Friday, August 3, 2012

On Crime And Honor

This morning, in that misty land between waking and dreaming I hover after hitting snooze the first (or second) time, a realization on the meaning of life came to me.

No, not on the meaning of life.

On crime, and honor. And the law.

In the world we live in today, it's almost impossible to imagine lawlessness. With the advent of efficient communication, the arm of the law can reach us anywhere, anytime. An escaped criminal has very little recourse for hiding effectively; extradition treaties and other agreements of information exchange have turned the world into a global village, all too well-supervised by Big Brother. Right? I'm not saying this makes for safer living--actually, that's my point. Even with all these "extra" laws that govern and regulate every patch of Terra, and the supersonic means to enforce them, has the world become any safer?

Seems to me it has not.

I'm not just talking about international scenarios here. Think of the most menial of local altercations. A dispute with your neighbor, maybe. In the olden days, an argument about a tree growing too close to the other's property or a parked car blocking a driveway, even a child's pranks, would have been solved leaning on a fence, perhaps over coffee and biscuits. Today? More likely than not there'll be a uniform involved. Even if not physically, now there are laws that govern these disputes. "No, Ben, the tree doesn't bother me, but the law says it can't be there, so you gotta take it down."

I love the law. I understand that without it we'd live in anarchy, that certain rules must be created for everyone to abide, to behave. But here's the thing. When is it too much?

Imagine a "lawless" environment, such as the Old West or the mountains of Afghanistan--definitely lawless, right? Even the high-tech super-powerful US satellites that can find a newly planted orange tree in your backyard within hours of it being in the ground couldn't locate the most wanted terrorist in those mountains. No, what snark? Dunno what you're talking about.

Anyway. Lawless environment. Past, present, whatever. Yes, very bad for the lonely damsel in a stage coach that gets railroaded by a bunch of unwashed bandits and doesn't have a smartphone to tweet for help. But think of it. Property was bought and sold without so much as a piece of paper being drawn up. How did deals get sealed? Handshake. How did claims get staked? Promises. Honor-bound promises. People promised each other things, and actually felt obligated to carry them out. Not because of a big bad sheriff coming to take you to what must have been horrible jails, but because, in a land without law, your honor is the most valuable asset you'll ever own.

Is the observation that honor has no more trading power nowadays than a sack of flour really necessary?

I didn't think so.

I don't think this is a "good ol' days vs. today" thing. After all, the past is ripe with honorless examples. Rome in its decline comes to mind, when the maxima civilization became mercenary and corrupt. There, too, law had its heyday.

So this thought that came to me in the hazy post-alarm-clock doze was: is there a link? Are these two things linked? Honor--its existence or lack thereof--and the law? Is it possible that, by setting down these rules and regulations that govern human behavior and interactions we've created a black hole that swallowed honor into its vortex gut? Is the message we're sending, with these rules for every bit of minutiae, that honor isn't necessary anymore?


  1. Interesting thought, Guilie.

    I think the presence of rules and laws dictated from a place of authority exempts the inequitable of their responsibility for their actions toward others. Someone who is "naturally" disinclined toward feeling equal to others (mostly the sociopathic, egotistical, greedy and power-hungry specimens) will use the laws as the only map to navigate society, and their sense of what's just and honorable will not even start to form. In a society with strict laws, there will always be more heinous and ferocious crimes than in one where people must contribute own thought to the decision whether something is acceptable or not, and take the consequences of their actions in their immediate environment into account to guide their own behavior.

    In a lawless place your actions will come back at you straight from those you affected, whereas in a place strictly governed by a force of law, you are removed from the environment of your crime after you commit it. It has a predictable, known and calculable consequence, and you can take that into account and plan for it, whereas in a place like the Wild West, your actions will affect the environment and the environment will self-regulate, usually by kicking you in your gut. Much less predictable, much harder to navigate, requires more stability of behavior on the individual side.

    There can be no society without crime, because it's human nature to test the limits of what's acceptable, and sociopaths will always be born, but honor is something that only flourishes where individuals must use their own decisions and actions to steer their lives and their environment, as opposed to leaving this responsibility completely in the hands of another entity.

    See what you made me think of with my morning coffee? :P

    1. Vero, why don't you live closer to me (or I to you)? Would *love* to have these conversations over a glass of wine (morning coffee works, too). Yes, I agree--the existence of strict laws does hinder the development of an individual sense of honor and justice, which, in the end, is far more damaging to society. You make a great point: where individuals must use their own criteria and judgment to live, honor will thrive. When this criteria / judgment is imposed from outside rather than elicited from inside, the individual is exempt from responsibility, and that can't be good. Thanks for this awesome contribution!

  2. Great post! You make me think...I wonder if everywhere laws, laws, laws, laws in the cafe, laws when you open a door, laws about how to hire and fire and medically treat and elect people works somehow to make us feel that as individual people we're off the hook ethically? As in, I don't have to do anything about this. There's already a law about it.

    1. Helen, ditto for you what I said to Vero above. You *need* to move to Curacao, haha. You put your finger on it--laws let us off the hook, because the responsibility lies not with us but with whoever enforces the law. And, like Vero said, our human nature is to test the limits of what's allowable, so imposing rules and regulations will probably always result in people finding ways to either subvert those rules or right-out break them. But, if the responsibility stays with the individual, if we're no longer off the hook like you say and have to step up, wouldn't we be more careful, more conscious of what we're doing and how it affects others? Excellent thoughts, Helen--thanks for sharing!


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