Friday, 23 November 2012

Who needs laws?

     There is quote going around, attributed to Plato, that reads as follows: "Good people don't need laws to tell them to act responsibly, and bad people will find a way around the laws." It's an attractive sentiment, and one I'm inclined to agree with.... sort of. But I can't seem to find the passage in the works of Plato himself, and in hindsight that's not terribly surprising, because for all his talk about the ideal world of forms, Plato wasn't exactly an idealistic anarchist.

     The closest to this quote I've been able to find by googling Project Gutenberg has been this, from (not surprisingly) The Laws
For if a man were born so divinely gifted that he could naturally apprehend the truth, he would have no need of laws to rule over him; for there is no law or order which is above knowledge, nor can mind, without impiety, be deemed the subject or slave of any man, but rather the lord of all. I speak of mind, true and free, and in harmony with nature. But then there is no such mind anywhere, or at least not much; and therefore we must choose law and order, which are second best. 
     So here, the idea is that if people were smart enough to know what's right and wrong, we wouldn't need laws, but few people are that wise. Law is an imperfect compromise, then, says Plato, but a necessary one.
     The problem we have, of course, is that lawmakers are themselves human and rarely much if any wiser than the people to be governed by those laws, so agreeing to follow the laws doesn't seem to get us any closer to doing the right thing than if we were to simply choose on our own.

     But I think it's a mistake to think the law is there to tell us what's right. We need laws because we don't all agree on what's right. If we all agreed (even if we were all wrong) that a person ought to do X in situation Y, then we wouldn't need law, because everyone would do X in situation Y and no one would have a problem with it, regardless of whether it was objectively right or wrong, and there would be no need for law. So I prefer to think of the law as the weapon with which we finally resolve our disputes in civilized societies, when we cannot resolve them by more amicable means.

     I mean that in more than just a figurative sense, because I believe the law really is a weapon. Consider what distinguishes use as a weapon from other sorts of tool use: weapons are used to reduce the capabilities of the target in some way. A knife can be a tool for separating bits of flesh from each other in surgery or in combat; in surgery the intent is to effect some sort of repair that ultimately enhances the capabilities of the patient, while in combat the intent is to reduce (or eliminate) the target's ability to fight.
     The law is purely a weapon in this sense. Law cannot create freedoms; it can only reduce them. But, by pruning away certain freedoms (such as, for instance, the freedom to commit murder), we can allow other freedoms to flourish that otherwise would have been suppressed (such as the freedom to do things that you can't do when you've been murdered).
     It may not look like the criminal law is about dispute resolution, but taken as a whole I think it is. It's illegal to kill people not so much because we all (or most of us, anyway) agree that murder is immoral, but because murder violates the rights of the victim to exercise autonomy. So does any sort of violence. Theft and other property crimes are extensions of property law, which is how we resolve disputes over who gets to make decisions involving scarce resources. Contract law allows us to artificially and voluntarily reduce our freedom to break promises, enabling us to rely more on agreements and on the whole, enhancing our range of choices. And so on generally: the ultimate role of law is to resolve disputes.

     And that's why we need laws. Not to tell us right from wrong, but to allow each of us to seek after what seems to be right, whatever that may turn out to be.


  1. I've never heard that quote attributed to Plato although I have heard Utah Philips use it directly. I would suspect somewhere along the line it got attached to Plato and it sounded good so it stuck.

  2. The Apostle Paul says the the Law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. By means of the Law we see have very far short we have fallen and how very much we deserve the condemnation of the God to whom we must answer. Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law, and offers His righteousness to us as a free gift, taking upon Himself the penalty of our failures. This changes our attitude toward the law, so that we receive it gladly as a guide. Law-keeping becomes, not an abstract principle to be argued, but a livng power that brings a new kind of life. Jesus kept the Law and calls us to Himself as our only hope.

  3. I suspect Paul was talking about the Old Testament commandments (not just the 10 biggies from Exodus, but all that Leviticus stuff, too) and traditional observations of the time, such as not mixing different kinds of fiber in the same garment, not consuming blood, and so on. Those laws, in that theological context, very well might be viewed as bringing us to spiritual purity and preparing us for what comes next.

    But it's a mistake to think that this refers to the provincial and federal statutes and English common law principles that govern civil society today. Canon law and civil law are two different beasts, as even Jesus seemed to imply or acknowledge in his little remark about rendering unto Caesar. The existence of civil law does not preclude a personal duty to adhere to a religious code; it merely places limits on how much your own choices (to follow or not to follow your religious code, for example) can impinge upon the capacity of others to make their own choices. In other words, the civil law serves to allow you to follow your Christian law and your neighbour to follow Muslim law and your other neighbour to follow atheist philosophical ethics, with as little interference as possible, consistent with us all living in some proximity to each other.

  4. The original quote is probably from Ammon Hennacy:

    "Oh judge! Your damn laws! The good people don't need them, and the bad people don't obey them." (

  5. Thank you for that reference. Ammon Hennacy seems a very likely source for a quote like that. I don't have the original text of the one I saw circulating on on Facebook that inspired this post, but it might have been from there. But the idea itself, that good people don't need laws and bad people ignore them, is almost certainly older that that.

  6. Thank you for posting this... I thoroughly enjoyed it. I've been doing a bit of research on Ayn Rand lately and had seen that same quote bandied about... I did fine this on Reddit, where they seem to have found the original from Plato's work: The comment from Plato seems to be less a kind of libertarian trope and more an advocacy of law with an explanation of why he thought we need it.

    1. not sure why it wound up with "unknown" after showing me my google profile and icon.... hmmm...

    2. Thank you for the link. It does rather sound more Platonic that way, although it'd be nice if they'd include the source text.