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On Laws and Justice

The second part in a three-part series on civilization, published April 2018 in Bilkent News.

What the law does is ensure that people comply with the necessary conditions for social success in the context of communal purpose. Laws are the written and officially enforced counterparts to standards of social conduct, and are no less arbitrary in nature. Theft and rape are illegal essentially because they upset the balance of values, opening the community to the dominion not of the most able and intelligent, but of the most brutal. Since our society has decided to value the former set of traits over the latter, the clearest avenues to crude power have been blocked; to be sure, there are other ways to employ brute force, but by eschewing its basic tenets, the community sends a message to its members through legislation that violence is inherently undesirable. This discourages additional instabilities in a society such as ours, where cooperation and trust that each worker will get a share of the goods can only maximize productivity through the more comfortable effort of a larger workforce. In its bones, the law is meant only to preserve a community; it is an orderly form of the unspoken contract by which people come together, and so depends largely on the needs and character of the society it applies to.There are four general types of law. Protective laws are the backbone of society, and concern acts that will divert the community from its purpose and its basic values, which in our case are offenses involving property and physical safety. Penal laws ensure that all such offenses are punished, allowing the law to self-perpetrate and to lend authority and consistency to the state that enforces it. Moral laws protect the common understanding of morality by endeavoring to stifle moral weakness (which might well stem from moral evolution, or the inner transformation of society); obscenity trials as well as laws against alcohol and drug use fall into this category. Regulatory laws concern details of communal living, and are absolutely necessary for clarity of procedure in official activities; divorce and inheritance laws as well as corporate law are some subtypes. This sort of law also specifies the characteristics of the state, such as its official name and religion, and the dominant political mechanism (for example, how political parties should be formed, or how many operative bodies there should be in government to do which tasks). The four types complement each other; they are all basically ways to ensure that the chosen values of a society are adhered to.

In this light, justice becomes simply a way of punishing social transgressions. The trouble with unjust behavior is not its inherent evil, but its role in upsetting social unity. This unity may at times be simply illusory, as in the case of one man being favored over his companion, which violates the premise “All men are equal” and so is a punishable act; the punishment preserves premises that derive from and contribute to useful values. Here, the illusion of equality and equal opportunity encourages greater productivity by way of motivation, and is therefore useful. Unity may also be of the physically binding sort, which relates to issues of bodily, mental or proprietary safety; when any one of these becomes easily violable, the community dissolves because its members feel that the perils of cohabitation outweigh the goods of collaboration. No society can allow violence if it wants to survive, and must discourage any such disturbance with speed and severity. Justice is a legal mechanism of retribution, just as laws themselves are a mechanism of value preservation – and thus the preservation of society as a whole – and law enforcement a deterrent, when the matter at hand looks more evil than natural.

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