The Philosophical Meaning of Law

America is very much a law-and-order society, as are the other Anglophone countries, Northern European nations, Singapore, and some others. We have laws on a large scale, federal law, those that govern us and form the structures of our societies. We also have international laws, use passports and visas to travel, and must conduct trade in particular ways. There are local laws that vary greatly from state to state, county to county, city to city. And of course, there are religious laws (some Islamic nations are governed by sharia law), and dietary laws which are often a subset of these. There are regions of the world which are described as “lawless,” and places where people “take the law into their own hands.” Mafias all over the world set their own laws and often abide by a particular personal code of honor or unwritten laws. Laws are what are used to determine how “right” or “wrong” someone is in a given situation, whether or not they have followed them, and lawyers are schooled for years on the intricacies of the law.

But what does this all really mean?

Anthropologically speaking, every culture or society has its own laws. The question is how formal or informal the law is, how institutionalized, and whether a personal code of conduct trumps an established form of rules. There are still societies in which there is retributive justice, individual honor codes where people react according to their perception of a wrongdoing.

Underneath all of this is the issue of regulating human behavior. Has an individual acted in accordance with the rules of the group? If not, how severe is the infraction? The idea is a consequence for breaking a law or rule. Regulating human behavior at a societal level also helps us choose our actions, gives us a way to be deliberate. This is something so fundamental to human life that we don’t even think about it on a daily basis. However, even stopping at a red light, or submitting a legal document by a deadline are so ingrained in our psyches, things we accept without question.

Naturally, there are individuals who are asocial and to violate the law, or who violate the mores we have set up in our societies. Sometimes it is mild and simply “being human”; at other times, it is the sign of a deep psychiatric disorder or pathology. We saw this with the last president, and I would even argue that we see it in the globally influential social media corporations such as Facebook. 

So, what is the philosophical meaning of law in the end? I argue that it is the social mechanism to do the best for the greater good and to minimize harm to individuals. Unfortunately, as we have seen all over the world and through history, the law is often twisted and corrupted. And if the outer is a reflection of the inner, we must learn to develop our own moral compasses from the time we are young.

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