Civil Rights Law: 5 Myths Dispelled
|English: Actor Charlton Heston |
at the Civil Rights March in
Washington, D.C. in August 1963.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Moral and ethical motivations for the social adoption of legislation to protect civil rights find their basis in the philosophies of utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and natural law, among others. While it seems likely that the passage of civil rights legislation in any democratic society can be attributed to concerted lobbying efforts by special interests groups, such laws help both to enumerate the doctrine of a social contract as well as to provide in part for the enforcement of that contract upon the members of a society.
Myth #1: Civil Rights Laws Only Benefit a Minority of Citizens
Many have argued against the utility of civil rights legislation. Common themes include concerns over personal liberty, the autonomy of business and particularly with respect to hiring decisions, and concerns that any erosion of freedom may lead to a so-called slippery slope of decreasing freedoms. To really examine the utility of these laws, it is necessary to understand how they benefit society, because if they do not benefit a majority of society their social cost may exceed their benefit. For starters, in 2013 America claimed just 13.1% of its population as solely African American, 1.2% Native American, and 5% Asian. Whites alone comprised 63% of the population of the country. In business, 13.7% of US firms were owned by one of those non-white groups listed in 2013. By these numbers, it might appear at first that the utility of civil rights legislation applies to some scant 19.3% of individuals, and presuming that those identifying as White derive no benefit from the success of these other categories (which seems a clear fallacy), 63% of America would be better served without civil rights legislation. However, this is not the case as roughly 60% of the population is female with some 40% male and each of these categories find protection from gender based discrimination beneath the shelter of civil rights legislation. Moreover, 100% of Americans of all races, genders, and persuasions who attain the age of 40 or higher are protected from age-based discrimination in the workplace by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Many other examples of a majority benefit of civil rights legislation quickly put to rest that argument against the utility of the legislation.
Myth #2: Civil Rights Laws Have a “Chilling Effect” on Business
Equally, it has not been shown that civil rights legislation damages business in any systematic fashion, while it has been shown to benefit the employees of businesses. This is not the case in some European nations, where poorly considered laws designed to drive the elderly out of the workforce (to make room for the young) have merely succeeded in driving anyone over 50 to work under the table while collecting retirement benefits. Concerns about the broad-reaching nature of civil rights legislation as well as the fear that these rules may become further restrictive are well-founded, but ultimately not crucial to a decision about such legislation as a robust system of courts and appellate courts as well as division of powers between the branches of government help to make it nearly overly-restrictive to attempt to pass any law. Slippery slope arguments have merit, but more often represent concerns that can and should be addressed in the administration of legislation than in any inherent fault of that legislation.
Myth #3: Social Contracts Ensure Equality Sans Legal Authority
The philosophy of virtue ethics has a high compatibility with civil rights legislation. Whereas virtue ethics might place value on the modeling of ideals such as equality, legislation is a tool by which governments can work to ensure that these ideals are upheld in society. Members of a society maintain their membership in good standing through social contracts, both written and unwritten, which is in itself a form of contractarianism. The repercussions of breaking those contracts or in the case of virtue ethics, of failing to uphold certain ideals, can range from social benefits unrealized (such as the infrequent bather who has no friends), and social punishments enforced (no shirt, no shoes, no service), to punishments set forth by legislation and enforced by a government (substantial fines for real estate agents who decline to show an apartment to handicapped individuals). Without civil rights legislation, America would still pursue a dream of equality, but with only toothless and inconsistent enforcement. Italians would find work in the Little Italys that would exist in every city, Chinese would find equality in their Chinatowns, and the melting pot would more resemble a mixing bowl, as it did at times in the early 20th century.
Myth #4: A “Natural Law” of Self-Preservation Supersedes Civil Rights
The philosophy of natural law not only is compatible with civil rights legislation, but provides much of the inspiration for the modern movement. As a prescriptive philosophy, natural law holds that there are certain ethical rules which humanity must uphold and which take their authority from nature; in other words, these rules make us good humans and also make us good members of a human society. However, many critics question what constitutes human nature and what constitutes these natural laws. Variants of natural law have been used to great success to suppress races, commit genocide, and enslave individuals. Those born with handicaps are particularly susceptible to victimization under claims of natural law and elements of natural law have been applied to medical experimentation at concentration camps as well as black slavery. The fact that prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials argued for the equality of man as a natural law and the supremacy of natural laws over Nazi Germany demonstrates how subjective natural law can become on the lips of different speakers. Nevertheless, the modern civil rights movement represents the attempts of a nation to bring its legal system into accord with the interpretations of natural law which gained supremacy in the 20th century. Documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and civil rights laws effectively codify what American society has widely agreed will be the definition of these natural laws in the future and demonstrates our intent to adopt and enforce them.
Myth #5: Civil Rights Laws Discourage Personal Responsibility and Independent Thinking
Two viewpoints tend to dominate the debate between advocates of civil rights legislation and personal responsibility. One viewpoint holds that such legislation strips away personal freedom and decision making from the individual and puts in its place a heavy-handed and overbearing authority figure. This could have the consequence that personal ethics would suffer as individuals feel less responsible for making their own ethical decisions and no doubt this is a valid dynamic, however history has shown that even if the face of totalitarian governments, some individuals have followed their own ethical compass. The Milgram Experiment is oft held up as a failure of personal ethics in the face of authority, but this interpretation is spurious as a full 35% of participants declined to administer the final shock and each and every one of the 40 participants questioned the validity of their actions at some point during the experiment. Rather than draw the conclusion that societal ethics in the form of civil rights legislation will cause a decline in personal ethical thought, it seems far more likely that individuals who were previously disinclined to consider their actions ethically will simply be more likely to use civil rights legislation as justification for this (i.e. “Hey, technically,it’s legal!”).
A second viewpoint holds that with the advent of civil rights legislation, citizens now have a legal obligation to consider their actions from an ethical viewpoint. This is the idea that participants need to “have some skin in the game.” The consequences of showing preference to members of one’s own race, gender, or age group throughout history have been very real, but seldom have they included the risk of economic ruin, lawsuits, or jail time. While these negative reinforcements cannot cause people to be more ethical (to aspire to certain virtues) and can only temporarily cause them to behave ethically (while there is risk of being caught), the very act of having to consider whether their actions are legal and are ethical represents far more consideration than many individuals may have given the issue prior to legislation. We now live in a society where state employees, down to clerical staff, must carefully consider whether or not to accept a thank you gift from anyone outside the organization, and while this means less fruit baskets, bottles of whiskey, and baked goods will change hands, it represents a revolution in ideology in that employees of all types and at all levels are now more carefully considering the repercussions of their actions.
No Universal Good - “Thinking Makes it So”:
The mistake in civil rights legislation is not in either passing laws that establish and protect the rights of certain classes of citizens nor in expressing the valid concerns about personal freedom that this legislation brings to mind. If there is any mistake to be made, it is in the risk that the laws be viewed either as entirely good or entirely bad. Civil rights legislation will not protect civil rights and even enforcement only encourages that protection. People, making individual decisions to comply with these laws and on occasion, to encourage or force others to comply is what will truly bring America close to that most hallowed of ideal, “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”
- Bogod, D. (2004). The Nazi Hypothermia Experiments: Forbidden Data?. Anaesthesia, 59(12), 1155-1156.
- Evans, S. (2011, November 6). How soldiers deal with the job of killing. BBC News. Retrieved January 27, 2014, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-13687796
- Fair Housing And Equal Opportunity. (n.d.). Fair Housing / Equal Opportunity. Retrieved January 27, 2014, from https://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp
- MacKinnon, B. (2013). Ethics: theory and contemporary issues, concise edition, (2nd ed.). Australia.: Wadsworth / Cengage Learning.
- Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study Of Obedience.. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.
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