Mutual Disagreement

Over the years, I have heard many people excuse their actions as being legal; which they were. However, those same actions still felt flawed. So, as some allege, is the legal system corrupt at its core, a creator of immoral behaviour rather than a social good? Or is there an explanation that accepts law as a guide to behaviour despite the flaws?

Yesterday, Steven Saus posted an interesting article on convention interaction policies. An article I shared on social media. Much of the discussion on my post revolved around how useful a way of signalling you didn’t want strangers to interact with you at the moment would be in other contexts. But another point that stood out was that requiring photographers to obtain permission before taking a photograph shouldn’t be on the consent list because it interfered with journalism. They accepted that – within the context of the convention – it was workable, but maintained it would not work in everyday life.

I am not a photo-journalist, so might not understand all the nuances, but my perception is that the commenter believes that an unannounced, a “candid”, photograph contains truths that are missing from a photograph the subject expects. Assuming I am correct in this analysis, I agree: both that behaviour changes if we know we are observed and that obtaining consent therefore interferes with journalism.

However, I disagree that this means requiring permission for photographs shouldn’t be a social rule. Because it is not a binary decision.

Imagine the photographer puts their camera down for a moment. Someone dressed as a superhero grabs the camera and runs off, straight towards a police officer. The police officer sees them take the camera, but only watches as they run past. When asked why they didn’t do anything, the police officer explains that they didn’t have consent to touch the thief’s costume.

The competition between the no-touching rule and the powers of a police officer is clear. However, I suspect no one believes the need for police officers to lay hands on a fugitive makes a rule requiring people ask permission before touching someone else a bad rule. The case of photography is the same: are the reasons for taking the photograph greater than the general requirement for consent? If there is a public interest consideration (such as waste dumping in a forest) in that moment then it might outweigh the usual expectation of privacy. If the shot is just background colour then it potentially doesn’t.

The same consideration applies to laws: that they balance competing interests rather than stating absolutes.

Many people interact happily without needing to call upon the law. It is only when they disagree that the law is involved. So, the task of the law is most often to provide a resolution when attempts to resolve the issues on the basis of agreement have failed. Law by its very function is not a prescriber of the most moral or ethical option but a describer of a least-worst compromise.

Viewed in this light law is flawed. But it is flawed because that is all it can be. In a situation where two conflicting perspectives are both ethical law is before the dispute only the beginning of the discussion, and after the dispute a solution where ongoing conflict is worse.

Do you think a rule can be perfect? Do you think ethics and moral should always justify behaviour?


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