In the recent Netflix series Star Trek Discovery, in the third episode, Captain Lorca explains to an estranged and demoted Michael Burnham why he chose to interfere in her punishment for mutiny and bring her on-board the Discovery as a crew member:
“I did choose you, but not for the reasons you think. Your assumption that the Klingons were waiting in ambush at Binary Stars was predictive. You chose to do the right thing over what was sanctioned, even at great cost to yourself. And that is the kind of thinking that wins wars. The kind of thinking I need next to me. Universal law is for lackeys. Context… is for kings.”
When I watched this episode many months ago that phrase stuck strongly with me; “context… is for kings”. It came up again and again in my subsequent thinking. It has a profound ring to it. There’s something about it that knocks on a deep intuition. So this article will be a short explanation of the idea.
The difference between laws and ethics
Imagine a hypothetical society where littering of any kind is illegal, and that no such thing as recycling exists, so that all rubbish of all types lands up in landfill sites.
Now imagine there is one individual who decides to one day throw away an apple core after eating it, because they know its biodegradable. This individual is caught and fined.
In this instance we have an exaggerated case which reveals something about all laws; they are flawed in some way and imperfect. They are mappings of ethics onto law. The reason littering is illegal is to reduce pollution. For most people, most of the time, the law makes good sense to follow. There are many people who need this basic law and need to obey it as they don’t understand (or perhaps don’t care about) the purpose behind the law.
However, from an ethical standpoint, our litterbug has done nothing wrong. This illustrates the point that ethics precedes and supersedes law. Laws and principles exist to service well being. They are generic ideas or ways of behaviour that we’ve empirically found to be capable of increasing well being. In many cases laws are highly effective, but ultimately as real-life applications of ethics, they are flawed, because no-one can perfectly apply ethics into real life.
The difference between “Kings” and “Lackeys”
“Universal law is for lackeys, context is for kings”. What’s the difference between Kings and Lackeys in reaction to laws and ethics?
- Kings see behind the laws into an ethical landscape of causes and effects, and take this landscape seriously, Lackeys do not. Lackeys just see rules to follow or disobey.
- Kings understand the tragedy of the commons (selfishness of people and its consequences) and make laws for the greater good of all. Lackeys do not understand these and instead simply pursue their own gain.
- Good Kings care about the well being they are able to create globally, while Lackeys often only care for their own well being/gain.
- Kings see rules – not as rules, but as tools. Lackeys see rules as burdens.
- Kings who need to break the rules do so elegantly and with good reason, when Lackeys break the law, they do so messily and selfishly.
- If given lawlessness, Kings urgently create order through law. But when given lawlessness, Lackeys often choose anarchy and chaos.
That’s why Kings make laws, and Lackeys obey them. Kings should, of course, obey the laws they themselves make too, (indeed they often do). But Kings also know when, where and why laws should either change or be broken/bent.
“Context is for Kings” is a recognition that the greatest leaders saw behind the veil of principles and laws to the well being they ultimately create, and thus are able to transcend the laws. To transcend laws is to become the lawmaker – the King.
“Universal law is for Lackeys” is the recognition that Lackeys often lack the discipline and intellect to make their own ethical judgements, and thus would be best suited to obey the laws made by Kings.
Slightly unkind wording
My use of the word “Lackeys” in this article is merely to honor the original quote in my musing. I actually feel it’s an unnecessarily harsh term. Not everyone is suited to complicated moral/ethical reasoning, nor needs to shoulder the burden of leadership.
The truth is, most of us are already Lackeys in most situations.