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The fugitive slave law in Wisconsin, with reference to nullification sentiment, Author Mason, Vroman, The fugitive slave law and its victims. Author May, Samuel, But what if I do it where it is not legal or safe? Then it is possible that a police officer will ticket me. Is the police officer, and the court system backing up the ticket, an external imposition on me?

Yes, but, ultimately, the laws affecting traffic were made by people much like me and can be changed by me and others working in concert. So the law regulating how I operate when wishing to turn right on a red light is totally a human invention to solve a human problem.

But could this human convention be based upon a higher law to which I and others must refer? None of the ancient and venerable holy books discuss turning right on a red light or offer some higher principle from which all traffic laws are to be or can reasonably be derived. Not even the golden rule offers any guidance here, since that merely tells me to obey whatever the law is, if it is a law I want others to obey. When it comes to traffic regulations, human beings are on their own with nowhere to turn for super- natural guidance in how best to formulate the rules of the road.

This does not mean that traffic regulations are totally arbitrary, however. They are, after all, based upon considerations of survival. They exist because of a human concern for safety. As a result, a number of important discoveries of physics are taken into account when setting speed limits and the like. The facts of nature, in this case, become an external point of reference, but a God still does not figure in the process. Now why, if human beings are not supposed to be able to function well without an external and supernatural basis for their conduct, are so many people so capable of obeying and enforcing traffic regulations?

Searching for the Prehistory of American Constitutionalism

It should be obvious from the most casual observation that human beings are quite capable of setting up systems and then operating within them. Once this is seen, it can be asked what grounds exist for the belief that human beings cannot continue to operate in this fashion when it comes to laws and moral teachings regulating such things as trade and commerce, property rights, interpersonal relationships, sexual behavior, religious rituals, and the rest of those things that theologians seem to feel are in need of a theological foundation.

The mere fact that ancient and revered holy books make pronouncements on these matters and attribute such pronouncements to divine moral principles no more makes theology a necessity for law and morality than it would make it a necessity for playing baseball had those rules appeared in these ancient works. Comparable considerations of human need and interest, in harmony with the facts, can be applied in both cases to the inventing of the best laws and rules by which to live. Law, however, is not necessarily the same as morality; there are many moral rules that are not regulated by human legal authorities.

And so the question arises as to how one can have a workable set of moral guidelines if there is no one to enforce them. Laws and rules are generally designed to regulate activities that can be publicly observed. This makes enforcement easy. But breaches of moral principles are a horse of a different color. They often involve acts that are not illegal but simply unethical and can include acts that are private and difficult to observe without invading that privacy. Enforcement, therefore, is almost totally left to the perpetrator.

Thus, to the extent that this God and this power were real, there would exist a potent stimulus — though not a philosophical justification — for people to behave according to the divine wishes. And this would at least take most of the uncertainty out of the enforcement of moral, but not unlawful, behavior.

Unfortunately for those advancing this proposal, the existence of this authority is not as apparent as the existence of human authorities which enforce public laws. Thus, in order to control lawful but immoral behavior, clergy through the ages have found it necessary to harangue, cajole, browbeat, and in other ways condition their flocks into belief in this supreme arbiter of moral conduct. They have sought to condition children from as early an age as possible. And with both adults and children, they have appealed to the imagination by painting graphic word pictures of the tortures of the damned.

Civil Disobedience

The ancient Romans claimed some success with these measures, and the ancient historian Polybius, comparing Greek and Roman beliefs and the levels of corruption in each culture, concluded that Romans were less inclined to theft because they feared hellfire. For reasons such as this, the Roman statesman Cicero regarded the Roman religion as useful, even while holding it to be false.

Legal System Basics: Crash Course Government and Politics #18

But do human beings really need such sanctions in order for them to control their private behavior? Almost never. For if such sanctions were of primary importance, they would almost always be used by moralists and preachers. But they are not. Appeals are also made to conscience and natural human feelings of sympathy.

It is significant that all of these appeals can influence the behavior of the nontheist as well as that of the theist.

Factors of the Rule of Law

One disturbing irony would remain: there are many different gods. If only one of the many gods believed in is real, millions of people, though behaving morally, must be doing it under the influence, inspiration, or orders of the WRONG GOD. One can even stand with Cicero and avow hypocrisy and get the same result.

And when one adds that nontheists the world over have shown themselves to be just as capable of private moral behavior as theists Buddhists offering perhaps the best large-scale example , then belief in God turns out to be a side issue in this whole matter. There is something in human nature operating at a deeper level than mere theological belief, and it is this that serves as the real prompt for moral behavior.

As with laws, so with morals: human beings seem quite capable of making, on their own, sensible and sensitive decisions affecting conduct. But does this completely solve the problem posed by the theist? No, it does not. For the question can still be raised as to how it is possible for human beings to behave morally, agree on moral rules and laws, and generally cooperate with each other in the absence of any divine impetus in this direction. In the light of this, how is it that human beings manage to agree, often from culture to culture, on a variety of moral and legal principles?

And, of more interest, how is it possible for legal and moral systems to improve over the centuries in the absence of the very rational or theological footing that modern philosophers have so effectively taken away? If both are equally emotive and irrational, they are both equally arbitrary — making any selection between them only a product of accidental leanings or willful whim. No choice could be rationally defended. And yet, seemingly in spite of this problem, human beings do develop moral and legal systems on their own and later make improvements on them.


What is the explanation? From whence do moral values come? There are only mountains, rocks, gullies, winds, and rain, but no one anywhere to make judgments as to good and evil. In such a world would good and evil exist? However, let us make them perfectly rational and devoid of all emotion, totally free of all purposes, needs, or desires.

Like computers, they simply register what is going on, but they make no moves to ensure their own survival or avoid their own destruction. Do good and evil exist now? Again, there is no theoretical way in which they can.

And thus they have no rationale for declaring a thing good or evil. Nothing matters to them and, since they are the only beings in the universe, nothing matters at all. Enter Adam. Adam is a man who is fully human. He has deficiencies, and hence needs. He has longings and desires. He can experience pain and pleasure and often avoids the former and seeks the latter. Things matter to him. At this point, and only at this point, do good and evil appear. Such a being is, indeed, the measure of all things: of good things as good and of bad things as bad.

For what could it be? And, without him, good and evil could not exist. We will call her Eve. Interesting things begin to happen at this point. For, on the one hand, we have two people with similar aims who are capable of working together for a common cause. And so a complex interpersonal relationship develops, and rules are established to maximize mutual satisfaction and to minimize the effects of evil.

Laws And Lawmakers

With rules, we now have right and wrong. And from this basic recognition of the need for cooperation ultimately come laws and ethics. But now let us suppose that these two people come to a fierce disagreement over the best way to perform a desired action. The two argue and seem to get nowhere.