LLM Modules, LW927

Moving the Goalposts

The discipline of law sits in an interesting place. It shares qualities with several other disciplines, such as science and philosophy, but doesn’t quite fit in with any of them. Too practical for philosophy, not practical enough for science. As such, it’s difficult to decide where to classify the subject in relation to others that are more concrete. Few, if any other fields of study have this issue, partly because they tend to fit neatly into their boxes, but also due to law having such an overarching practical influence on every individual. Here, I would like to explain some of the reasons why law can never be a science, not even a social science, and why it should be considered as a humanities field of study.

Science is the study of the way the world is. It is entirely a posteriori – a highly empirical method of knowledge acquisition. Philosophy is also a study of the way the world is, but uses a priori thinking to come up with assertions about what is the case, and even then is highly open to debate and interpretation far more so than science is. Law combines the two methods in an interesting way, at times the ratio between the two is one such way, other times it is another – depending on which area of law concerned. Ultimately, to decide which category law sits in – science or humanity – we must look at what the law is trying to achieve.

The dictionary definition doesn’t do much to help with this, but I believe it’s reasonable to assert that the law is there to regulate the behaviour of a population in order to maintain function of society. This can be achieved through granting pleasures (food, housing etc), preventing pains (medical treatment, abuse/exploitation, physical & mental harm), and maintaining free will. Already here, we have three very philosophically charged terms concerning morality. Morality can be defined in the dictionary as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour” –  but what is right and what is good may not be either A) the same or B) what needs to be in place to maintain efficient function of society.

The law is therefore tasked with attempting to actualise what needs to be in place to maintain sufficient societal function and to do that, there has to be knowledge of what humans require in order to function efficiently as a group, and that incorporates the studies of psychology, sociology and, I would argue, a bit of history and anthropology. We need to find answers to questions like “what makes people want to work together?” and “what hasn’t worked in the past?”. Only one of the above mentioned disciplines count as a science, and that is psychology. Psychology is a tentative “science” however, with human behaviour being able to be manipulated and changed quite significantly, however it does yield quantifiable results in a manner that sociology may struggle to match. Sociology is instead a social science, and the facts discovered through its study are fluid and highly subject to change over time and place. We can retrospectively observe this phenomenon, with social acceptance of slavery and homosexuality for instance – two practices that had their legal status reversed. It is hard to decide in such cases whether society makes the law or the law makes society.

What is clear though, is that the law is subject to change. It is very much a “here and now” set of rules, something that is both beneficial and potentially dangerous. It attempts to cement morality in a way that is compatible with human society both psychologically and sociologically, and attempts to make the world a pleasant place to live in for all, and punish those who threaten that status quo.