Morality and Law
Atomic Individuals and Social Groups
If there was no such thing as society, and humanity consisted of a sea of independent atomic individuals, each would survive as best he could with what little knowledge and skills he possessed, and what few tools he could personally make. And each would always act in his own self-interest, if only because there would be no other persons to consider. And, with each alone, should any be injured or fall sick, they would have to struggle on unaided to survive, if they could survive at all.
In human societies - even ones consisting of a single family of two parents and their children - there exists a wider knowledge and range of skills, and the ability to make and share more tools. And even in a small group of people, there emerges the possibility that, instead of one person doing everything, tasks can divided up, so that one person prepares and cooks food, while others hunt and gather food. The result is that, with the division of labour, and a greater variety of tools, and a wider pool of knowledge, life in human society is easier or idler than life as a lone atomic individual. And this increase in idleness may be sufficient to allow an injured or sick individual to be temporarily supported by other members of society, working harder than they otherwise would.
And so, in a sea of lone atomic individuals, cooperative human societies provided islands of relatively high idleness.
But such societies require of their members that they surrender some degree of their personal autonomy, and consent to act in concert with others, rather than do whatever they feel like doing. Those charged with cooking food, or fetching water, cannot wander off and to do something else as the urge takes them. They must be disciplined, obedient, reliable. They must learn not just to take, but to give. Human societies are bound together by a web of obligations, duties, promises.
And this may have been too great an imposition for some atomic individuals to bear - accustomed as they must have been to always acting in their immediate self-interest. And so these people remained as atomic individuals, living on their own resources, answering to no-one, obeying no instruction.
And so perhaps the earliest human societies emerged from, and for a long time remained surrounded by, a sea of atomic individuals. And if the numbers in human societies began to predominate over those of atomic individuals, it was because cooperative human societies were more idle, and were thus more able to survive hard times during which all had to work harder to survive. If circumstances had been such that lone individuals, with few tools, could survive just as well as social groups, there would have been no necessity for humans to come together in cooperative societies.
And if cooperation even within small nuclear families brought higher idleness than that of atomic individuals, then in even larger aggregations of people, even more tools and skills and knowledge could be found, and an even higher idleness achieved. It was this, rather than any natural sociability, that drew humans together into ever larger social units.
The Necessity of Social Morality
Any tool is only useful if it is used and maintained correctly. There are rules (sometimes in instruction manuals) for how to get best value from it. So also with cooperative societies, there are rules of conduct which members must obey if they are to reap the reward of higher idleness through cooperative activity.
Acting in concert, rather than independently, the members of a hunting party will be able to capture or kill larger animals than any lone individual, and will earn a larger reward for their concerted action, and an increase in their idleness. But acting in concert requires each member of such a hunting party to temporarily forego their independence of action, in order to perform particular tasks, and take only a share of the prize.
So also there are rules of conduct in a society that where people make and trade tools. That if tools are sold, then their buyers should pay the price. And if they incur debts, they should repay them. And where they make tools, these tools should be adequate for their purpose. Acting in concert, sharing out different tasks to different people, the result is that the idleness of everyone increases. If people simply steal tools, or do not honour debts, or make shoddy goods, the rewards of increased idleness will not be forthcoming, and society will disintegrate.
Therefore, in any interdependent society, there must be moral codes that govern the behaviour of its members. The codes will vary from one form of society to another, but these codes of conduct will all have the same purpose - the increase of idleness. The value of morality is that, for any individual, temporarily foregoing immediate self-interest results in a greater reward than comes of continually acting in immediate self-interest.
In this respect, moral codes are useful tools. One foregoes leisure while making a tool, but is rewarded with increased leisure by subsequently using it. With moral codes, one foregoes some leisure or independence in observing those codes, but is rewarded with increased leisure as a consequence. For example, if on roads carriages restrict themselves to one side, the traffic moves easily in both directions, and journey times are shorter.
The purpose of moral codes is to maintain or increase social idleness. Therefore a good rule of conduct is one that increases social idleness, and a bad rule is one that decreases it. And what is a good and useful rule at one time may become, in time, an impediment or obstruction. Therefore the rules of conduct require to be regularly revised, with obstructive old rules removed, and beneficial new rules added. And the ultimate value of any rule of behaviour is to be found in the degree to which it actually serves to increase idleness.
Equally, the reason for any rule should always be remembered and restated. Codes of conduct should not become unquestioned habits, or traditions, whose original purpose has been forgotten.
The General Rule
To steal a tool from someone is to deprive them of the value of that tool, and reduce their idleness. To fail to pay a debt is to deprive someone of the debt, and reduce their idleness. To make shoddy goods is to deprive their buyers of the expected value of tools, and reduce their idleness. To obstruct or impede someone is to cost them time, and reduce their idleness. To injure someone is to slow them in their work, and reduce their idleness. These various acts all share a common denominator: that they cause trouble, make people work longer than they otherwise would.
And therefore, underpinning all particular rules and regulations, there must be a general rule, from which any particular rule derives its force, and which might be roughly summarized as: Don't make trouble. (trouble, traballo, work). That is, do not act in any way that makes life less idle for anyone. And if anyone, inadvertantly or otherwise, causes another to work unnecessarily, they owe that person compensation. One must repay the time that one costs others.
The codes of conduct that govern a society are not the mere rules of some game, like cricket or football. A game is some activity in which people engage in their idle hours, as an amusement or pastime, and the infringement of the rules of the game does not cost anyone their leisure, but merely spoils the game. The rules and regulations that govern a society, by contrast, are what originally serve to provide that society with the idle time in which such games, or any other leisurely activities whatsoever, may be enjoyed. And the idleness of any society is its insurance against misfortune or catastrophe. And therefore the infringement of social codes of conduct is a serious matter, because it reduces the idleness of society, and may even threaten the lives of its members. Therefore it is of utmost importance that rules be observed, that troublemakers make restitution.
Equally, while the rules of a game may be arbitrarily changed, the rules governing a society should be only be amended after the most serious and careful consideration.
Informal Rules and Self-policing
Ideally, all members of a society will accept and observe its various codes of conduct - i.e. they will be virtuous -, and will be accordingly rewarded with a more idle life. But inevitably there will be infractions. And indeed, if human society is as much a construct as any of the tools it uses, then abiding by rules or conforming to laws is likely not something that anyone will naturally or automatically do, but something which they must learn just as they learn to walk or speak.
If codes of conduct are disregarded, accidentally or deliberately, the whole of society suffers. If the toolmakers' tools are stolen from them as soon as they make them, then they will stop making tools, and with the loss of their useful tools, the entire society will become less idle. Thus failure to conform to codes of conduct threatens the cohesion of society, and offers the prospect of its atomization, with lower idleness for all.
In some degree, in relatively small societies, these failures may be self-correcting. When a toolmaker makes bad tools, people will stop buying them, and the toolmaker will either go out of business or improve his products. Equally when someone is found to be a bad debtor, and word goes round that he is not to be trusted, then no one will lend to him, and he will have to pay off his debts to recover his good name. And if someone is identified as a thief, and the word goes round, they will not be allowed into any toolmaker's shop, until they have paid for what they have stolen. In effect, the price of breaking rules is exile, and consequently loss of the benefits of belonging to society. Since exile would entail a sharp fall in idleness, as an individual fell back on his own unaided resources, exile could in many cases result in death. And so an exile would often be desperate to regain his place within society.
In this manner, it is possible for there to be sanctions imposed upon anyone who breaks the accepted codes of conduct. Societies can be self-policing. The tasks of identifying troublemakers, and imposing sanctions upon them, is carried out by the whole society.
In general it would seem that codes of conduct would be most strictly enforced in the least idle societies, because such societies have little margin of error. Stealing a bottle of water from somebody is a small crime in a land flowing with rivers and brimming with lakes, but a great crime in an arid desert. Therefore violations of codes of conduct are likely to be dealt with harshly in busy societies, and indulgently in idle societies.
Formal Laws and Policing
It is most likely only true of relatively small societies, with at most a few hundred members, that it will be possible for people to know everybody, and for such societies to police themselves. Once a society becomes too large for everybody to know everybody else, then a known thief in one area can simply move to another, and continuing stealing there. And a known bad debtor in one part of a city move to another, and run up more bad debts. Or a bad toolmaker to shift from selling his useless tools from one place to another where he is unrecognized. Equally, in large societies, with transient populations, many people may simply be ignorant of the expected codes of conduct, or bring with them entirely different codes.
Thus at some scale of society the hitherto informal checks and balances must cease to operate, and self-policing cease to work. And so, if such large societies are not to fall victim to thieves, swindlers, and other troublemakers, they must put in place formal laws and law enforcement agencies. Hitherto informal social rules of conduct must become formalized as laws. Informal social penalties become formal law enforcement agencies which actively pursue and apprehend malefactors, and compel them to make good their various debts. Rather than society entirely police itself, the policing function becomes a formalised specialist 'trade'.
The function of laws, and law-enforcement, is to enable a trading society to continue to function, by ensuring - so far as possible - that stolen goods are returned, that debts are paid, shoddy goods refunded, and the normal operation of society maintained. But while such a formal system of law enforcement may reduce losses of social idleness, it does not in itself act to increase social idleness in any way.
In this model of law and its enforcement, the goal is not so much to punish offenders, but to simply have them make restitution of what they have cost others. Once offenders have paid their debts, they are released. If the price they paid is sufficiently high, it is to be hoped that the price and the certainty of conviction will deter them from future offences. The ultimate price for persistent offenders would be to be ejected from society, to become an atomic individual.
The model breaks down where the debts owed by malefactors are too great for them to ever repay them. And it also breaks down in the cases of repeat offenders of serious crimes. There is no sense in which a serial killer can be allowed to pay off his debt, and be released to kill someone else.
The Decline of Morality in Idle Societies.
In the most successful societies, which have achieved very high levels of idleness, nobody needs to do much work to survive, and the demands of cooperation diminish. Most people spend most of their time doing whatever they like, only occasionally performing some small task or duty. What once were iron chains of social constraint gradually fade into nebulous cobwebs.
To such idle people, moral codes increasingly appear to be irksome constraints rather than useful tools. Increasingly used to doing what they want, whenever they want, they become increasingly dismissive of authority, of custom, of law. And cohesive human society tends to dissolve again into a cloud of independent atomic individuals.
As the ship of humanity, having rowed with great discipline across an ocean of misfortune, finally nears a safe shore, ...the crew mutinies. And yet it is precisely at the time that a ship nears the shore that the greatest care and discipline must be exercised, if the ship is to not be wrecked.
Note: this essay to some extent overlaps with Law and Justice
Author: Chris Davis
First created: 25 April 2003