Law in Contemporary Society


-- By WendyCai - 15 Apr 2016

Survival. Insanity. Ambition. Ignorance. Biology.

All of these are explanations for human behaviors. Based on a reason, we excuse behavior, we blame behavior, we sympathize, we criticize, we hope that we are different, and we hope that we are the same. There are multiple spectrums by which we judge people for their behaviors, depending on our moral stances, experiences, and empathy.


I feel myself wanting to excuse survival tactics. We all share the will to live. In extenuating circumstances, we hope our own selves would be strong enough to survive. The kind of desolation that allows survival to be a reason for behavior is one that most of us have never been through. Even in mainstream culture, the civil morals associated with our everyday lives are easily excused when it comes to slipping away for survival. Soldiers, for instance, kill or are killed. Killing becomes just a mechanism for living, eating too, is never for the taste when it comes to survival. The survivors don’t need blame, they survived.


Insanity, though, meets with a response of pity. Poor soul, biologically inflicted with an inability to be normal. Genetically predisposed to be haunted by voices, thoughts, uncontrollable angst. But, I am not like these people, nor act as they do. Their actions are easily explainable; nature made a mistake. The insane ones don’t need blame, they need help.


It’s easier to identify with ambition, but harder to sympathize. I understand the feeling. I know about the tight-knit ball that is waiting to explode and the unceasing itchiness when productivity is at a minimum. But ambition doesn’t feel like a good enough excuse. It’s not a good enough excuse for Ex-CEO Stewart Parnell, and it’s not a good enough excuse for Captain Shah (if some version of events are to be believed). Don’t we all like success stories? Well, not so much when they involve stepping on other people for that success. Even though isn’t that what success comes down to? Perhaps, we just don’t like salient callousness associated with ambition. So the ambitious ones can be blamed, they should know better.


I do not like tolerating ignorance. Ignorance suggests not knowing things that can easily be known. Ignorance connotes laziness. Ignorance hurts people. The ignorant ones can be blamed too, for we are better than they are, but they could easily become us.


Every action that we end up judging, however, is controlled by our brains. Our brain affects our personalities and behaviors.[1] Brain tumors resting on an amygdala can affect sexual appetite. Frontal lobes, when compromised, disinhibit people. An increase in dopamine-impersonators turn people into gamblers and alcoholics. The brain is the neurological basis for all of our preferences and actions. We are all born with our brains. Our brains are shaped by our environment growing up. If we made enough neural connections in our brain before a certain age, we get to have certain skillsets. If our cortisol levels are higher than average, we stress more often. If we have an above average amount of testosterone, we are more aggressive.

So how can we blame someone for their actions when it’s based so much on biological processes and mechanisms?

If we are able to distinguish between someone’s nature (their “soul”) and their situation that affects them, it seems we have decided they have some degree of free will that they can receive blame for if they commit a wrong. But, while we make exceptions for the extremes – the psychopaths and the mentally retarded, we don’t for everyone in between.

When we do make concessions, we do so because a person shouldn’t be blamed for being born a certain way and lacking certain mental capabilities. But, considering all actions stem from the brain and the brain is one thing that we are all simply born with and have little control over its development, is it possible to not make a concession for everyone?

A misstep in brain wiring will result in the condemnation of a person as a criminal. A extra bundle of hormones can change how aggressive someone is, how empathetic, how willing they are to fight to survive. Tom Dudley, for instance, with a little more oxytocin and a little less testosterone may not have been able to kill the boy.


I don’t meant to argue that we should uproot our entire criminal justice system because we cannot blame anyone for their actions. Nor do I mean to say that no one can be held accountable for their actions. But, I do mean to say that we should consider carefully our gut reactions and current laws regarding other people’s actions. Our laws originate from a time distinctive from our own. As the world becomes increasingly secular, modern laws in most first-world countries are trending towards not accepting solely historical or religious-based rationales as acceptable ones. Laws against sodomy and adultery, for example, are vastly eliminated. We have started to rethink our conceptions what right and wrong. If we don’t continue to do so, we’ll be stuck living in a world where the only reason for how we behave may be tradition itself.

Instead, the questions we have to continuously ask are what behaviors should be punishable, how to punish those actions, and how to deter those actions.

“Optimal” Behaviors

In our current era, “optimal” might be closest identified with a limited version of the harm principle, where all laws try to prevent harm, but the laws do not encompass all types of harm. There is extreme vagueness in the way our laws are constructed, and often, laws will not pass until someone is or will be harmed and other people care (or are fearful of the damage). But this vagueness is what allows for our society is adapt. Knowledge that we instigate the most change when we are motivated by personal feelings may help us better empathize with others' plights. Questioning what is known then the start for the process of rebirthing laws that fit our society.

The change might be slow, the injustices may never end, but our responsibility to constantly revise and rethink without relying too much on just tradition serves one of the most important duties that we, as a society, have. Only when we blindly or purposefully turn away from this task will we become a society that has much to be blamed for.

[1] Eagleman, D. (2011, August). The Brain on Trial - The Atlantic. Retrieved from

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r3 - 13 Jun 2016 - 20:33:34 - WendyCai
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