Law drives people toward common good

What is the common good?

This age-old question is one every legal system seeks to answer, though it rarely yields a unified conclusion. Perhaps this is because the more pressing question we ought to ask is:  what is law?

In short, law dictates how things ought to be and it prescribes the consequences for people who fail to behave as they should.

The Code of Hammurabi — the oldest legible body of law — was a Babylonian constitution that stipulated how humans should treat one another. This simple idea of law has flowed through humanity and is at the heart of all legal systems.

A useful tool in evaluating this notion of law is John Locke’s writings Of the State of Nature, where he concludes that men are equal by nature. In citing the English theologian Richard Hooker, Locke states that, “the equality of men by nature … the foundation of that obligation to mutual love amongst men.”

Based on this principle of natural equality, one might logically ask:  Why do people need laws?  If by nature we acknowledge that we ought to love our fellow man and woman equally, and that this is good, shouldn’t we be able to do it on our own?

Ultimately, the answer comes down to the notion of free will — the power of choice, which defines who a man, or woman, really is.  Although we all recognize that we ought to love each other, choosing to do so is a decision that only the individual can make.  This universal dilemma is the crux upon which the fate of humanity rests.

Laws exist in order to direct individual actions toward a peaceful and unifying end.

We obey traffic laws because chaos and disorder would ensue if we failed to heed them. Those who refuse to obey traffic laws become dangers to society. They indicate that they cannot properly respect and care for other individuals within society.

A more serious example would be the recent events in the Middle East. Anger and contempt over a perceived anti-Islamic film have caused needless violence that reflects the state of Middle Eastern affairs. Such disregard for the equality of all human beings encourages a culture of disunity and unrest.

The principle of natural equality, coupled with the fact that humans live in a relationship with one another, necessitates, as Locke states, “the great maxims of justice and charity.”  These virtues are resolutely foundational to the principle of law. If we are to live in peaceful communion, law must ensure it.

Common good — simply another term for peaceful communion — can only exist when the law protects the dignity and freedom of the human person. We call this justice, such that each person receives what is due to him or her. If the law fails to uphold justice, then it fails to uphold the common good and fails those it claims to protect.


Reach the columnist at or follow him at @cshmneyrichard.

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