Modesty forbids what the law does not.

Modesty forbids what the law does not. – Seneca

While it's not illegal, it certainly isn't nice.

While it’s not illegal, it’s not nice to take the last of the coffee. Do the right thing

What does that mean?
Whether you call it modesty, correct behavior, or something else, this quote is about doing the right thing. This is separate, or at least it is often different from what the law says we are required to do, or forbidden to do. And doing the right thing is about having character.

There are plenty of times when things that are legal to do are simply not the best thing to do. As an example, I’ll use my favorite target for abuse, smoking. In many places it is still legal to smoke. However, that does not mean it is necessarily a good thing to do, or the right thing to do.

To take the quote a little more exactly (based on this particular translation), in most places it’s not illegal to run around in just your underwear. However, one would hope that modesty would prevent you from doing so, at least on a regular basis.

Why is doing the right thing important?  
While there are many laws we may disagree with, that’s not what this quote is about. This quote is about the opposite, where something is legally permissible, but not the right thing to do. This quote points out the gray area between things we shouldn’t do, and the things we can do.

Finding some cash, or even a lot of cash, loose on the street might be an example. Legally, you can pick it up, and probably walk off with it. However, the right thing, especially with larger sums of money, is to at least try to find the rightful owner.

While it doesn’t sound like much of a deal for the finder, if you consider how badly the person who lost it is feeling, you might better understand how it is the right thing. Even a small sum of cash to you might be a month worth of savings for the kid who dropped it on the way to their favorite store to buy that special something for which they’d been saving.

Where can I apply this in my life?
The prior section talks about something we’ve all done at some point in time, either as the person doing the finding, or the person who has lost. I find it an excellent example for both the deep impact such an event can have, and the lasting memory such an event makes.

While it might not be illegal to lie about who took the last cup of coffee or the last cookie or the last paper towel, that doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. Modesty, honesty, integrity, and ethics should tell you that you should do the right thing.

And in these cases, that means that you take care of it before anyone else notices, right? You make another pot of coffee. You get the next package of cookies and prepare them for use. You get more paper towels and get them ready for the next person to use.

The point is to make it so the next person never notices that there was a potential problem. To me, those are the right things to do. Leaving things a mess, or leaving it to someone else to get things ready might be allowed by law, but I hope you’d put in some effort to do the right thing.

It also might not be against the law to make noise in quiet places (religious sites, quiet parks, libraries, etc), one would hope modesty, restraint and a sense of doing the right thing would keep you quiet. Or at least quieter than you might be if you were someplace where loud was the normal state of things.

What other places you can apply this quote will depend on what your values and your culture are, as well as the local laws. But the important thing to remember is that just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that doing it is just fine, correct, right, moral, or modest.

I imagine you can come up with some of your own examples, based on what your values and beliefs regarding what ‘doing the right thing’ means to you and your culture. While in some cultures, stealing might well cost you your hand, in others (like Washington, D.C.) it’s how you advance your career.

While that is a fairly standard joke about many governments, the sad thing is it has been that way throughout human history, and is unlikely to change any time soon. But far too many of them serve as a counter-example of this quote, doing both what is immoral, immodest, and illegal.

In the end, it’s a judgement call. You will have to decide if you are going to do something, or refrain from doing it. Even though the law does not prohibit you from doing something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Take a moment and decide for yourself if modesty permits it, or if only the law does.

From: Twitter, @philoquotes
confirmed at :
Photo by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious


About philosiblog

I am a thinker, who is spending some time examining those short twitter quotes in greater detail on my blog.
This entry was posted in character, governance, judgement, leadership, money, virtue and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Modesty forbids what the law does not.

  1. zezil says:

    I’ll print this one, photocopy it (I’ll put you in the reference of course.), laminate it and put it in my wall. Thanks for the share!

  2. Vandana kumar Seth says:

    Well said ,legality is like morality at collective level whereas our individual legal compass is our consciousness .

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