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Laws Aren’t Laws

September 1, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

In some recent debates I have been involved with the idea of laws has been tossed around. That something is a law is used as a justification for all sorts of points of view and superficially the idea might make sense but I’ve looked into this a bit more deeply and realised that it all comes back to the definition of the word.

There are at least three ways of defining the word in the dictionary but my definitions are slightly different. Here’s what I mean…

Example 1: The universal law of gravitation. This is a physical law and the word is quite misleading here. One classic misuse of it is by creationists who say that the laws of physics must imply a law giver. The fact that laws in the legal sense require a person or organisation to create them doesn’t also apply to natural laws. These laws are more like consistent observations of phenomena which lead to predictable results. We have no influence over them and there is no need for an entity to create them.

Example 2. The laws of economics. Economic laws are observations of the real world too, but because they involve human behaviour, rules, and norms, they aren’t as definite as the physical laws. No one really created them but we can significantly affect them. For example the law of supply and demand could easily be changed through various interventions. People who claim that some social outcome is inevitable because of the economic laws ignore the fact that we do have ultimate control over them, unlike the laws of physics.

Example 3. Laws in the conventional legal sense such as laws against murder. These are entirely created by people and, in some sense, totally arbitrary and can be changed in any way required. For example, its usually illegal to kill another person but in times of war its encouraged. Clearly these laws aren’t the same as the laws of physics.

Example 4. God’s laws. These are really just another form of the laws mentioned in example 3 except the people who created them give them extra authority by invoking a god as the originator. The same comments apply to these as example 3.

So there you have it. The next time someone invokes a law as the reason things must happen a certain way or uses a law to justify a particular outcome think about what type of law it is. Unless it is the type mentioned in example 1 above the justification doesn’t apply because really some laws aren’t laws at all.

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