Word of the Day: LAW

Word of the Day: LAW

Many years ago I took an opportunity to be part of an eight-person faculty seminar, to last a whole semester, on the topic of freedom. I did it, to be honest, because it came with a course reduction and a decent stipend. The experience taught me pretty quickly that I like teaching students a lot better than I like hanging around professors, and that money isn’t everything.

The problem with the seminar was that we had nothing in common. We should have had a basic education from which to work, but there was no such. The people in our group who were outside of the humanities were not used to addressing such questions as, well, what freedom even is. Not terribly fruitful. I remember at one point saying, “Let us set aside for the time being the question of the ontological status of a physical LAW,” and then proceeded to argue that many a limiting feature of the human person is also, looked at from the other side, a power. My legs are well-defined, and that is why I can use them to walk across the room.

The one person in the room who guessed at what I might have said, had I harped on “the ontological status of a physical LAW,” was a philosopher who, as it turns out, wants very much to deny that there are any moral LAWS at all. Ah well. I have heard people say that the moral LAW is merely what our evolution has caused us to believe. That is just patter. First, being around people for more than ten minutes will persuade you that they are always in conflict with what even they, with their self-indulgent interpretations of things, would call the moral LAW as regards other people. If the LAW were natural to us, why do we resent it so much, and try so hard to deny it, and disobey its promptings all the time? We are, by that account, like dogs who hate to scratch, to wolf down their food, and to communicate by urination. Second, we are strange creatures, with, as Thomas noted, an un-defined range of possibilities, all of which can present themselves as good in some fashion, yet among which we judge, weighing, deliberating, and choosing. Every single thing we do then can be referred back to natural inclinations — and then what has happened to our LAW? It has vanished. Third, if we say that the LAW is what will guarantee us the best chance of the survival of our persons or of our species, that is useless as a guide for action either way, since it is clear now that our species is not going anywhere — in fact, we hear of people these days who say that it is our moral obligation to make away with ourselves, or with most of ourselves; and often enough we are called by the LAW to put our lives at risk.

Fourth, the “genetic fallacy” that purports to tell us whence we derive the sense of a moral LAW cannot tell us why we should bother to continue with it. When I become aware, for example, that my makeup as an XY member of the species inclines me to aggression, that does not mean that I should ratify the inclination by action. We cannot say simultaneously that the moral LAW has arisen merely from evolution AND that we OUGHT to change its direction, because then we are smuggling the moral LAW back into the argument, using a higher LAW to judge a supposedly lower LAW, or an atavism. It no more is an argument against X to say that I believe it because my ancestors fifty thousand years ago thrived by it, than it is to say that I believe it because my mother thrived by it and taught it to me. It must be judged on its merits.  Or rather it must be recognized and obeyed.  Thou shalt, not thou mayst think about it.

Fifth, what is a LAW, anyway? Either there is a moral LAW, in which case it must be obeyed, or there is not; if it is an illusion, I see no reason why I should follow an illusion. If you say, “It is an illusion that redounds to the common good,” you again are smuggling the LAW back in — for why should I give a damn about the common good? All your attempts to found a morality on anything other than LAW will disintegrate. None will obligate. You can accuse me of foolishness, but not of wickedness. If, however, the moral LAW exists, what Lewis, scanning the cultures of man, called the Tao, then I believe that must inevitably lead to a LAWGIVER, one who has laid the LAW down. There are ways to misunderstand this too, and I do not mean it in a voluntarist sense. But this post is already long, so enough for now.

The word LAW is not related to Latin LEX or to its daughter, French LOI. A surprise, but it’s true, just as English ISLAND is not related to French / English ISLE, and English DAY is not related to Latin DIES. English LAW comes from Anglo Saxon LAGU, meaning something LAID DOWN; cf. German GESETZ, meaning something SET DOWN, or Latin STATUTUM, something MADE TO STAND, that is, ESTABLISHED. The G in LAGU became the velar spirant that in Middle English was often spelled with the now obsolete letter YOGH, which, as I’ve said, looks like a g mated with a z and got stuck. It sounded like a soft gargle, between the back vowels, and then sometimes turned into the sound we spell as W. LAW is related to the verb to LAY, causative of LIE: to LAY is to cause something else to LIE, as to SET is to cause to SIT, and to DRENCH is to cause to — DRINK.