Friday, February 29, 2008

Socrates and the Power of Law

Socrates provides us with a really intense look at the role of law in society, as well as an interesting character look into the guy himself. First of all, it must be mentioned that the guy wasn’t well liked by the people in power-how would you react if someone walked around all day and told you how dumb you were? But its important to understand the difference between saying “you there-you’re stupid,” and “you there-I’m smarter than you.” Socrates doesn’t claim to be smarter than anyone until he actually speaks with them and questions their knowledge. This is a key difference, because although Socrates has a fairly negative attitude about virtually all citizens, he doesn’t necessarily think that there’s no one out there who might be smarter than he. He just hasn’t found that person yet.

More significant to this unit (although Socrates will make a return appearance in our next unit) is not necessarily Socrates’ life, but his death. Not necessarily the death itself (although drinking hemlock is kinda cool), but the manner in which he decides that it is not his place to escape from prison and avoid death.

The key to his decision has a direct impact on the concept of law in society. Even though Socrates doesn’t think the city-state of Athens is populated by geniuses, he believes the city-state as a whole is greater than the collective intelligence of the people who live there. The city-state, in his opinion, is greater than anything a single individual could create. It has raised him, given him education, provided safety and security for him and his family, and generally been the center of his world for his entire seventy years. As such, to disobey their laws would be to spit on what he feels is the greatest creation in the history of mankind. Regardless of what he thinks about the citizens currently in charge of it, Athens has made him who he is and he cannot betray it.

Furthermore, if he disobeys the laws, he feels that this would give anyone, no matter how ignorant, the right to do the same, because if one citizen can decide “the law doesn’t apply to me,” then everyone should be allowed the same right. Given Socrates’ general opinion about the intelligence of the average citizen (ummm…not so good), he thinks disobeying the law will be the first step towards destroying Athens for good. People, he believes, do not have the right to pick and choose the laws they obey. If they don’t like the laws, they can go to another city-state, but as long as they stay in Athens, their presence is the equivalent to signing a contract (this word will be back later this unit) with the government, by which they will obey all the laws, regardless of whether or not they agree with them.

This is not to say that Socrates doesn’t believe people should try and change the law if they disagree with it-he believes they should absolutely do whatever they can to convince others that the law is wrong. However, if they fail, they need to simply obey the law regardless.

So Socrates presents a very clear stance about the law-if you believe in your country, you follow the law, regardless of what you think about it. This will present an interesting contrast to some of the later people we’ll study, namely Martin Luther King, who would purposely break laws that he felt were unjust. I wonder if Socrates would have marched for civil rights…

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Accountability and the Roman Republic

In walking out of today's/yesterday's class, its really important that you grasp the importance of accountability not only in the governing style of the Roman Republic as related to previous governments, but also the role of accountability in relation to the evolving concept of rights that continues throughout history.

As the Patricians were now accountable to the Plebeians, there is a fundamental shift in the basis of law itself. Prior to this (when the main concern of each society was simply survival), law was simply designed to keep things efficient and orderly so everyone would continue to do the job for which they were designed. 1200-1400 years later, when the inhabitants of the world begin to meet those basic survival needs which had been, before this, very tenuous, law no longer has to function simply for efficiency. As such, you see the development of the republican style of government, which inevitably brings also the beginnings of what we know today as human or civil rights.

As said in class, it breaks down like this: if the government is willing to give people the right to influence the government, this naturally implies that the government feels the people are important. If the people are important enough to be given a voice, it is only natural that they should then be guaranteed a number of other things. Thus the concept of rights begins to develop. As seen in Rome, the right to life is followed very quickly by the right to property-this will be a common theme throughout history.

For all this accountability and this great step forward, do not forget that we have a very long way to go. One need only look at the law within the twelve tables that states that women are essentially to remain property throughout their lives that we see the limits of a government even as revolutionary as the Roman Republic. From 1800 BCE to 450 BCE, the concept of human rights evolved quite a lot, but there is much more evolution that needs to occur. And before another step forward is made, there may need to be a step or two back.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Cultural Diffusion, Religious Influences, and the Laws of Manu

As the evolution of justice and human rights rolls along like a snowball going downhill, it is important to recognize the role of cultural diffusion in the process. For those that may not remember, cultural diffusion is the process by which cultural elements are transferred from one culture to another through migration and interaction, and adopted in some form by another contemporary or future culture. Examples of this today would be things like the prominence of yoga for Americans-a cultural practice developed in Asia, then diffused into the United States and Europe.

The presence of cultural diffusion is evident in all three sets of laws studied thus far: Hammurabi's Code, the Mosaic Law, and the Laws of Manu. Each one possesses some aspects of the laws of previous societies. We see the lex talonius concept run from Hammurabi to Mosaic law, then the religious influences and concepts present in the Mosaic law filter (in some ways) to the Laws of Manu. In each of these law codes, it becomes evident that those creating a justice system rely upon previous institutions for guidance, then adopt those laws they see as most relevant to their own society for their law code. Sprinkle in some new ideas and concepts unique to their society, and the "snowball" continues to roll down that hill. New laws are initiated, and history is forever altered.

Important also in today's discussion is the influence of religion we see in both the Mosaic law and the Laws of Manu. Both invoke a higher power and the concept of morality into the law code so that people not only do things for the purpose of avoiding punishment by those in power, but also to receive some higher reward after death. Thus initiates two different ways in which to implement justice: punishment and reward. In both cases, people are encourage to act appropriately, but with religion's influence, not only will people act appropriately, they are quite likely to pass on those values to their children. As such, we can see why the majority of people in the world cite "The Bible" as the source of "an eye for an eye."

Most importantly, with each successive society we study, you should see the presence of a variety of other laws and cultures filter into their concepts of justice. As we get closer to the modern era, what we're seeing is the gradual accumulation of laws, customs, and cultures meld together to form the next society. The United States today, in regard to its laws, is in many ways simply a collection of the historical experiences of its predecessors. We see, even today, elements of all three law codes we've studied thus far, and as we continue through history examining laws and concepts of justice, it will become obvious that throughout time, this concept of justice continues to evolve in a manner that leads us to our modern world.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Changing Concept of Justice in the Ancient World

Hammurabi's Code raises a number of important points about the role of law in society. As the oldest recorded set of laws we've discovered, understanding the depth and breadth of these laws is essential to understanding the concept of law in general. However, there are a few points that need to be highlighted from today's discussion.

First of all, it is necessary to highlight that the concept of justice is an ever evolving, fluid process-it constantly changes. From society to society throughout history, the basic "truths" behind what is and is not considered just change dramatically. As seen through Hammurabi's code, there were some clear values implied in the presence of certain laws. First among these was the concept of fear within the population-clearly, Hammurabi set up some significant punishments for violations of the law as a deterrent to those who may consider breaking the code. The concept of deterrence will be a continual theme in the creation of a legal system throughout history.

Moreso than that, Hammurabi's code demonstrates a high value placed on efficiency. Remember, much of the purpose for writing the legal code down was to establish certain rules that would be followed by all people at all times, and prevent individual disputes arising from the presence of a variety of different codes. Clearly, the Ancient Babylonians valued the idea of an efficient government system that provides for a unified understanding of the rules.

Finally, its important to highlight the presence of class differences in the Babylonian society, of which Hammurabi's Code takes account. The code attempts to rectify class differences by penalizing different classes only that which they can afford. Much like our current tax system, Hammurabi's Code is an attempt by the government to place people on an even plain. (Unfortunately, unlike our tax system today where people claim that "the government takes an arm and a leg," Hammurabi's code actually took an arm and a leg).

So overall, the origins of law as seen through Hammurabi's Code exemplify the values present in that society, and set history forth in an attempt to continually re-evaluate and update those values. However, the question that remains throughout history (and throughout this unit) is this: Do the collective morals of a society come from the written laws, or do the written laws merely reflect the collective morals of the society?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Evolution of Justice and Human Rights

The essential element of this unit revolves around understanding the manner in which our very concept of justice has evolved from the beginning of time. From Hammurabi on, people have been redefining justice and reclassifying those subject to that justice. It is a constant and perpetual process.

In understanding that process, the author of today's reading points out that every jump forward in the field of human rights was met with a significant backlash in which those rights were attacked and scaled back. After the French Revolution came the dictatorships of the 1800s, for example. In this sense, the evolution of justice and human rights needs to be understood as incremental, that is, it progresses forward in small chunks which are then subjected to backlash. The sum of these jumps forward inevitable equal progress, but overall, the time immediately after a major refashioning of human rights is typically pretty tumultuous.

As we progress through the events, there are a couple things to keep in mind. First of all, what we're doing in this unit is what's called a "bottom up" version of history. Most history is written from the top-down, that is, a person of a higher class writes about the military victories, governmental decisions, and powerful people that make a country/state/nation "great." Very rarely do the average people get included-there are few average-to-poor people who have the time to write history (as I said in class, they were busy trying to, you know, make enough money to eat and stuff). The history of justice and human rights offers a look at history in the opposite direction. We'll get the opportunity to see average people step up and demand inclusion into the justice system, and in doing so, make them both part of an influential to the new system.

Overall, the history of justice and human rights offers us a unique perspective on history. We get to now see the evolution of a concept which is not only controversial today, but also at the core of what our country stands for. Hopefully, this unit will allow you to reconsider your own beliefs about justice, and fight against those things you feel are unjust in today's society.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

SIDEBAR: Super Tuesday

I know this doesn't necessarily have to do directly with class, but I thought I'd compile some links of sites that are covering the primaries today. Feel free to browse through the links and leave any thoughts you have on today's primaries.

ABC Super Tuesday Coverage
Electoral Vote
CBS News Super Tuesday Coverage

Check out some past election commercials:
The Living Room Candidate