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The Enigma of Moral Laws

December 17, 2011 Leave a comment

We humans just love to believe we’re analytical and logical beings. Recall a discussion on an issue where you disagree and I’ll bet you recall both you and the other parties trading ‘facts’ at a furious pace, everyone involved believing fervently that logic and reason, and perhaps even truth, are on their side. Failing personal experience, turn on CSPAN and watch your Congress debate an issue for a few hours; or go to your next city council or county board meeting. Somehow the ‘facts’ and the ‘truth’ seem to be on all sides.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the devout pontifications of the true believers in the halls of government and solemn chambers of the courts that ‘we are a country of laws’ and that ‘we are governed by the rule of law’. In one form or other, that has been the cry of every king, emperor, dictator, overlord, and petty potentate in history. A belief reinforced, of course, by punishments so hideous and grotesque they’re incomprehensible. And yet, history shows that the rule of law, no matter how inhumanely enforced cannot trump the true governor of all human societies: Culture.

It is culture that informs us, from a very early age, about what is right and what is wrong; about how we are to treat family, friends, strangers. It is culture that teaches us who we should marry, and in what number; when sex is okay, and when it’s not; what is obscene or pornographic, and what is not; what kinds of public behavior are acceptable, and those that are not. It is our culture that informs us who is one of ‘us’ and who is not. And to the extent that laws and culture agree, the culture will enforce the law. The Prince, to borrow from Machiavelli, is mostly irrelevant.

But where culture and the Prince part company, and the Prince attempts to enforce his or her moral will over the ruled, in defiance of the culture of the ruled, the Prince is doomed to failure. A thousand years of conquests in the Middle East did not turn Jews into gentiles. Even hundreds of years of exile, first during the reign of Babylon and then again during the Roman occupation did not destroy their culture. Nor did the Roman occupation destroy the cultures of the Greeks, Palestinians, Visigoths, Egyptians, or anyone else. Three centuries of crucifixions and other brutal killings did not end the Jesus movement. Despite the ‘rule of law’ and what might be called—to put it in a modern context—the war on Christianity, it grew to be the dominant religion of Rome itself, and then of the post Roman world. Despite thousands of be-headings, burnings at the stake, and torture elicited retractions, neither the distribution of the common language Bible and emergence of protestantism nor the rise of the age of science could be prevented. For all it’s brutality, the four hundred year long campaign to bludgeon the population into compliance through fear and intimidation failed. The inquisition lost to cultural evolution. As did the American Temperance Movement in its attempt to make drinking illegal, and the Soviet Union in its attempt to homogenize the diverse cultures over which it had imposed its will.

In point of fact, no law contradictory to the culture of the time has ever succeeded, no matter how brutal the punishment imposed. And yet, even today, politicians insist on believing they can make laws contrary to the morality of the time, and if they just impose severe enough punishments, give enough speeches, find enough ‘experts’ to go on TV and preach how good the law is for society, that they can change the culture.

The truth is, it’s the other way around.

American unjustly and inhumanely incarcerates more people than any other nation on Earth! According to some statistics, one million Americans a year are arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana; careers ruined, lives shattered. And what do we have to show for it?

A for profit prison industrial complex (PIC) that, according to this fact sheet (pdf) has been growing at more than 6% per year. Crime, in a traditional sense, is no longer the sole, or even prime focus of what the government and press prefer to call the ‘criminal justice system’. Today the interests of government and private industry have merged. Money is now the driving force behind law enforcement, the war on terror, incarceration, and even how the PIC is perceived by the public. Or perhaps more accurately, how the PIC hopes they are perceived. A gullible public is, after all, a compliant public.

But the truth, as the old saying goes, is in the tasting. Just as the Roman Catholic Church was terrified of losing it’s hold over Europe, and the money that came with it, sooner or later culture will win out over the PIC. How soon? How many more lives will have to be ruined before the beast is brought to heel? That depends on your choices in the voting booth.