Sunday, 9 October 2016

Principles of Justice

Principles of Justice

One important role of any leader is keeping the civil peace.

For parents adjudicating in squabbles between their children is a necessary but often exasperating duty. Encouragement and punishment to instil family and societal values in our children is likewise necessary despite it being denigrated in recent times.

At the clan and tribe level the chief, shaman or elders fulfil this role and it is a necessary one in maintaining a functional social unit.

As the reach of government increases, so maintaining the rules of the society and settling disputes among members becomes more formalised. Laws need to made and promulgated so that people and judges know them. Law courts are needed for civil and criminal cases. Law enforcement becomes a whole branch of government.

In looking at the ancient world and the law codes we know about, the Biblical laws really stand apart.

The “Ten Words” giving a really concise easily memorised summary so that the ordinary person can actually know what the law is. The following text giving worked examples to show how the Commandments were to be interpreted. As Moses said “What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as the body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Deut,4.8) or as David wrote : “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, Making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes

This is the big difference between the Biblical laws and the earlier law codes such as the Babylonian king Hammurabi's (c.1,745 BC) and even earlier ancient near eastern ones. They took their principles of justice (and punishments that seem draconian to us) and used them to enact laws which suited the conditions of their time and place. The Biblical with the Ten Commandments being principles aimed at the individual as much as the lawmaker – one cannot legislate against coveting; and the case examples that follow plus historical cases over the next few hundred years give principles which can be used to derive just laws for any age or stage of civilisation.

This is so important that I want to illustrate the point.

In all the sciences – from physics to medicine and beyond – one can teach the student the fundamental principles, or one can teach them just “protocols” for particular instances. Protocols are much quicker, but inflexible: basic principles are slower – the application has to be formulated – but they empower the practitioner to deal with new and unusual cases.

When I started work as an engineer, one of the notable recent failures of that design office was related to me. They were asked to design a compressed air system for starting jet engines at an airport. They were used to designing compressed air systems for normal industrial use and had the charts – protocols if you like – for such design. But normal compressed air systems only varied the air pressure about 15% from the maximum, while the new system pumped to a much higher pressure and then emptied almost entirely. When the system was built and tested it didn't work. They called in a university professor, who went back to the basic gas laws and showed them why their protocols didn't work in this case, and how to re-design the system.

So, understanding fundamental principles, like the gas laws or Newtons laws or the laws of thermodynamics allows you to deal with all circumstances whereas only learning an application of these principles to one or two situations limits you to cases that resemble those situations.

So for out modern mega-states we have a reach of government a complexity of society and ever evolving technology that the ancients could never have imagined. So if we limited ourselves to rules they had in for the cases they faced, we would be in real trouble. But if we take the time and effort to work back to the principles involved we have something really useful.

Armed with fundamental principles of justice and morals we are in a position debate how these translate into the situations we face, however novel they may be, and for those with the requisite skills to formulate this into legislation or teaching or to modify the propaganda that washes over us from TV, film books and newspapers.

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