Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On law, an interlude

Let me lay out briefly the case I want to make, and, perhaps more importantly, the cases I don't want to make.

Are laws and governments the only way to organize a society? Are they the only way to organize a complex, technological society? I don't know for sure, but the general principle that all human beings have explored only a minuscule fraction of the space of all plausible and pragmatically useful social systems strongly suggests that no, I do not believe, and would not argue that laws and governments are the only way to organize society.

Are laws and governments the best way to organize a society? Again, I don't believe so. Laws and governments evolved, and judging from biology, evolution rarely produces optimality in senses other than the most local and immediately concrete. Even to the extent that we can even define global and abstract optimality, evolution does not seem to produce it.

Given that we have laws and governments right now, and appear deeply embedded in our social constructions, must we therefore consider only futures that contain laws and governments? I don't believe it is necessarily true, although I do believe that changing deeply embedded structures is not only very difficult, it is extremely risky and uncertain. It seems to me to be a lot easier and safer to change the content, structure, formation and maintenance of laws and governments than it would be to abandon them entirely. Of course, ease and safety are by no means our only considerations when contemplating, advocating and implementing social change.

I think the question I'm most interested in is: are laws and governments in general "really really bad", even pragmatically*? Do they, as Mr Aversion seems to suggest, serve no good purpose whatsoever? Are they simply — much as I hold religion to be — at best irrelevant and at worst a blight on the human condition? Or do they, rather, serve useful purposes? If so, how can we ensure those useful purposes are preserved under social changes? Does it make more sense to preserve and reform the specific forms of these social constructions, or abandon in favor of something that can provide superior benefits with lesser costs?

*I of course do not hold that intrinsic goodness or badness is even meaningful.

I am not interested at all about philosophizing about the "ideal" society. Its relevance (why should anyone care what I consider to be the ideal society), its presumptuousness (I think a lot of people would resent and object to me unilaterally imposing my version of an ideal society on the basis of nothing more than its specifically unilateral imposition), and its impracticality, I doesn't seem even meaningful to talk about an ideal society. I can talk only about what I like and don't like, and how I propose implementing my preferences, and try to appeal to or somehow change my readers' common preferences and knowledge.

Update: This point deserves more than parenthetical mention: Do I think that just because a social construction exists and is deeply embedded in our social consciousness that it is therefore beneficial? Definitely not. As a "militant" anti-religious atheist, I am strongly convinced that religion, although deeply embedded in our society, is almost completely without benefit and really can be abandoned, and I do really want to abandon it, despite the risks and uncertainty of doing so. I'm definitely not trying to make the argument that laws and governments are here to stay and it is therefore futile to even evaluate their merits and drawbacks. To come to a rational judgment about laws and governments, we have to evaluate the content of these ideas against our desires and preferences and the way the world physically works.

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