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Home  >  Socratic Discourses  >  Socratic Discourse 2

Socratic Discourse 2

In which the issue legality vs. illegality and its ramifications is being discussed; all against a rather unappetising background.

S.   Another murder. And it seems the motivation was largely based on an emotional imbalance. Luckily this is the biggest cause of that kind of crime, at least in our society.
--   Did you say "luckily"? You actually defend the involvement of something like emotion - you, who is so pedantic when it comes to logic and reason?

S.   Of course. Here we are dealing with something negative. And since emotion, or rather its misuse, is something negative as well, the two might as well be paired together.
--   Surely you are not saying that these two negatives make a positive? How simplistic!

S.   No, no. I am well aware of the difference there. As useful as mathematics is, one cannot borrow from the vocabulary of one and superimpose a similar meaning upon the field of another area of interest, just because the words happen to be the same. No, I meant it in a different way. Remember when I implored you to consider logic and reason as the two most important yardsticks by which to measure the validity of a certain issue?
--   I most certainly do. On more than one occasion have you driven home this very point.

S.   One cannot say it too often, this is true. But do you also remember the specific circumstances under which I argued in this manner?
--   As usual, they dealt with the usefulness of one particular course of action against another, and the mode of determining which of these in question should be the preferred one.

S.   Yes, that was the immediate reason. But what is the underlying motive for such an endeavour? The fact that one choice should be favoured by the majority?
--   I suppose so.

S.   Then you are saying that the best possible choice of action would be the one that finds the most approval amongst those involved?
--   Isn't that what democracy is all about?

S.   We are not talking about political systems here, but what determines an optimum course of action. To start with, we have to find out why a decision has to be made in the first place.
--   Something has to be achieved, I would say.

S.   Exactly. There is one state of being therefore, which for some reason or other is deemed to be unsatisfactory, and now there is the prospect of change. Would it not be reasonable to consider the result of the proposed decision in relation to the present state in order to see whether such a proposal is worthwhile pursuing or not?
--   Naturally; after all, the desire for a different condition had been the motive for this change all along.

S.   Then we can say that provided we are capable of collecting the necessary information on which to base our decision the only principles that should guide us are those based on logic. Some members of a community might have different tastes, or a different set of priorities in terms of moral values, or life styles, and so on. As long as we attempt to compromise between all those varying values we never achieve a proper consensus, simply because we are never supplying a firm base to any issue being followed.
--   What do you mean?

S.   By a "firm" base I am talking about the structure of the logical application of reason, because these principles are the ones which underlie our common existence, and so in their application benefit us all, regardless of cultural or religious background. For example, I can construct a building in many ways, and if I engage architects from various countries they each would come up with a different design, based on their culture's interpretation of beauty and necessity. But unless they all subscribe to the mathematical principles of form and consider the facts as they pertain to stress, the property of materials, geometry, and so on, none of their ideas will come to fruition. No matter how many sacrifices one gives to the gods, a falsely constructed wall will crumble nevertheless.
--   I can see your point. But aren't we drifting away from our original subject?

S.   Not at all. You questioned the preference for an emotional element in a crime, in this case a murder, against the same crime being performed under the guidance of reason. Apart from the fact that I would very much doubt the existence of reason in anything that results in the killing of another person (we are talking about a violent, antisocial act here), the connection is there. Did we not say the application of reason is preferred because the result is more acceptable?
--   More acceptable because more people, even with different backgrounds, can see the validity of its outcome? Yes, that would be correct.

S.   Then any act derived from such an approach would have far more possibilities because of its inherent universality?
--   That is true.

S.   On the other hand, anything which is not part of a logical framework, that incorporates idiosyncrasies and specifics not common but essentially unique to a certain group, or a certain culture, or to a certain emotional state, would face great difficulty being adopted outside its own narrow field of influence, simply because of these very qualities I have just mentioned?
--   Now I understand. If a murder had been committed for a logical reason, then the chances of such a reason occurring once more are far greater than if such violence were the result of an emotional aberration, since something like this would be much harder to duplicate and at the same time being acceptable to someone else.

S.   Exactly. So you see, as horrible as such a crime is, we can take consolation from the fact that for the most part (in our society at least!) those crimes are the result of a very specific set of circumstances in which emotions had their undue and arbitrary influence. Of course, history tells of times when a rational excuse was sought to justify murder. Because there the decision was based on so-called reason, the result was infinitely more gruesome. It has to be said however, that what were made out to be reasoned arguments for the elimination of a certain race for instance, or religion, or sexual orientation, they naturally were no such thing. For how can any thought be termed logical that has as its basis a confusion of cause and effect?
--   I absolutely agree with your position on premeditated, even institutionalised murder. History is indeed full of examples. But is not the objection to such horrors coming from a moral viewpoint, the appreciation of one's humanity and all its responsibilities and duties?

S.   No doubt, that is how many people see it. But this is exactly where the danger lies! Too often the monsters in our midst make a false and unjustified use of logic which in turn is not being countered because by and large people are not trained to do so, and therefore have to rely on feeling and emotion, described as "values", "morals", and so on. What they do not realise is that such feelings are not entirely controllable, and just as one can be overcome by something like remorse, or pity, or love, the influence can just as easily be aggression, intolerance, and hate. None of the former, and also none of the latter, can be turned on and off at will!
--   How do you act against this negative logic then?

S.   By pointing out that such "negative logic" as you call it, is no logic at all! By showing over and over again that by disregarding emotions in important decisions the quality of life will not be diminished but rather enhanced by providing everyone with the facilities and potential that he or she is equally entitled to, derived from the overall capacity of the particular society.
--   This goes back to another discussion about the privileges and duties of an individual based on the society's overall standard and development.

S.   Yes, we did talk about that already. But to get back to your "negative logic", there is of course a way to show its fallibility.
--   By pointing to the misery such thinking causes?

S.   Not at all. Remember, to someone convinced of his own justice the fate of any victims would matter very little. No, we have to proceed differently. First of all, we ought to provide a general description of the matter we are concerned with; then, by having identified the mechanism through which we are dealing with this matter we see whether anything could be amiss. It comes down to finding the right questions before we can hope for correct answers. Therefore, is it not true to say that in any given society there are certain ambitions and activities which are shared by the majority - whether this occurred through coincidental factors or through something more resembling design is not the point at this stage - and there are other endeavours which are not?
--   Certainly, there are cultural traits that in the main describe a society by their existence.

S.   You are right. What we are talking about here is culture; the preferred behaviour of a society. But I have to point out that the reason for one or the other form of behaviour is not the issue here. They always develop so slowly that by the time they are assimilated into a people's psyche the original cause is usually lost - always provided there is such a single cause in the first place, something highly unlikely! To concentrate on the minority issues now, could one say that it is mostly those to which the stigma of undesirability is being attached?
--   Yes; I would even say it is only those that are being presented by an unfortunate minority in a community which become the target for persecution and ridicule.

S.   And would you say that this denigration is the result of a differing activity being shown worthless or incompatible, in other words, having proved faulty after a trial run?
--   No; restrictions are imposed simply because a behaviour is different. Usually there never has been the opportunity for an evaluation.

S.   In fact, I don't think there ever has been such a chance. No, it is true, restrictions have been imposed solely because one mode of behaviour was deemed to be inferior to another, and it was done by emotional interpretation. However, consider the following: let us assume the eating of fish was declared highly undesirable by a certain society. What would the normal cause of events be, recalling similar incidents in history?
--   The powers that be introduce harsh penalties for eating fish.

S.   Obviously. This naturally draws on resources. Do you think such an expenditure is justified - within this particular context?
--   If people are going to eat fish, then the effort must be made to catch them.

S.   Precisely - "if people are going to eat fish"! In other words, these laws and enforcements would hardly be necessary if we did not have so many individuals intent on doing what they are not supposed to do.
--   That much is clear.

S.   So we do not have laws against the eating of rock, for example. There simply is no need, since no-one in their right mind would be that stupid.
--   I can see your point. But usually, and I think we are mostly talking about the mainstream of communities, there is some danger involved in the activity. In the case of the rocks this is rather obvious, but in many cases it is presumably not.

S.   No doubt some degree of danger may be involved. But has the element of danger ever been the reason for a total ban? Are there not countless professions engaged in activities which would be dangerous if performed by someone unskilled and inexperienced?
--   True, rather than prohibiting the activity itself we train and educate the persons involved.

S.   Naturally. And we choose this alternative because we approach the issue with logic and reason. On the other hand, there are instances where we fail to do just that. This is why I came up with the example of eating fish. Going back to our argument then, and assuming there is a certain danger in eating fish - and indeed there can be! - what would be the immediate result upon declaring such a thing illegal?
--   Some people would stop eating it, some would continue their habit.

S.   That follows. What about the commerce? Would an ordinary shop-keeper handle such merchandise?
--   No; it would be against the law.

S.   Is there a great incentive for him to disobey?
--   Probably not, since fish would not constitute his only line of trade, and to cease one would diminish his turnover only by little.

S.   That is correct. What about the consumer then - can we assume that amongst the whole population there would be undoubtedly some who regard fish as a great delicacy and so were rather loath to give up their indulgence?
--   Yes, most likely something like this would happen.

S.   And since for every demand there sooner or later emerges a supply, would this supply be based on our regular shopkeeper, controlled as he is by laws and regulations and the criteria of his professional associations?
--   Of course not. In this case the supply of fish would be taken over by those who do not mind being outside the law.

S.   So we can say that the first result of the prohibition of something is the creation of a criminal class, dedicated to the circumvention of just such a law.
--   That would be the case.

S.   Before we admitted the possibility of danger inherent in eating fish. Now that the activity itself has been banned, can you rely any longer on the shopkeeper to provide you with the necessary information so essential to prevent you from coming to harm?
--   No, since he is no longer allowed to deal with the product.

S.   Then can you trust the criminal to help you make the most of your chosen habit?
--   I very much doubt it. The conscience of a villain is unlikely to be loaded with altruistic thoughts. Such a person is in the business for profit, and not to enhance the quality of life for his customers.

S.   That would be a fair assessment. So, given that there is a particular amount of danger in the process of eating fish, and given that the ordinary venue for instruction is now closed, would you say the law has helped the overall situation in terms of knowledge and information?
--   Definitely not. The effect would seem to be the exact opposite.

S.   And there is another point you have just mentioned. Did you not say an outlaw is in the illegal business for the profit?
--   This is the case, mostly.

S.   Why do you think there is such a profit to be made?
--   Nobody else deals in the substance. All the regular outlets have disappeared.

S.   Of course. By declaring something illegal when nevertheless a market exists the competition - the legal one - is automatically eliminated. And as with any monopoly, the prices can be pegged arbitrarily, the quality declines, and the only one who suffers is the consumer, the very person the law is designed to protect.
--   But if there is a danger, and we are assuming now there is, does not the law have the duty to safeguard its citizens?

S.   By all means, if such protection is necessary, yes. At the same time, we did accept the existence of many activities potentially dangerous, and we agreed the only course to be taken in such cases is education. Only the informed person will be guarded sufficiently to deal with any adversity, and, what is more important, will be aware of the possibility of danger.
--   I would agree; still, it is difficult to convince opponents of such liberalism when one should be continuously confronted with the results of misuse, which you said we assume to exist. How do you tell someone that an accident could have been prevented by making fish in this instance even more available?

S.   By pointing to another fallacy caused by the illegality of something. In our case, the consumption of fish would be frowned upon. Obviously, those people who still availed themselves would admit that much to their circle of trusted friends, but would they do so openly?
--   Of course not. To do so invites prosecution.

S.   Naturally. Then could you expect an individual, successful in his or her profession, of good standing in the community, with responsibility towards family and business, to come forward and declare, "I eat fish"?
--   It would be highly unlikely.

S.   I think we can say that. On the other hand, consider somebody who encountered the danger and succumbed. His life is deteriorating, he ends up in the street. What would you say his chances are of escaping the attention of society, manifested through its various instrumentalities, authorities, and so on?
--   I'd say that sooner or later he would get caught.

S.   And thereby becoming another statistic?
--   Sure.

S.   Supporting the theory used to justify the imposition of our law?
--   I can see what you are getting at. Because something is strictly illegal, only those examples come to the public light which seem to support the restriction. Those who manage successfully are automatically staying in the background.

S.   Correct. So we see that by declaring an activity illegal, we immediately cause three things to happen: we remove the possibility of education and therefore mastery on the subject; we create a black market with all its associated phenomena of criminality; and we preclude the chance of any objective assessment of the issue by restricting public scrutiny to failures only.
--   In understand the logic so far. At the same time, when you speak of education and mastery aren't you assuming everybody affected by the habit is equally capable of making use of such education?

S.   No; I am well aware there would be those who turn their lives towards the positive and there would be others who do not.
--   In the case of those others would the situation not get worse, given the greater availability of fish?

S.   It is rather likely.
--   And thereby increasing the overall cost to society, now with so many more failures to be dealt with?

S.   Yes, increasing the overall cost to society - that's just the point!
--   Aren't you contradicting yourself?

S.   Not really. We have pointed out several factors which add to the cost born by society at large due to illegality.
--   The effects of ignorance, administering the law, and so on.

S.   Exactly. And yes, those who despite the education on offer would still be a burden, they also contribute to the cost. But consider: the fact that we are discussing such consequences in the here and now confirms their existence, a presence that has been there all along. In other words, although the law, its implementation, the resources needed to enforce it, although all of this has existed all along, we still are faced with the ongoing costs. If anything, they have grown over time.
--   Because any official measures are subject to an attempt to circumvent them; a kind of arms race.

S.   "Arms race" would be an apt description.
--   So we should simply give up?

S.   If by "giving up" you mean forgetting the whole issue and carry on as if it didn't exist, no. The criminal element, being drawn towards fish due to our ill-considered laws, would not disappear just because the law has changed here or there; it poses a threat to society regardless. No, we need to focus on the consumers, in this case those for whom education has proven worthless.
--   Should we abandon them?

S.   Not abandon. But we do need to take into account the overall costs of our endeavours, whether they are sustainable in the long run or not. Let's say you find yourself in the tragic situation of having to leave your home because of rising flood waters. Time is of the essence, but so is the choice of what to take and what to leave behind. Would you leave your children behind because you insist on taking your furniture?
--   Of course not, it would be the height of selfishness.

S.   So there are times when certain decisions must be made, all against the background of the situation at hand. In the case of eating fish, the question arises as to how the continuous efforts to uphold the law including the attempts to assist victims of fish-eating compare with spending less on the juridical side while also spending less on those who have demonstrated that the benefits of education pass them by. As with any spending of resources, reason dictates there has to be a cap at some stage.
--   Reason would dictate it, I agree. Isn't that the problem?

S.   You are right, it is a problem if the whole endeavour derives from emotion and ideological aspects; a point we have made at the very beginning.
--   But surely not every crime will suddenly become ineffective and innocent just because we remove it from the statute books!

S.   I never said that. The preceding argument was not about turning anything blindly from something illegal into something lawful. It dealt with the justification for declaring a particular activity undesirable, merely because the adherents of such an activity happened to be in the minority.
--   Are not murderers in the minority?

S.   They surely are; however, by analysing the case of a murder I can easily establish the wrongness of the behaviour, provided of course we admit to the basic right of every individual to live unharmed. The difference between a murder for example and, say, the eating of fish, is the manner in which the supposedly negative results of the latter are being obtained. By declaring fish illegal we create the undesirable effects, which then in turn are used to justify its prohibition. Obviously, this is utterly illogical.
--   Is not the illegality of murder already established as well?

S.   It is, but not the various incidents leading up to it. Therefore, the act of murder is not a product of the law and its conditioning, but is only one alternative amongst the range of options open to the individual as he progressed from one stage to the next. In the case of our fish, the conditions were supplied immediately upon the establishment of the law. There is an acute contrast between the two.
--   I see. Then clearly there are examples of suffering and inadequacy within any society that does not consider these connections.

S.   Yes. And taking into account what we have said about the role of the individual, concerning responsibility and privilege, it is the duty of those capable of logical reasoning to point to such discrepancies for the general good of their community.

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