Thomas Hobbes

The English word “law” refers to limits upon various forms of behavior. Some laws are descriptive: they simply describe how people, or even natural phenomena, usually behave. An example is the rather consistent law of gravity; another is the less consistent laws of economics. Other laws are prescriptive – they prescribe how people ought to behave. For example, the speed limits imposed upon drivers that prescribe how fast we should drive. They rarely describe how fast we actually do drive, of course.

In all societies, relations between people are regulated by prescriptive laws. Some of them are customs – that is, informal rules of social and moral behavior. Some are rules we accept if we belong to particular social institutions, such as religious, educational and cultural groups. And some are precise laws made by nations and enforced against all citizens within their power. Customs need not to be made by governments, and they need not be written down.

We learn how we are expected to behave in society through the instruction of family and teachers, the advice of friends, and our experiences in dealing with strangers. Sometimes, we can break these rules without suffering any penalty. But if we continually break the rules, or break a very important one, other members of society may ridicule us, act violently toward us or refuse to have anything to do with us. The ways in which people talk, eat and drink, work, and relax together are usually called customs.

Order is rich with meaning. Let’s start with “law and order”. Maintaining order in this sense means establishing the rule of law to preserve life and to protect property. To the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), preserving life was the most important function of law. He described life without law as life in a “state of nature”. Without rules, people would live like predators, stealing and killing for personal benefit. Members of every community have made laws for themselves in self-protection.

If it were not for the law, you could not go out in daylight without the fear of being kidnapped, robbed or murdered. There are far more good people in the world than bad, but there are enough of the bad to make law necessary in the interests of everyone. Even if we were all as good as we ought to be, laws would still be necessary. How is one good man in a motorcar to pass another good man also in a motorcar coming in an opposite direction, unless there is some rule of the road?

Suppose you went to a greengrocery – and bought some potatoes and found on your return home that they were mouldy or even that some of them were stones, what could you do if there were no laws on the subject? In the absence of law you could only rely upon the law of the jungle. Every country tries, therefore, to provide laws, which will help its people to live safely and comfortably. This is not at all an easy thing to do. No country has been successful in producing laws, which are entirely satisfactory. But the imperfect laws are better than none.