July 26, 2007

For Discussion: Not Saussure On Where Legislation Comes From

I'm going to try, when guest blogging, to spotlight other bloggers and bring attention to their old posts. Today's victim is Not Saussure, who had a post on abortion and the law in June that deserves a second look. There are rich and thoughtful things in the comments and the post itself. I'm already hoping for Gracchi to get back. This is nerve wracking, writing for a blog with an audience.

It is, quite simply, wrong for MPs to legislate on primarily theological grounds. The reason we have laws against murder and theft are not, as I keep on saying, because God forbids such activities (though I believe He does) but because you can’t have any sort of complex society in which people can go around murdering and robbing people with impunity. Society can, however, knock along reasonably well despite some of its members committing adultery and worshipping graven images, which is why we don’t ban those activities despite the fact that we have it on equally good authority that The Almighty disapproves of them, too.

- Not Saussure, "Nadine Dorries MP On Abortion," 6.6.2007

Not Saussure's post is very well-done, and I think it worth revisiting and challenging for the sake of argument only. The quote above seems to imply that God is part of a simpler view of the world, but that societies - which quite possibly constitute the world - can be irreducibly complex. So perhaps people start thinking that the reason why murder and robbery are wrong is because of God, and heck, throw in some laws about adultery and not having intercourse with goats, and one can keep a village orderly and in fear of God.

But the more complicated a society gets, the more we realize the real reason behind the law: the simple society really wasn't that simple. It actually was complex. As we discover complexity, some laws stand, others fade away. So it is possible for society now, perhaps, to engage in things sinful then.

In the comments to the post linked above speaks Heraklites:

“The reason we have laws against murder [is] because you can’t have any sort of complex society in which people can go around murdering … with impunity.”

But are laws not often determined more by moral sentiments than by utilitarian arguments? And are moral sentiments not typically derived from some belief system or other? Most people seem to have moral beliefs which cannot strictly be justified, some based on religion, some not.

If we take the question to be "What is the origin of law?" then we seem to have two very different ideas on what the complexity/simplicity of society means. The concept of rationality tied to enlightened self-interest sees (at least here) morality as changeable. To the degree one accepts that law reflects morality or sets criteria for which moralities are permissible, one also is saying the complexity of society is what generates the truest laws, the ones we will in effect obey for maximum satisfaction.

I guess my questions are: What do you take Heraklites' comment - I've only quoted part, to be sure - to be hinting at? Are moral sentiments simple? Or are they a complex? Where does religion fall in - is it always not justifiable "strictly," and what is the relation between a system of beliefs and rationality? Are beliefs always irrational? Proto-rational?


Vino S said...

I think the trouble is that, when people pass laws against something, they may be against it for a number of reasons. It would be difficult to pin-point whether an objection was specifically religious or not [since presumably religious opponents to abortion might also argue that it violates certain non-religious moral principles as well]. Although I am not religious, I think we can not have a situation where the religious are stopped from feeding into the political system. To do so would be itself to deny them some of their political rights.

Ashok said...

Thanks so much for the comment, Vino! I'm going over the post to see if I was clear enough.

I'm puzzled about something, and have no opinion on it. Where do rights come from? If they are originally part of the law, are they expressions of reason or sentiment? (To talk about 'sentiment' is tricky given the discussion above, I know.)