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Law, Tolerance and Society

by Rick Lewis

People live together in societies, interacting in a thousand ways, and so create rules to regulate those interactions. When the rules are broken somebody has to do something about it. At one end of the scale, that response can simply be the withdrawal of future co-operation. If a restaurant sells you a vile meal, you just don’t go there again. If they sell everyone vile meals, they’ll go bust. Alternatively, for more serious kinds of rule-breaking there are a range of penalties which in different societies and for different transgressions can be as varied as fines, prison, excommunication, exile, or execution.

What should the rules be? Well, the question of how society should be organised is a vast and complex one which has fascinated philosophers from the earliest times. Plato’s Republic is perhaps the most famous attempt to answer this question. Plato also wrote constitutions for several real city states. Much later, Rousseau wrote a constitution for Geneva, John Locke’s writings influenced the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and as for Marx… However, we’re going to say almost nothing about the organisation of society in this issue. Instead we’re going to focus just on what happens when the rules of a society are broken.

In the first place, how do we know that rules are being broken? One possibility is to wait until those who have suffered harm complain to the authorities. Another is to introduce ever-greater levels of surveillance, aided by technology, to detect transgressions as soon as they are committed. When being swiftly caught becomes a near certainty, then only an idiot would break the rules in the first place. But is that good for our development as human beings? Emrys Westacott considers why it might not be.

Secondly, what happens when a crime is committed, and somebody is arrested for it and brought to court? Assuming that the whole thing wasn’t caught on camera, how can we ensure that the truth is discovered, as is essential for justice to be served? That’s not so easy, says Frederick Ochieng’-Odhiambo, because defence attorneys are trying to serve two masters – truth and their client – and under our adversarial legal system it is not clear which should have the priority.

Pretty much every society has two sets of rules – a formal set encoded in laws and enforced by police, lawyers and courts, and an informal set of social norms and conventions. Additionally, we as individuals each have our own views on what is acceptable and what isn’t. So the third question we’ll ask is how far each of us should tolerate people, activities or situations of which we disapprove. The question of tolerating unpopular opinions – including the opinions of those who are themselves intolerant – is touched on by Raymond Tallis in his column and by Phil Badger in his article on the Enlightenment. Matthew Pianalto argues that although intolerance gets a bad press, in some situations it is actually our duty to be intolerant. He describes an interesting distinction between toleration, which has to do with actions, and tolerance, which has to do with attitudes. He points out that Gandhi and Martin Luther King refused to tolerate unjust laws, but that their actions opposing those laws were non-violent. This for Pianalto is a crucial distinction between good and bad actions in the face of something we would find it wrong to tolerate. Above all though, the impressive thing about Gandhi’s and King’s intolerance was that it was always directed at laws rather than at people.

Every society struggles with questions about rulebreaking, though writing from his cell on death row, Shawn Harte reminds us that whether we get it right or wrong, nothing endures forever. Not only prisoners waiting on death row, but also the rest of us, and our societies, our rules, our greatest monuments, the planet, the galaxy – all are impermanent and in a state of continual change and decay. How should we live with that? Harte meditates on a problem which goes to the very heart of meaning in life.

This ineluctable rule of the cosmos claimed a very well-known philosopher last month, when Antony Flew died at the age of 87. Once a world-famous atheist and always a seeker after truth, Flew was a friend of this magazine from its very beginning and a contributor for many years. He was no stranger to controversy; in fact he knew controversy so well that it probably had its own key to the Flews’ house and a bed made up in the spare room. We say goodbye to Antony Flew with a feature. Piers Benn has written the obituary, John Rogers has kindly let us reprint sections of the address he delivered at Flew’s funeral, and I’ve made a few comments about Flew’s famous ‘conversion’ to deism, based on a couple of articles which he submitted to Philosophy Now but subsequently pulled at the last minute before publication. Though Flew changed his mind about the existence of God, so far as we know he never abandoned his disbelief in life after death, though he did question it quite a bit. A few people have remarked that Flew now knows the answer to that one for sure. It’s an appealing idea, but of course he’ll only know if he was mistaken. If Flew was wrong then I hope he’s sitting on a cloud now, chatting with Socrates or with his other great hero, David Hume. However, the sad irony is that if Flew was right that there is no future state then he himself remains unaware of that. So even now, he can’t say “I told you so!”

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