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Laws and lawlessness

The idea of law and how it works itself out in practice intrigues me: we’re raised into society which in a certain sense is built upon and sustained by laws and lawful behaviour; yet it seems rare for all that to be directly explained and laid out for us. Our entire lives are regulated, but we might be unaware of how unless we inadvertently or more deliberately step over a line. And that seems quite important.

Some laws are communicated more explicitly, like those around driving or money; but there must be many we exist in ignorance of. Short of pursuing a career within the field of law it seems we’re limited to the awareness evident in those around us, infringements we stumble across, or what we absorb through entertainment and the media. Then there are things like local bylaws, social and environmental practices, and contractual obligations in work or home life. How conscious are we of all that, and how much does it matter?

The very notion of law is simply interesting: how it relates to human behaviour and the ways it shapes society. Do we need the threat of punishment in order to regulate our actions, or are there natural social ethics to draw upon? Are laws there to limit our darkness, to protect the disadvantaged, or more an elevation of those values we aspire to?

Reflecting on how laws changed in response to historical realities such as slavery, we can see how that mirrors the development of moral standards and commonly held beliefs. Law – and the politics surrounding it – became a battleground for improving society; the history of our laws and societies running parallel, as collective awareness grew.

With our situation now, it often appears the law is something to toy with and stretch. Maybe that’s partly because there’s a perceived lack of accountability in the anonymity and overwhelm of how we live: if our actions and their consequences are largely unseen, is there any reason to comply? Does the idea of law begin to seem meaningless in a society that often doesn’t notice or care? Ways that actions are increasingly invisible certainly seems one of the challenges we’re facing (see Notes One).

But in terms of this relationship between law, human behaviour, and social reality what does a noticeable disregard for laws and conventions mean? Does it matter if people begin acting out of a sense that “we may as well, others do, no one really cares, and what are they going to do about it”?

For me, it matters to the extent that living in light of the law reflects a deeper understanding of society: the idea of making the world safe, enjoyable and reliable for others. While it may serve us personally to cut some corners, these principles are essentially there to maintain society. And all our actions surely have a social aspect to them, in that they demonstrate for others our social values and how important we feel all of that to be.

Notes and References:

Note 1: Reality as a sense check
Note 1: Antisocial behaviour & the young
Note 1: The challenge of community
Note 1: Individual responsibility, collective standards
Note 1: Empathy in a world that happily destroys

Also, Media and responsibility which spoke in similar terms of systems we’re a part of and the vital social function they have.

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