Yuval Feldman


On his book The Law of Good People: Challenging States' Ability to Regulate Human Behavior

Cover Interview of January 30, 2019

In a nutshell

We have a misconstrued perception of who the “bad guys” are. In reality, (almost) all of us are violators of laws, regulations, contracts, and ethical norms. Various studies on the causes of such “ordinary unethicality,” including insurance fraud, employee theft, and tax evasion, suggest how prevalent, mindless, and sometimes banal wrongdoing can be. Acts of ordinary unethicality appear in private law disputes involving breach of contract, tortious interference, and lack of respect for people’s property rights. Much of the misconduct within the sphere of tax law, administrative law, and corporate law also involves this kind of moral transgression.

Behavioral ethics, a growing area within psychology and management, attempts to explain why ordinary unethicality is so prevalent. Behavioral ethics demonstrates that an individual’s unethical behavior can be explained through numerous processes such as self-deception, ethical fading, motivated reasoning, ethical dissonance, and moral disengagement. Since many of these mechanisms are only partially related to people’s deliberative reasoning, people still consider themselves good people even when they break legal or moral norms. From the perspective of the state, when people think about themselves as good people, much of the power of the traditional legal compliance mechanisms, which rely on incentives, fairness, transparency, and expressive values, is curtailed.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, to a large extent, current laws inspired by political theories such as Bentham’s still treat wrong-doers as deliberative individuals who abstain from socially undesirable behaviors only because of the expected costs associated with wrong-doing. Even when we move beyond theories of deterrence, the current dichotomy between people who obey laws for extrinsic reasons and people who obey laws for intrinsic reasons, misses a third and important category of good people who don’t think when they disobey a law or regulation, or violate other legal instruments, that they are indeed in violation of the law.

What I argue in this book is that legal intervention is needed to address the problem. How might good people be prevented from feeling comfortable enough with their violations of the law? Without that change in focus, we will miss many types of transgressions that happen not just due to lack of motivation but also due to limited awareness of the legal and moral character of such common behavior.