I was looking over some old school notes today and was struck by the genius of John Locke's theories of man, law, and government. It struck me, as I was reviewing his theory of law in particular, that we have destroyed our own fundamental system for modifying and regulating human behavior. First I'll explain his basic theory - which I hold to be correct - and then I'll address how it relates to our situation today.
Locke held that there are three basic laws that influence a human's behavior.
- Divine Law. Locke identified this law, which is given by God alone, as "the only true touchstone of moral rectitude." It is not capable of being amended or altered by men as it is wholly determined by God. As it is from the Creator, therefore, it is the ultimate in law, and the standard to which we should strive to hold ourselves. But it is not sufficient in controlling man, as is evidenced by our constant violation of it. Locke identified several reasons for this: that it is hard to understand, that we fail to properly interpret it, and that the punishments and rewards to be had from it are not immediately apparent.
- Civil Law. This law, which is made by man in legislatures, should be a prop of Divine Law. Its advantages are that the evidence and consequences of it are immediately apparent, for there are physical rewards and punishments that follow directly from obedience and criminality. Its disadvantages are that it, being the product of man, is subject to mistakes and errors. Furthermore, not everyone gets the treatment they should under the law; we can and do get away with offenses.
- Law of Opinion. This law functions like peer pressure. It is the most palpable mode by which we as people determine what is vice and what is virtue, and it is the most immediate way in which we receive praise and blame for our behavior. It has a powerful effect on us because we are social creatures and cannot tolerate constant scorn.
Both Civil Law and the Law of Opinion are made to be anchored in the Divine Law. Locke's idea is that two sources, revelation and reason, make Divine Law available to us. We are to use these sources to enforce the Divine Law through a Civil Law that mirrors the Divine and protects natural law. When we have made it our pursuit to understand and enforce the Divine Law, we become a society that is also capable of supporting the Civil Law through application of the Law of Opinion.
A good illustration of a robust Law of Opinion can be found in Pride and Prejudice. We see characters whose behavior is strongly influenced by the censure and praise they receive from society. It is uncommon for devious young men such a Wickham to run away with but not marry foolish girls such as Lydia because society issues harsh public censure in response to such things.
The strong profanity we now hear on middle and elementary school campuses was previously reserved for the mouths of sailors because the Law of Opinion disallowed for the casual use of that language in society. The Law of Opinion that supports Divine and Civil Law, however, has been replaced in our society by a perverse Law of Opinion that encourages lawlessness and breeds Godlessness. There is more censure to be felt from saying that a lifestyle is wrong than there is from doing something immoral and destructive.
Increasing our distress is our dysfunctional Civil Law, which consists, for the most part, of everything but laws. Thus we have a society that has sabotaged two of its own fundamental pillars of society. Now it is crashing down around us and we wonder why.