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.


One of the hardest aspects of the continuing sheltering/social distancing rules for millions of us is the inability to gather. As restrictions are loosened, it is still not truly safe to meet in large groups as before. Even with small groups with masks and social distancing, it is a risk. Anthropologically, we humans need institutions and groups to “finish us,” as we are not born with many instincts and have to learn many skills, unlike most animals. Children who are not socialized with others become feral, and later cannot function in normal human society. There is such a thing as antisocial personality disorder, which is just what its name suggests: people who are not able to interact with others in healthy ways to a pathological degree and who cannot respect how others feel. Not having this human ritual of gathering now, not having a regular, non-risky part of our lives, leads us to reflect on how we congregate as human beings.

We meet for joy. We meet to celebrate special occasions: births, graduations, weddings, showers, birthdays, anniversaries, milestones such as retirement, etc. There is something about the energy of multiple people together, that one plus one is greater than two, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It might just be five people around the table for a birthday, but throw in funny stories swapped, advice for difficult situations, jokes, et cetera, and it becomes something more. We also meet for funerals, in order to pay respects to the dead and to commemorate their lives; sometimes, it becomes a reunion to see people we may not have seen for decades.

We eat together. One of my favorite things in the world to do is to go out to dinner with a sizable group of people, or to hold dinner parties. Passing dishes around the table–“Oh, I would love some more of that rice!” “Ooh thanks, but I’m not fond of X!” or “May I taste a little of your dessert?–and sharing food is something that feels so vital to the human experience. We all have a common need to eat, which is necessary to survive. Takeout is just not the same as sitting in a restaurant, a place that has its own unique ambience, the smells of the food, the service (or lack thereof if it is a casual eatery) the sounds, people watching, and so many other things that can’t be described. Though many restaurants are open for patio dining, the risks are too great right now, and most people do not wear a mask when they are not eating and are talking.

We need to move together. Be it individually and physically with a spouse or significant other in an intimate/sexual manner, or in an exercise class, tossing a ball with kids, dancing to a live band outside, or clapping our hands in a concert hall, there is something deeply nonverbal and communicative about motion.

Making music together. For those of us who are musicians, this is one of the most tragic things right now, even though the Internet has managed to force us to be creative and concoct new ways of performing and getting together on the basis of sound. Playing in an orchestra is one of the most spectacular thrills in the human experience, to be surrounded by so many instruments that each do their own thing, and yet come together under the coordination of the conductor’s baton. Playing or singing in any sort of musical ensemble is also something in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Public venues. Who doesn’t love perusing books in a library or bookstore? We see a cookbook cover that features some sort of dish we might like to try making, or a title that piques our curiosity and so we lift the book off the table and skim a few pages to see if we might like reading the whole thing. Looking at clothes in a store, seeing the plethora of fabrics, colors, and shapes, sparks our imagination and gives us joy in trying out a new shirt or dress, and getting feedback either from a friend or a willing follow customer. Any kind of house of worship, be it a Zen meditation center, Hindu temple, or Catholic church, unites us in our need for sacred spaces. Having a place that is set aside for quiet contemplation or religious rituals is significant; for those who are atheist, they may find that a particular place, such as in nature or a particular neighborhood, gives them deep solace.

Social groups of interest. We might like to gather together to speak French at a café, play a pickup game of basketball, or meet to plan a charity project. We bond through these common activities which are often things that others in our family or circle of friends might not enjoy doing. Often, we stick with our friends, but sometimes in groups, there is a friend of a friend who we might enjoy meeting or chatting with.

These are but some of the pleasures being denied to us now, or of risk to us now, due to the unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic. Our socializing is severely limited. This is tragically sad, because as humans, no matter how introverted we are, we are social animals. We are trying all means of creative technology to unite us, but nothing takes the place of in-person interaction. So much has been said about herd immunity; what we need so badly now is herd community.