — United Nations, Universal Declaration on Human Rights Article 18.

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching  — United Nations, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 18.1

Notable examples of modern acts based on conscience

In a notable contemporary act of conscience, Christian bushwalker Brenda Hean protested against the flooding of Lake Pedder despite threats and that ultimately lead to her death. Another was the campaign by Ken Saro-Wiwa against oil extraction by multinational corporations in Nigeria that led to his execution. So too was the act by the Tank Man, or the Unknown Rebel photographed holding his shopping bag in the path of tanks during the protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 5 June 1989. The actions of United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld to try and achieve peace in the Congo despite the (eventuating) threat to his life, were strongly motivated by conscience as is reflected in his diary, Vägmärken (Markings). Another example involved the actions of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr to try and prevent the My Lai Massacre in the Vietnam War. Evan Pederick voluntarily confessed and was convicted of the Sydney Hilton bombing stating that his conscience could not tolerate the guilt and that “I guess I was quite unique in the prison system in that I had to keep proving my guilt, whereas everyone else said they were innocent.” Vasili Arkhipov was a Russian naval officer on out-of-radio-contact Soviet submarine B-59 being depth-charged by US warships during the Cuban Missile Crisis whose dissent when two other officers decided to launch a nuclear torpedo (unanimous agreement to launch was required) may have averted a nuclear war. In 1963 Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc performed a famous act of self-immolation to protest against alleged persecution of his faith by the Vietnamese Ngo Dinh Diem regime.



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