Mini-Feature: Behavior Without Law

With no laws or rules to influence your behavior, how do you think you would behave?

Very badly. But not at once. Law externally forms our habits, serving as the bumpers in bumper bowling that prevent the ball from falling into the gutter. It works over time from the outside in. It can't reach inside a person and make them good. But the rules we adopt as a community, both formal and informal, written, and unwritten, shape each of us as well as the community as a whole in ways we do not perceive. 

In fact, much shoddy thinking today ignores the deeper influence of law. While we take it all for granted, it is a very difficult thing to build and a very difficult thing to recover once lost. 

Consider it from this angle: one way of describing the aspirational goal of government, for Aristotle and the like, is that it ought to transform citizens into self-governing persons who to a large degree do not need law and who are all friends of their own accord.

Self-governing persons in that their virtue flows forth from them—their will and habit guides them internally in place of external laws, laws which are ultimately in existence for the sake of encouraging precisely this sort of internal habit. Laws which also encourage citizens to treat each other as friends—also by means of their own will and habit.

The purpose of law, obviously never to be perfectly reached, is thus to create a body of self-governing friends who in some sense do not need law. The entirety of the point is generally lost on all sides of the "equation" today. Roughly speaking, it seems to me that the right tends to shy away from the ideal of citizenship as friendship while the left seems to shy away from the ideal of citizenship as self-governance.

But this goal proves the rule. Without law, you can bet on corruption. When I used to engage in political research, I knew that there would be bad stuff happening in any city to which no one was paying attention (press/media/activist groups, etc.). Without anyone watching, the law was not applicable. 

That's when you know before you turn over the rock that the nasty stuff is inevitably going to be underneath it. And we are each like this as individuals, even if modern people like to pretend otherwise.

Imagine the pilgrims coming to the eastern seaboard to found new communities in America. The virtue and discipline they manifested was indeed remarkable. Without law, these habits and this unity is vital. Now imagine a random sample of Americans trying to the same in similar conditions today. You get the point.

-Matt Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind

In a world... with no law... can one ever really be sure how one would behave? I was always struck by the line in Chinatown where the villain tells the hero “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.” 

This is as good a restatement as any of the fear of self that arises properly from the fear of God. It is also a reminder that in a certain sense every day is Judgment Day—and a good gloss on the logic behind Jesus’s heightening of the interdictions against sin to include playing out the sins of our desire in the theaters of our heart. 

We are always looking for justified exceptions to the rule of responsibility, for ways of avoiding our many little duties to what is inescapable concerning the truth about who we are. This is because we do not want to be the ones who pay the price for the worming out of responsibility of others. 

The sacrifice of Jesus is so potent not because of its altruism or nobility or masochism, but because we feel the soul pain of taking the hit for others’ irresponsibilities to be lowering, to bear in our hearts the message that being human is bad news, a curse. For Jesus to overcome this is to evince not just a truly divine attitude but a divine presence

The transfiguration of the experience of taking the fall for all the crimes in the secret hearts of all others from an ultimate curse to an ultimate breaking of the human curse is something that can only be done, we know in our secret hearts, by divine authority, and can only be comprehended by us humans as a function of divine love.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

This question is a little ambiguous. Does saying that there are no laws or rules to influence my behavior mean that there are no consequences either? So I can do whatever I want and nothing bad will ever happen to me from external authorities? That's a bit fantastic; I'm not sure that such a condition has ever existed for anyone. Louis XIV was an absolute ruler, but as a sovereign he had tremendous responsibilities he took seriously. He had to rule France. Even King Leopold of Belgium, who owned the Congo as his personal demesne and ordered all manner of outrages to be carried out in his name, probably believed he was conducting himself according to some rules of order and justice.

Ultimately,  laws and rules are just formalized consequences. So in the real world, there really is no condition under which there are no laws and rules to influence behavior. Jeffrey Epstein, one supposes, appears to have set up some kind of Thelemite paradise for himself and his louche pals in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and that worked for a little while. But "Do what thou wilt" is a tough maxim to maintain when there are still courts, police, surveillance equipment, etc. Even Robinson Crusoe, stranded alone, set about building fences and keeping careful account of his resources and time: such is the human compulsion to order one's life. It's just hard to imagine social existence minus taboo.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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The answer depends on whether I am suddenly released, as I am now, into lawlessness, or whether I am imagining what it would be like never to have been under law—to be without restraint from birth. For reasons that will be familiar to our readers, I think that if I were without law from infancy I would behave atrociously—not because I would have no intuitive awareness of natural law in outline, but because, to paraphrase Augustine, I would simply want to do evil.

The other hypothetical is different. The human laws we layer over the natural law do not merely restrain our action in the short term. They also shape us, daily, from the instruction of our parents in youth to the social mores and legal constraints we learn about in time. These all leave an imprint on the soul, and it’s possible that my upbringing in a world of law and order would curb my worst savagery if I were thrust suddenly beyond the reach of justice as an adult.

But still: there would be things I would want to do. Good things, it would seem to me. Things like striking down the petty tyrants from their greasy thrones and governorships. This is why Plato’s ring of Gyges and Tolkien’s reimagining thereof cumulatively make a brilliant point about human nature: “understand, Frodo. I would use this ring out of a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.” And again: “many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?” The great temptation in the case of civilized man would not be to venality or perversion: it would be to judgment, of the divine and final kind. Given free restraint I fear I would powerfully long to run the world according to cosmic principles of good and evil, to tamper with long strands of history that none of us can possibly untangle. If the past is any indication, the outcome of this effort would be disastrous for all involved.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind