Laws: What Are They Good For?

I have discussed worldbuilding with respect to laws somewhat in the past. But, it’s been on my mind again, whether due to primary world stuff or my current worldbuild. This time, though, the question that has been coming to mind is: What is the purpose of laws?

This is, I think, a multi-layered question.

On the one hand, laws are in place to allow society to function—after all, if anyone killed whoever they pleased, whenever, then society would collapse in moments. At the same time, it can be said that laws are in place to enforce or encode social morality. Certainly, we can develop some idea of a society’s sense of morality, or lack thereof, based on its legal code (although, given that morality is subjective and a sliding scale, this causes its own problems). Even so, we can get an idea of what the powers-that-be in a society say is moral or immoral. I say the powers-that-be here because there is ample evidence that those who enact legislation do not always reflect the desires or morals of the majority of the populace (see the historical legal versus popular views regarding interracial marriage in the U.S., traced back through at least the 1830s, during which time there were at least some “illegal” interracial unions among the working classes in Massachusetts, despite laws against such unions. Or the overwhelming support for LGBT unions in the U.S. today, that is being blocked by a small, yet vocal and politically powerful, minority.

Of equal, or greater, importance is the question of the core, underlying, purpose of laws. In other words, are laws meant to prevent or to punish.

This is a question that, I think, is important for cultures and dialogues in that it determines the cultural views of new laws and criminals. It can also be a source of cognitive dissonance.

To use a primary world example, opponents of gun control in the U.S. often claim “Criminals get their guns illegally, so gun control laws are pointless” (paraphrased). This claim clearly falls into the “laws are intended to prevent” category, and therefore if the law fails to prevent action, the law fails and is meaningless. This is a valid understanding on laws, to some extent. It is certainly an understandable one. To introduce the cognitive dissonance, though, many in the same group claim that the only way to prevent abortions is to make them illegal (a patently false end result, given history). Following the initial logic re: gun control, this would mean that anti-abortion laws should also be viewed as pointless, since they fail to prevent action.

On another hand, there is the view that laws are intended not to prevent action but, rather, to punish action. For example, we know that anti-theft laws have not driven shoplifting to extinction. However, the anti-theft laws do lay out the range of potential punishments for shoplifting. They say, “We know this happens. We find it unacceptable, so here’s what will happen if you do it.” This view is, I think, more nuanced in that it also creates a hierarchy of actions that society deems incorrect, e.g. the punishments the law lays out for shoplifting are significantly lighter than those the law sets for murder or treason, therefore shoplifting is deemed less unacceptable than murder or treason.

Personally, I think a synthesis of the two (and there may be others) is near reality. Laws intended to punish can have a side effect of prevention to a degree (e.g. the person chooses not to commit the action for fear of being caught and punished). By and large, though, I think most of the world’s laws are written primarily with punishment, not prevention, in mind. Prevention is, I think, a secondary thought or a happy byproduct of the punishment in many minds That could also be due to human nature and the nature of most of our societies, that we are happier to punish or have a vengeance streak (which does seem to be the case).

Anyway, just some thoughts for potential worldbuilding and general consideration.


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