Let us suppose there is a limit: you cannot buy something after 10:00PM. From the position of law, of course "cannot" must be taken directly. But from the position of common thinking, people are less inclined to accept it. So, from the position of common thinking if one bought something at 10:01PM, it would not be really immoral action to buy/sell something in 10:01PM in this case.

But then, if it's exactly as right (from the position of ethics as opposed to the position of law) to buy it in 10:01PM as in 10:00PM, having a 1-minute difference, it's exactly as right to buy something in 10:02PM as in 10:01PM, having the same time difference. But using the induction we can prove that then it's right to buy it in any moment of time, either 10:01PM or 0:24AM.

Thus we can show that the law making time limits is unethical if one-minute difference is ethical (the law is unethical, not the action it restricts). Is there anything wrong with the argument? How can people respond to it, accepting that buying the thing in 10:01PM is right, but wrong in 0:24AM?

  • Why do you assume that following laws has any bearing on whether or not an action is moral or ethical? That's quite a leap.
    – JeffUK
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 12:56
  • They don't, instead these laws would be (subjectively) unethical if people do not accept them. The sentence "from the position of ethics as opposed to the position of law" makes in explicit, I thought.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 12:58
  • Should the title be "temporal limits" not "temporary limits"? That is, limits involving time rather than limits that will be around for a while and then dropped. A "temporary" limit would be you can't buy after 10 PM for the next two weeks, then back to normal.
    – user34017
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 14:32
  • @puppetsock, but is "temporal" correct term? I never heard of it being used in this sense.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 14:36
  • Here you go, number 1 meaning. dictionary.com/browse/temporal
    – user34017
    Commented Jul 13, 2018 at 3:30

3 Answers 3


You are making two conceptual mistakes here:

1. Illegal does not presuppose unethical

While there is the traditional Kantian argument that barring extreme circumstances, performing an illegal act is automatically unethical; this does not mean that an act which is illegal needs to be unethical even if it were legal.

In fact, common arguments for eg banning alcohol sale at night involve that this is to protect the prospective customer from themeselves; or might make subsequent antisocial behaviour less likely. In either case, it is not the act of buying which is deemed problematic, but correlated acts of over-drinking.

2. Zeno-style reasoning does not work for ethics

If I tap someone very lightly on the shoulder (say to get their attention), this is not considered battery & assault. If we now very slowly increase the force of the tap, at what point exactly does is start to be battery & assault? We can not sensibly define this, but still it is clear that sufficient force does make it battery & assault. For intermediate cases, we just consider all sorts of circumstances (intent, consequence, etc).

  • Your point 2 is a good response: It is analogous and clear.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 13:05

Your premise is false. It is not 'just as right' to buy something 1 minute after a deadline as it is to buy something one minute before. The chance of getting in trouble legally is slim, but non-zero. (let's call it, 'a little bit naughty')

Every minute after the deadline, your chance of getting in trouble increases (probably exponentially) until it reaches some upper limit.

Everyone will have a different limit that they find the 'cut off' between 'stretching the rules' and 'breaking the rules' and where they personally see the confluence of 'illegal' and 'unethical.' and this will be highly context-dependent.

  • Well, yes, I see the point that the premise itself can be argued to be wrong. But the thing is that strictness of laws may be considered wrong, what's in this case?
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 13:09
  • Well, it depends on the law, and whether or not it really does matter whether something happens before or after a certain time. for instance, a time-limited parking restriction may be in place to stop people blocking a school during the times school buses are arriving. It really is significantly worse to park in the wrong place before 09:00, because after that all of the children will be in classes.
    – JeffUK
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 13:14

I think you are hitting on another issue. What are the reasonable limits and discretion allowed to law enforcement?

So it isn't just time boundaries such as mandated closing. It's a huge variety of things. You must be [x] years of age to drink alcohol, sign contracts, own real estate, drive a car, run for president. You can't drive faster than the speed limit. You must be this tall to ride this ride. You must be a citizen to vote, run for office, etc. We don't allow weapons here, not even somebody holding their fingers to pretend it's a gun.

What degree of discretion is permitted and reasonable to the enforcers? If too much then they become the rule makers. If too little then they are often seen as tyrannical. "Come on! I was one mile per hour over." "That's the law. Here's your ticket." "What do you mean he can run for POTUS? He was born in Alberta!"

I don't think there are hard and fast principles here. These are issues that get into the sloppiness of culture and community and politics. It's an issue that will get compromised on to a huge degree, not rarely because somebody can see benefit to themselves from deciding one way or the other. Often it will be decided as what the most people will accept or fewest will get really angry about. Occasionally corrected by some government moving the boundaries. And by such things as merchants noting that "zero tolerance" is bad for business.

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