Friday, June 27, 2008

Some thoughts on what can rightfully be considered a law

In my previous post, I didn't mean to equivocate between conceptual and substantial normative matters when I discussed what it takes for a "law" to be rightfully considered a law.

"Rightfully considered" is, in the above statement and my previous post, not a reference to the justness of a law, at least not primarily. But consider: Jones and Smith both wash up on a deserted island. Jones is much more physically powerful than Smith and hence Smith is rather afraid of him. This fear increases when Jones begins to articulate rules for Smith to follow: "Every morning, you will wake up at sunrise and gather coconuts for me. If you do not bring back four coconuts, then I will beat you."

Jones is certainly trying to give Smith a command. And suppose Smith, out of fear of being beaten, does acquiesce to Jones' demand. In fact, Smith gets into the habit of obeying Jones so much that Jones does not even have to specify that Smith will be beaten if he doesn't follow his commands.

My intuition about this story is that Jones is not making laws. In the story, he does have all the guns (so to speak) but the situation is lacking certain features that are necessary if genuine laws are to exist. These features might include:

  1. Jones' commands aren't general enough to qualify as laws.
  2. Jones isn't writing them down anywhere.
  3. The only reason Smith is obeying Jones is because he doesn't want to be beaten. Neither Smith nor Jones actually think Jones has any real authority at all.
We can reject the first two features as being irrelevant, with the following caveat: they probably bear on the relevance of the third feature, which is where all the action is.

As for the third feature -- well, think about it. When Jones tells Smith to do something, Smith does it. But he does it only because he thinks he will get beaten if he does not. Jones' pronouncement that Smith ought to do such and such is never enough, on its own, to get Smith to believe that he ought to do such and such. Smith never takes Jones' command that he X as a reason to X.

Now there's a complicated story to be told about how Smith might eventually come to recognize Jones's authority and internalize it in a way that Jones' commands will, on their own, begin to establish reasons for him to act. But until the situation between Jones and Smith reaches the point where Smith begins to recognize Jones' commands as reasons, I do not think we can say that Jones is making law.

We might not want to say that Jones is making law even after such internalization has occurred; but we certainly can't say it before. This is what I mean, first, when I talk about what can rightfully be considered a law. The question is conceptual, in that there seem to be certain necessary conditions that must be met before we can even say that law-making exists in the first place.

Some kind of mutual recognition of one person's ability to establish, through his words alone, reasons for another person to act is probably one of those conditions. If you don't have that, you don't have law. I think Hart described this as seeing the law from the internal viewpoint. The law must be represented internally before we can say it rightly exists.

We need not fill in all the details of how such internalization might occur here. But there is one relevant question: suppose I could give some complicated sociological story (e.g. on this deserted island) about how Smith might come to accept Jones commands from the internal viewpoint. Could I give such a story in a way that would make no reference to the commands Jones was actually making?

In other words, is the continued internalization of law and authority consistent with any set of laws whatsoever? Or is it not the case that some commands cannot be given without inherently undermining the authority of the law-giver? If Jones commands Smith to kill Smith's children, is that consistent with Smith coming to internalize Jones' authority?

If you're a certain kind of moralist, you'll likely think the answer is "no." For example, if you think all agents are born having easy access to certain basic moral truths, then you'll think that those truths -- natural laws, if you like -- put a limit on the kind of authority people can come to accept. If Jones consistently commands that Smith do immoral things, Smith might still do those immoral things, but it will be extremely difficult for him to come to internalize Jones' authority. Smith will constantly face a conflict between his clear knowledge of the moral law and Jones' violation of it.

So here is where the conceptual question of what can rightfully be considered a law connects with the moral question of what the law ought to look like. In short: an egregiously unjust law is (conceptually) no law at all; and bodies that attempt to create such unjust laws undermine their authority.

Timothy Sandefur's erudite and gracious response to this post and the one before is here. *sigh* There is so much I need to learn.


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