Sick and ill-treated children?

Recently, Frederick Turner (via InstaPundit) reflected upon the difference between those whose goal is the good, and those whose goal is the right.

Laws seem, as many philosophers have opined, to be based on one of two foundations: what is good, and what is right. Very roughly, the distinction can be found in the difference between our own two traditions, of Roman law, and English common law; further back, between the ancient Hebrew ritual law, and the code of Hammurabi. Legal experts will, I hope, forgive the many exceptions to these generalizations for their usefulness as an analytic tool of thought.

The distinction, even more generally, is between what is commanded of us by the gods or God (or, in later ages, by Humanity, by Nature, by Reason, or by Popular Will) on one hand; and what is required of us in the honest fulfillment of a contract, on the other. The former, which finds its Western origins in ancient Israel (and can be found also in the Confucian legal system of ancient China), sees law as a way to enforce the good -- the good as a transcendent endowment of human society that we can partly intuit, especially if we are talented, trained, learned, and morally upright. The latter, which can be identified roughly with the Hammurabic, Solonic, and English Common Law traditions, sees laws as the way to make sure the humble contracts that human beings make with each other have the support they need over and above the natural sanctions built into our families, our markets, and our practical agreed systems of mutual trust. The first emphasizes the good, the second, the right.

Not only do I forgive the "many exceptions to these generalizations," I am so stunned by the sheer clarity of the author's thoughts that I would forgive a lot more than that. A topic like this cannot be discussed without generalizations -- the exceptions providing a collection of variables allowing further debate about the validity of the generalizations! Without generalizations, we'd have trouble seeing the forest from the trees. (For each tree is unique and different!)

In this way, Turner looks at Roman, Christian, and Islamic Law through the general perspective of good versus right:

Roman law, though again it was based upon a transcendent conception of the good, made many concessions to the low demands of commerce. It gave much authority over to local magnates, capos, and dons, so that in exchange for a local return to the patriarchal customs of the tribe, there would be a general concession to the legal supremacy of the Senate (and later, the Emperor). However, such laws did not provide for the increasing numbers of helpless indigents that are spawned by mercantile padrón systems everywhere.

Christianity, which began with a purely internal and voluntary law of the good -- love thy neighbor -- had inherited the inner ideals of the old Jewish moral law. But it was purged now, Christians believed, of a great burden of its literalism and legalism, and reinforced by the blazing hope of salvation and faith in the redemption. This new religion gradually created for itself the role of the Empire's welfare system. Finally the Empire itself simply could not manage without it, and was itself forced, under Constantine, to become the secular enforcer of Christian moral law. As the Roman Empire crumbled, the ideal of a society in which the highest moral precepts, enjoined by God, would be enforced by the State, burned brighter and brighter in the imagination of the world. The result was finally the birth of Islamic law, or the Sharia, in the seventh century AD. Sharia systematized and perfected the law of the good, and embodied one of the most beautiful, and tragically flawed, visions of society that our species had yet achieved.

All societies based on the enforcement of a law of good have tended to stagnate, wither, and eventually die.

British imperialists were known for treating their subjects as children -- although in their defense it should be noted that the law they attempted to impose was the law of right and not the good.

And ultimately, the British allowed the colonies to outgrow this colonial status in much the same way parents necessarily allow their children more and more freedom -- which goes hand in hand with responsibility!

One of the chief worries in this blog has been over the growing tendency to treat American citizens as children -- moving us ever closer to a vast national kindergarten.

By their very nature, children cannot be trusted to make intelligent and informed choices. Therefore, until they have learned and demonstrated maturity (and responsibility), it is necessary to tell them what to do. Children are not old enough to choose the good or the right. Their parents have to tell them.

Like Frederick Turner, I worry incompatible schools of thinking -- and the primary problem may be a fundamental disagreement: ARE ADULTS CHILDREN? (The consequence being, of course, that if most adults are children, then they must be treated like children -- by an ill-defined force called AUTHORITY.)

Speaking of the British Empire's erstwhile "children", the following observations about Islam (which Turner calls "the good") come from a writer from Karad, in Maharashtra, India:

Muslims - Sick and Ill-treated Children

Muslims have fought wars and thereafter stayed peacefully with the people of other religions. It is leaders, kings and fanatics who have used Muslims in the name of Islam for their selfish motives. Hindu leaders have coaxed Muslims on similar lines for their selfish interest. Today, every political party is trying to use Muslims for the party benefit by invoking the so-called injustice which has never been done to them.

State boundaries disputes and the Mandal Ayog exemplify the attitudes of selfish leaders. Congress, Janata Dal, United Front Groups are coaxing the people on caste and creed lines, thereby arousing hatred among them. Muslims are looked as vote-banks. Such selfish leaders and political parties can be understood only through the process of education.

Hindu Organizations should view Muslims as sick and ill-treated children of bad parents. Muslims should be caressed only with better education and not by giving concessions and temporary relief. Better family relations, respect for woman, freedom of thought, and basic understanding of human behaviour can make them real citizens. Muslims, therefore, are required to be educated with students of other faiths. They should attend the schools of Christians and Hindu Organizations. There should not be any special treatment for them as Muslims. Muslims can certainly improve through the study of science and humanities and not through Islam. They should be taught first to be human beings.

Almost all religions except Islam have accepted modern scientific approach. They have discarded old, impracticable and irrelevant religious customs. Muslims have to go in the same footsteps and become sensible and civilized. That will save Islam. Otherwise it is bound to crumble like Marxism.

Reactionary methods to improve or suppress Muslims will not succeed. Muslims are to be treated as human beings. They are to be made aware of freedoms, rights and duties. Unfortunately, Islam has not done this for its follower. Proper education will fulfil this job and bring Muslims into the mainstream with other societies. Gone are the days of war and supremacy. One has to live and let others live. Muslims have to come out of the fool’s paradise that they will rule the world through coercion.

At some early point in history, some leaders in some cultures decided that adults are like children (especially where it comes to vices like sex, drugs, and fun pursuits like rock'n'roll) and therefore must be told what to do. But because it is in their nature to break the rules, it was found that in practice the most effective rules are those said to emanate from God.

Yet as culture advanced over the centuries, it was realized that goodness requires choice. Choice is not supposed to come from coercion.

I have a friend who does not believe in religious morality of any kind, nor does he think morality should be imposed on anyone. However, he is strictly monogamous, and would never cheat on his wife. Thus, if we go by literal definitions of the words, he is morally conservative. But that is not what is meant by the term "moral conservative" in modern usage. "Moral conservatives" (at least as the term is popularly used) are people who believe in moral coercion, by government.

Which means, ultimately, at gunpoint.

I am of the opinion that this is neither moral nor conservative. And even if we discount the role of government, it could be argued that if someone is obeying what he believes to be God's law and refrains from sexual transgressions for fear of divine punishment, he by his own definition is less moral than a morally conservative atheist, because the latter has made a free choice without fear of punishment, and without any compulsion.

When adults are treated as children, you get adult children.

Adult children cannot handle responsibility, and cannot say "No" to temptation or vice. They need to be watched constantly by authorities, whose job is to pry into their subjects' lives to the greatest extent possible -- even preventing them access to places like topless bars, gay bars, X-rated theaters, casinos, or even cable television.

Because, if the parental authorities turn their back for just a moment, unrestrained irresponsibility will start!

When the cat's away, the mice will play!

Of course, the authorities cannot be everywhere. Thus, events like stoning to death encourage group participation, and create a communitarian cult of violence.

Likewise, Muslim men (at least, followers of Saudi Wahhabism) are encouraged to treat their wives as children.

Allowing children authority over other children is an excellent way to maintain authority over children.

The system becomes almost self-enforcing.

Unless, of course, freedom sneaks in via things like rock'n'roll.

Freedom corrupts the very tyrannical, imposed-from-above, "good"!

I guess that means freedom is right.

(I think it can heal the sick and ill-treated children too!)

posted by Eric on 12.26.03 at 12:33 PM


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Sick and ill-treated children?:

» Good vs Right from The Daily Irrelevant
Laws seem, as many philosophers have opined, to be based on one of two foundations: what is good, and what is right. Very roughly, the distinction can be found in the difference between our own two traditions, of Roman law,... [Read More]
Tracked on December 29, 2003 7:14 AM


These are just random thoughts: I haven't connected the dots in my head yet.

Ancient Israel was first ruled by a system of judges, rather than by kings. I don't know how it compared to English common law as a method of government, but the Israelites seemed dissatisfied enough with it to demand a king. Perhaps a right/good distinction can be made here?

I wonder too, if societies that start out with the right as the goal slide into having the good as the goal. Again, in English common law, the system ended up being so inflexible, enforcing the right having become the good in itself. The system of ecclesiastical courts, which survives in the law/equity split in American courts, attempts to enforce the right once more where the common law fails.

I think also, to borrow a page from Hayek, that organic, judge-made law tends to enforce the right, while legislation tends to enforce the good—and we're seeing the results nowadays!

Obviously, I need to think some more on this.

Dave   ·  December 26, 2003 4:01 PM

Thank you for your thoughts, Dave. In England, actions in Equity originally took the form of petitioning the King (in the Chancery Court) for redress of unfair, harsh results which sometimes flowed from following the Common Law. That this happened at all shows the flexibility which tends to flow from "the right."

As you say, the right can eventually become the good -- with mixed results. A harsh, literalistic result is often unfair, but then so is allowing a second bite at the apple (which equity lawsuits can accomplish). If carried too far, equity, like egalitarian thinking, can actually result in tyranny and chaos -- whether in the name of "social justice" or other such nonsense.

The key to achieving justice seems to involve recognition that no system is perfect.

But such recognition stands clearly in the way of "the good" -- because of the latter's emphasis on human perfectability, whether by social scientists, Marxist central planners, or humans divining God's intent.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 26, 2003 4:56 PM

This is a really worthwhile topic because people generally do not recognize how these distinctions affect their outlook on behavior -- especially someone else's behavior! :}

Lakoff's family metaphors explain some of these differences of emphasis (e.g. letter of the law -- the 'right' -- over the spirit of the law -- the good. I'll try to talk about that on CivicDialogues.

In your comment you said, "The key to achieving justice seems to involve recognition that no system is perfect." You are quite right. Nor can one economic, political or any other human system be permanent and foolproof because part of human nature is the ability to figure out ways to cheat the system. The Federalist Papers make this point about government, for example.

And, yes, human perfectability is impossible, too. We can never -- as a group -- rise above our nature. BUT WE MUST NOT STOP TRYING !!

The reality we must embrace is living a healthy tension between how we try to achieve the good and what is considered 'right' at any given moment.

Both are moving targets.

Erasmus   ·  December 26, 2003 10:36 PM

Eric, you jump about here, starting with Turner's well-reasoned piece, then fretting that that American citizens are increasingly treated like children in their own country, then suggesting that "freedom" (whatever that is) will repair the errant Muslim. Typical piece of Hindu patronizing, that Indian article was, BTW.

The common theme in your meditations appears to be the urge to identify a secular moral code--a task that's particularly urgent for gay people. I sympathize, having puzzled over this subject all my life.

Isn't Frederick Turner a piece of work? I've met him a couple of times at poetry conferences. He's an accomplished poet, author of sci-fi epics (some in verse), and deep thinker on public issues. He used to be Newt Gingrich's brain trust, back when the future majority leader was devising his Contract with America. But Newt's fellow Republicans preferred a mess of Clinton pottage.

Alan Sullivan   ·  December 28, 2003 2:16 PM

Actually, I think there already is a moral code which encompasses both secular and non-secular elements of society -- and that is, simply, the Golden Rule. Leave people alone as you would have them leave you alone! Butting into people's lives -- in the name God, in order to "help" them, because they are like children, or in order to build a better world -- is the very antithesis of morality. Yet for so many, it IS morality.

I don't know how to reconcile these two very different views of morality and human nature. All too often, the "good" stands for butting in. The "right" is more inclined to leave people alone.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 28, 2003 6:06 PM

I used to argue for the Golden Rule, Eric, but I'm no longer so sure of it. The Golden Rule assumes general good will. It does not equip us to deal with situations like that of pre-war Iraq.

Alan Sullivan   ·  December 29, 2003 12:07 PM

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