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How can groups of people have a common understanding of acceptable behavior without law?

+4 votes
This question comes from a long conversation I had with family members concerning the necessity of laws.  They insisted that some kind of law (even traffic law) is necessary so that a community can hold each other accountable when they do something "against the law" that endangers or hurts someone else.  My conception of law cannot be severed from its authoritarian enforcement/judicial mechanisms (police, prison, courts) so I'm wondering if our disagreement was semantic or if "law" really is inherently authoritarian.  Is there something else that describes non-hierarchical common understandings of acceptable behavior?  How does the answer to this question play out along individualist vs. communist lines?

I don't believe that people are inherently good, so I do think that large groups of people (where not everyone knows each other intimately) do need mutual, free agreements about what is and isn't ok--but how is this different than law?  Is it different?
asked Nov 25, 2011 by peau_de_chat (340 points)
“Communist vs individualist lines?” When discussed on those terms how could you not expect the question to play into ideology rather than what is actually going on in people's lives? Scrutiny of how that discussion could go wrong: http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/Bob_Black__An_Anarchist_Response_to__An_Anarchist_Response_to_Crime_.html

Notice how the crystallization of actions and their consequences through the lines of anarchist ideology or any ideology—ideology being a materially featureless, frictionless object in-itself—can quickly go awry when observed against their real implications in practice.

“…so I do think that large groups of people (where not everyone knows each other intimately) do need mutual, free agreements about what is and isn't ok--but how is this different than law?”

Apparently most common forms of violent crime occur between people who already knew each other. Maybe not intimately, whatever that might mean, but they do know of each other. They had some kind of apparent social involvement in each others' lives that preceded the actions that led to police intervention. In contrast, the most prominent and alarming feature of criminality, in the dominant ideology, is that it's an alien threat which can be prevented by mitigating interaction between the citizenry and the criminals. But your last question seems to imply law is most necessary in scales of coexistence where coexistence itself becomes a diminished factor in people's experiences, when in practice criminalization is active most intensely in the opposite scale.

If you're looking for a confirmation of the dangers of that sort of scale of coexistence then nationalism should be the topic of discussion, and its dynamic with judicial mechanisms. This is because, as opposed to common crime, nationalism does in fact result in competition between and the mutual destruction of social bodies which are usually otherwise blissfully ignorant of each other in daily life. That's where the idea of a random baddie who, compelled by forces of nature to want to destroy you, suddenly appears to finish the job finds purchase in practice. (This is not to say that the truthiness of the stereotype is confirmed, only that it is most intensely integrated with the normalization of activity in that context. There is no "random baddie". There is always an explanation for the appearance of systemically antisocial actions or the seemingly anomalous antisocial action.)

4 Answers

+1 vote
The law is inherently authoritarian when it is government law, whether the production, enforcement, or arbitration of that law. 'Social norms' would be a term that could describe a non-hierarchical common understanding of acceptable behavior. It's worth mentioning that there's a side debate here about whether humans have any inborn sense of behavioral norms, or if these come about only through the conflictual play between individual wills.

(Anarchist-) communists and collectivists tend to believe that some form of social norms will function in the new society, with these being far less oppressive than today due to the abolition of property relations and the state. The principle of free association, for example, could lead to arrangements by which individuals who desire to engage in behavior considered taboo by one grouping could seek out other social circles in which their desires are acceptable, although this does not adequately address the issue of the desire towards deviance itself.

For the most part, individualists would argue that social coercion is a problem inherent to society itself, not to the specific way in which that society is structured, and that the individualist is the enemy of any society. This view doesn't lend itself to figuring out a new arrangement of the kind your questions refer to, but rather to a life of immediate refusal of the law, its institutions, and its foundational beliefs.

Other individualists have argued in favor of the establishment of binding social contracts between free individuals, and although these would not be statist as the social contract of liberal governance, they have drawn criticism from other individualists.
answered Nov 26, 2011 by anok (21,030 points)
i like most of your answer, anok, but want to point out that saying "governmental law" (without explaining it more) just muddies the water. is there a law that is not governmental law? if so, what is it and how is it different from "social norms"?
In the pre-modern world, law existed in multiple configurations, sometimes in overlapping configurations, that we might recognize as both 'governmental' and 'non-governmental'. For instance, to use the example I know best, Islamic 'law'- al-shari'ah- in its medieval forms was generally not directly attached to governmental forms at all, or only peripherally. In fact, the translation of 'shari'ah' as law is problematic, given the very narrowness the semantic range of 'law' has acquired in modern English. Shari'ah literally means 'way' or 'path,' more indicative translations of its actual scope and manner of application, at least in the pre-modern, pre-modern-state world (things have changed dramatically in the past couple hundred years). Shari'ah, in the first place, was primarily produced in the 'non-governmental' sphere, and was often applied in that same sphere, without recourse to coercive force (though it could also be applied using some form of coercive force, social if not governmental). For instance, in the event of a dispute between two parties over, say, property arrangements, a common recourse would be to go to the local mufti (someone trained in fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence) and seek a legal opinion. The mufti would review the case and then offer a fatwa, a legal opinion if you will. This fatwa was non-binding: no coercive force, indeed no physical force lay behind it. It might be employed in a formal court (the court of the qadi), or it might not (usually, it seems, the latter). Its legal force was more socially based: the contending parties both recognized the mufti as a viable arbitrator, and social convention (and social force in a somewhat Foucaltian sense) aided in this agreement and cohesion.

It would take far too long to go into further details about the interworkings of medieval shari'ah, but suffice to say, its rendering- both theoretically and in practice- of 'law' was considerably more complex and nuanced than the way we usually think of 'law' in the modern, state-dominated world. I would not argue that shari'ah was ever entirely 'non-coercive,' but no society can ever be entirely non-coercive in some sense. Nor am I suggesting that contemporary radicals would want to implement, or could implement, shari'ah, which is obviously both religiously and historically contingent in the manner I have described. However, I do think that if anarchists want to rethink law, rules, and public order, serious appraisal and analysis of pre-modern, 'traditional' modes of law and order are in order.

I have been sitting on your questions for several days without making much headway. The other day a friend said that law is when a standard is held sacred, causing us to lose control of it and allowing it to control us. Which helped me get this far:

There are three forms of law that I would say are not governmental.

1. systems of social norms. Even if it has not taken on governmental form, one could consider such a system to be authoritarian and revolt against it, and above I briefly outlined why and how.

2. "natural" law. Although the "natural laws" defined by science are generally false, there is a real set of limits inherent to the "natural world," and through the perspective of the scientific method these are laws. It should be mentioned that the fact that these laws are "natural" or seem to be irremediably imbedded in the logic of the entire universe doesn't stop people from trying very hard to break them, and even succeeding.

3. religious law. This plays out on a similar level to the other forms of law, but deals with supernatural force(s) and what humans perceive or believe their standards to be, particularly the persistent question of how they make their decisions about when and how to help or harm us.

The first refers to limits constructed by humans, the second to natural limits, and the third to supernatural ones. What all have in common are a real limit placed on the free activity of individuals, a contradiction between a 'real' or 'necessary' limit and reification of that limit, and a revolt against the reified AND real limits.

One of the things I find fascinating about frere dupont's section on revolt in the book 'species being' is that he talks about revolt as something inherent to human existence (in fact, says dupont, revolt is the 'species being' or human essence that Marx was referring to, which many have interpreted instead as a positive, progressive humanism) which is just as much the engine for civilization's negation of the world as it is the impetus for the destruction of civilization, as it will be for the revolt against communism or whatever new society may be established. In this sense, revolt is not just or unjust, moral or immoral, it does not only attack that which is unnecessary and "ought to be" done away with, it is a reflex, an often irrational desire to destroy limits that may be totally sensible or even inherent to the fabric of reality. In this last sense, it is a refusal of the world even to the point of death. dupont's is a general theory of revolt, not only dealing with capitalism or the state as such as anarchists and communists often do, but understanding these in relation to inherent elements of existence. In this final analysis, one could reasonably conclude that the only permanent law is revolt itself.
this is a belated thank you to both anok and j.p.allen for their responses. i both agree and disagree with using the same word for all these things (especially social law)...
+1 vote
Every society has rules, from complex industrial societies like ours to simple hunter gatherer nomadic bands, and even other primate groups like chimpanzees and bonobos. There are norms of behaviour in all social species.

What I think your question hinges on is are rules laws, and are rules inherently authoritarian?

To the first, I would say rules are not quite laws. Rules are less formal than laws and are usually created by the people directly involved in them. Rules tend to be enforced by the people themselves as well, and created by the founders of a group i.e. a shared accomodation household, a poker club, a condominium board, an internal business policy, etc. Enforcement, at its most severe, involves casting out a member. Lesser punishment for breaking rules can often mean withholding privileges. Getting the rules changed can sometimes be a long process but for the most part is straightforward. You can appeal to people directly and convince them with a good argument. One at least has the opportunity to have one's say and argue one's case.

Laws, in comparison, are more formal. more strict, and more widely applied (a whole society). Laws are generally created by a specialized group of people, and enforced by other specialists trained in control or with deadly force. At its most severe, breaking a law can mean death. Less severely, punishment can mean forced incarceration. While rules imply some tacit form of consent (agreeing with rules grants one access to the club, board or maintains membership, and disagreeing with rules can prompt a meeting to discuss or change rules or ultimately one has to leave the club, board or membership), laws, on the other hand, are not bound by consent. Laws just are. You must obey the laws whether you agree with them or not since you cannot be cast out of society (except by imprisonment), and there is no 'away' to go to. Changing laws is a long, arduous process that can take years or even generations. One must appeal to specialists and argue complicated legal points, and hire one's own legal specialists to argue on your behalf. Laws are based on a tradition of precedence, with the aim of limiting and minimizing exceptions. Rules are more open to negotiations around exceptions (but still within limits) and are not as hidebound to tradition, since rules are not as formal.

One could view laws as the warty outgrowth of rules. As a group of people grows and scale and complexity become an issue, rules tend to become more formalized and rigid, eventually turning into 'laws', complete with specialists to administer them.

I see rules, therefore, as either less or non-authoritarian; and laws as having definitely crossed the threshold into authoritarianism. Rules can be authoritarian depending on the circumstances i.e. if there are certain people invested with the 'authority' to enforce them, and the rules are applied without consent.
answered Nov 26, 2011 by analfisting (340 points)
+1 vote
"... do need mutual, free agreements about what is and isn't ok"

i think a relevant question here is whether those "agreements" must be pre-determined somehow. free individuals may not know other free individuals that they come into contact with, and yet devoid of the context of law, social norms, etc., i think most will be well aware of what behavior (by others) that is not ok for themselves individually, and they will communicate that to the other individual(s) when such behavior is exhibited (or can be reasonably predicted).

for example, when someone i don't know does something that is not ok with me, i will express that fact (that it is NOT ok) to them, somehow. assuming i can make them understand me, then at that point we may not have an agreement, but i have made it clear that i will not stand for that behavior. if they continue to do it, i will respond accordingly, based on the context of the situation (fight with them, walk away, try to express myself further, etc).

to me there is some inherent flaw in attempting to define norms/laws/whatever regarding unacceptable behavior. for one, it will never prevent some people from exhibiting that behavior regardless. and for two, it ignores the context of the behavior. any behavior that one person finds unacceptable may well be acceptable to another. it is up to those 2 conflicting people to decide how to deal with it; it is NOT (imo) up to anyone else, be it "society", family, community, whatever.
answered Mar 3, 2012 by funkyanarchy (12,210 points)
–1 vote
We define the world by our own terms and definitions.   We make up words to mean things that are only something that someone thought up.
Law is such a word.  

Anarchy there is no law.  The problem is that most people cannot think outside of the way we define our world.  Perhaps it is all a matter of chaos or order.  Even criminal and the most evil people in the world tend to fall within the order of things.  Most people stand in lines.  There is no line police.  Maybe the line itself becomes the enforcer of order or maybe people realize that the line is the best and most workable solution for obtaining what is needed.  But lines also reflect inefficiency or abnormal conditions.  Yet people will stay in lines for hours and days.  There are those who will break in lines  sometimes because of deadlines other times because they do not understand or agree with the operation of lines.  The line then will either enforce itself or accept the tendencies of a few.  When a certain amount break the line then the line collapses and "anarchy" takes over.  Still even in this state there still is a sense of order though with a varying degrees of violence.  But still each one must work with others to achieve the same objective.  In the conditions of panic or survival than the objective becomes limit and violence is the only means by which the limited objective can be obtained.

Laws are not needed for order.  Lines are not really needed either.  People function within systems for common objectives and needs.  Lines show the inefficiency of a system.  Yet people will use the function of a line to increase effectiveness of the incapabilities of a system.  

Acts of violence are most often committed by emotional distress, disputes, or as a means to achieve advantage.  Laws do not solve these conditions and other approaches would work better to cut down the violence rather than to have laws that come into effect after the violence is done.
answered Jun 7, 2012 by afunctionalworld (3,290 points)