Monday, March 17, 2008

Civil Disobedience, or Law and Structure

The essential question raised by today's question is simple:

"Should you disobey laws you are morally opposed to, or by disobeying those laws do you destroy the state/country/nation in which you live?"

Thoreau made it simple: if you morally oppose a law, you are justified in breaking it. You do more damage to yourself and your conscience by perpetuating an unjust system and an unjust law.

This, of course, is a result of the fact that law, by the 1800s, begins to reflect a series of rights instead of a series of rules. Thanks to the Enlightenment (which built off the great steps forward that occurred throughout the ancient world), the fundamental manner in which people conceived of the law changed. No longer a series of rules that would simply insure survival and/or benefit the ruling person or group, law was thereafter a set of rights common amongst all people living in that society.

Of course, as said in class today, this opens up a number of other dilemmas with which the modern world has to deal. Thoreau raises a very important issue, that is, if the law is open to ratification by all citizens, and citizens seemingly have the power to create law, what happens when one of those citizens feels the law is wrong, and is s/he justified in breaking that law?

So, what are your thoughts about Civil Disobedience? Are you more Thoreauian or Socratesian? (Yes, I made up both those words)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Step by Step to the Universal Law and Human Rights

As established in class today, although India, the Middle East and China were significantly ahead of Europe both technologically and politically throughout the time period from 1000-1500, all three had situations that prevented them from expanding both their empires as well as their concepts about law and human rights throughout the world.

Into that void steps the major underdog that was Europe. Through a series of remarkable events, Europe comes to dominate world trade and influence the worldwide concept of human rights and, to a lesser extent, law itself. Let’s break this down, step-by-step:

1. Feudalism begins to die
-As people become more mobile and begin to trade with others around the world, they see opportunities to make a better life. The average peasant starts to realize that there’s more to life than farming all day for no money and eating dirt every night.

2. Money begins to flow into Europe, and the Bourgeoisie is Born
-As Europe begins to see money flow into it (once China shuts out everyone, it had to go somewhere), individuals start building up bigger bank accounts. Peasants have more opportunity to make money and become part of a higher class: the middle class, also known as the Bourgeoisie. The middle class has two things working for it that the peasants did not: money and time. They have the money to afford a decent life, and the time (because they don’t have to work 24 hours a day) to think about why they don’t have a voice in government simply because they’re not related to a noble. More importantly, they have the time to do something about it.

3. European Governments Start Funding Exploration Throughout the World.-Say what you want about the European kings, but each one was in a pretty desperate competition with his neighbor kings to gain or keep his power. Thus, when the opportunity arose to explore other areas of the world in the hopes of making huge amounts of money, many of them jumped on it. And who was there to take the risk of exploration and split the money made with the kings? Poor folks who were itching to get into the middle class.

4. With Time and Money, the Bourgeoisie Get Restless
-This new middle class had time to spend talking with their bourgeoisie friends about how they had money, they had intelligence, yet they didn’t have any power. As more and more of them came to realize this, a few men decided it would be a good idea to write some of these things down: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were three guys who decided that it would be a good idea to write out all the things that people like them deserved just because they were born human. Thus, a somewhat universal concept of human rights is born. These books are read by thousands of people through Europe (thank you, printing press), and people begin to want action. Its no wonder why the French Revolution (and their Declaration of the Rights of Man) isn’t far off.

5. Don’t Forget About Those Colonies
-At the same time, European kings have sponsored hundreds of trips to places all around the world in the name of making a little cash for the kingdom. The Europeans who are in these areas get hold of the writings of guys like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, buy into them and discuss them with the native peoples in the lands they’re not inhabiting. The people in these native lands (America, Africa, India, Asia) think these ideas aren’t so bad either, and the beginnings of a universal concept of human rights and law has begun.

So, in five steps, the world has gone from “Europe as punching bag” to “Europe as legal center.” This bridges the gap between the legal codes present throughout the ancient world to the legal codes, beliefs, and controversies present in the modern world. However, its important to remember that this progress opens up a whole new set of controversies for the modern world in regard to the law and its place in the world.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Magna Carta and the 500 Year Impact

“History is a series of temporary solutions and unanticipated consequences.”

This theme really hits home when discussing the history of the Magna Carta. Through the actions of Edward Coke, this document, which was created to simply stave off a war between the upper class and the kind in England in 1215, became the beacon for men and groups seeking to create a system that was sympathetic to the rights of every citizen.

The Magna Carta was the temporary solution-a peace treaty, if you will-that attempted to solve the crisis in England between the king and barons in England. The barons were not interested in paying the ridiculous taxes the king was proposing, and the king was not powerful enough to force them to do so. In an effort to prevent a civil war, the Magna Carta was designed to limit the king’s power under a series of rules, and after it failed to really prevent a Civil War after John’s death, was forgotten by the majority of the English for the next 500 years (even though it was renewed by the king in each successive charter).

It wasn’t until Edward Coke was looking for a way to counter the oppression of the king in 1628 that the true power of the Magna Carta was realized. In reinterpreting the document, he opened up the “rule of law” to every freeman in England, and set the precedent for later generations (especially the American colonists) to take the concept of “rights under the law” even further.

So even though the temporary solution presented by the creation of the Magna Carta had little direct impact based upon its intended consequences, but the unanticipated consequences that resulted almost 500 years later made this document one of the most significant legal/human rights documents of all time. You’d be surprised at how much of history is made up of the unanticipated consequences of temporary solutions.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Legalism, Human Nature, and Historical Circumstance

The Legalists present a definite 180 in terms of the advancement of human rights. In much the same way that the Babylonians, Hebrews, and early Indians dealt with laws, the Legalists in China were concerned first and foremost with security and survival; specifically, the survival of the state. The state was supreme. And people were just the selfish pawns that should be used to make the state survive as long as possible.

It is exceptionally important to understand how the concept of human nature shapes the laws created by the legalists, and how they contrast so sharply with people such as Asoka. Furthermore, and in a general sense, it is essential to this unit to understand how a group's concept of human nature helps completely and totally shape the laws that are enacted. In a society that feels that human nature is inherently good, laws that require citizen participation will most certainly develop. In a society that feels human nature is essentially selfish and/or evil, less participation would be required (because if people are evil, their participation in the creation of laws could only make the law worse). Every law code implies a certain belief about human nature, as as you see more law codes, this will become quite apparent.

Finally, its important to recognize the variation in legal development that's going on throughout the world in the ancient era. Different localized factors are affecting the manner in which the law develops in each geographic region, so each set of laws will develop at a unique pace and in unique ways. Environmental, political, and social factors affect each region in very different ways, and as such, the law becomes an expression of those differences. As the world becomes more interconnected, however, these different law codes begin to migrate from society to society through cultural diffusion, and the resulting law codes in later generations will be comprised of a mix of all these ancient law codes in some form. Legalism, Roman republicanism, Babylonian law, and a mix of others will all influence later generations, so even though some of these law codes flame out rather quickly, their impact remains. As we continue on in this unit, be on the lookout for characteristics of these ancient law codes in later codes.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Asoka and Collective Morality

The law has evolved in chunks thus far this unit. We had the "safety and security" chunk, made up of Hammurabi, Mosaic Law and Manu. In each of these law codes, a priority was placed upon laws that would insure for safety and survival for as many members of the society as possible. In each of these cases, the survivial of the society was constantly threatened by environmental and social factors. Laws needed to be clear, concise and severe, so that no one jeopardized the entire society's existence.

As we move forward in the timeline, however, survival becomes less tenuous, and the law begins to take on a new character: emphasizing a "collective morality." As we see with Asoka, who wants to institute Buddhism throughout India and thus creates laws that emphasize Buddhist beliefs, the law can be used to both create and reflect the value systems of the collective group. "Collective morality" defines the value system that results when you take both the "state morality" expressed by the government coupled with the "individual morality" of all the citizens. What results is a set of values that all people agree upon as being central to that society. This set of values can change over time, but what's important is that the law is used to reflect those values, whatever they may be.

There is a direct relationship between the level to which the government is accountable to the people and how much the laws become an expression of the collective morality. As the government is more responsible to the needs of the people, the law becomes more of an expression of collective morality. You'll see this relationship fluctuate over time, but you should see that as the people become more of a voice in government, the laws become, in many ways, just written versions of the values and morals of the society.