April 03, 2004

Artificial Law

Posted by shonk at 05:32 PM in Politics | TrackBack

I got an e-mail from Lee Killough yesterday which I thought made an excellent point on the notion of “natural” vs. “artificial” consequences and ties in nicely with some of the ideas I’ve been trying to express. Plus, I’m always a sucker for math jokes. With his permission, I’m reproducing it here:

(Legality != Morality) <=> (P != NP)

Proof: Morality is NP-complete because every human action can be considered a moral action. Legality can be tested in polynomial time by nondeterministic finite “state” machines. Therefore Legality != Morality iff P != NP. QED.

Seriously, I liked the piece:


Especially the “artificial” vs. “natural” words.

I’d go further, and say that government laws create “artificial consequences”, as opposed to natural consequences.

When a child playing with matches burns their hand, that’s a natural consequence. When a child playing with matches gets their hand slapped by a parent, that’s an artificial consequence.

Similarly, when a person loses consciousness or suffers withdrawal after taking drugs, that’s a natural consequence. When a person loses liberty and is thrown in jail after taking drugs, that’s an artificial consequence.

Artificial consequences are, ostensibly, society’s attempts to prevent more serious natural consequences (like house fires or drug overdosing). But they always involve some loss of liberty.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve heard people abuse the terms “consequences” and “responsibility”, making them lose their value.

For example, people often use “responsibility” to mean duty or moral obligation according to their own value system, rather than simply being responsive to a situation.

What exactly does being “responsible” to military conscription mean, for example? In ordinary usage, I suppose it means obeying it. In the true sense of the word, being “responsible” to being drafted could mean anything — burning a draft card, for example.

I remember 15 years ago hearing a Hugh Downs “Perspective” commentary on the radio commenting against the drug war, where he went into this very issue of the word “responsibile”, and how being “responsible” means responding to a situation, such as stopping after a car accident, and not the more common meaning.

“Consequences” is even more loaded with baggage than “responsibility is”. You hear things like “you’ll pay the consequences”, or “it’s your choice but you know the consequences”, which really means: You’ll agree with me, or else.

Whenever I was punished as a child and told to remember the “consequences of my actions”, I would pretend to agree with the adults to get out of trouble, but in reality I knew that their version of “consequences” was artificial. The only consequences which I thought were worth paying attention to, were the natural ones — the real ones.

Whenever I hear “natural law” discussed, I don’t hear enough about the opposite, “artificial law”. And until your piece on “natural” and “artificial” words, I’ve never read anything which comes as close to my idea of “natural” and “artificial” consequences.

Keep selling waves,