Above the Law

We’ve often heard the expression “no one is above the law” which usually means that even those in the most powerful positions in society must be held accountable if they act illegally. Actually, I think everyone should be above the law, by which I mean that we should conduct ourselves according to a higher standard of morality and ethics than the law demands.

As both a practical and philosophical matter, if we truly value individual freedom, our laws should tend toward permissiveness, limiting prohibitions only to actions that would do palpable harm to others. And to convict anyone of a criminal act rightly requires the unanimous agreement of twelve citizens on guilt proved beyond a reasonable doubt. However, restricting the proscriptions of law and demanding almost incontrovertible evidence of transgression leaves a very large gray area between acting against the law and acting in a morally acceptable manner. In other words, in far too many instances, one can claim to have done nothing wrong legally while having done everything wrong ethically.

I believe it is critically important that corporations, public institutions, and organizations having authoritative hierarchies, determine responsibility and accountability above and beyond the law, and levy punishment when common sense observation shows unacceptable behavior. It’s good that in recent years, companies, associations, and other entities have set their own standards that go beyond the law. It’s even better when they enforce them (unfortunately, that’s too infrequently the case). But recently, Roger Goodell, head of the NFL, set a laudable, if somewhat less-than-iconic example by suspending Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers (which could cost him close to $3 million in lost salary), for having harassed and perhaps sexually molested a woman, an accusation leveled against him not for the first time. While a subsequent police investigation produced no criminal charge against the player, Goodell acted according to NFL policy, which does not require someone to be convicted, indicted or even charged under the law as a condition of significant disciplinary action.

We are all too familiar with the reflex response to accusations that “the charges are without merit and there has been no wrongdoing.” In fact, that’s just lawyer lexicon for “whatever my client may have done, it’s not illegal.” Well, maybe not, but it can damn well be reprehensibly wrong.

Subprime mortgages are a current example. But they’re just an obvious and fairly crude shenanigan in the meltdown of the great recession. How about using such untenable loans to create investments designed to fail and recommending their purchase so that you (and selected others) can profit from the losses they incur? I wonder what kind of consequences Lloyd Blankfein, “quarterback” of Goldman Sachs, will suffer after the likelihood of no criminal charges brought against him for this and other assaults he and his gang have committed against our financial system. You would think even the most rudimentary corporate code of ethics would require his dismissal by his board of directors. But don’t hold your breath since the directors are no doubt literally his. I suspect when all is said and done, Blankfein will continue to collect obscene amounts of compensation, because unlike Roethlisberger, no one will hold him to the standard he should have met — a standard above the law.

However speciously, Roethlisberger can at least claim that multiple concussions may have impaired him. What’s Blankfein’s excuse other than a brain addled by arrogance and greed?