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Do laws determine societal norms, or vice versa? Question

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When society creates laws to govern themselves, do they simply codify what has already been established practice in society? For example, when a law is written that forbids theft, is this because stealing was already unacceptable in that society, and they simply decided to write it down now?

Or are laws created to influence what people do in society? For example, when a law is written to forbid theft, is this because stealing is normal in that society, but its legislators have decided it is time to change that?

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I submit that neither direction is completely the case, but laws are typically the formalization of norms. They may be widely-respected norms[1] or merely codifying the norms (or hoped-for norms) of the group with legislative authority.[2]

Laws can be passed to change norms, too, though. Rationing a limited resource is a common example.[3] The specific action being limited isn't necessarily a moral one, but the effects of misuse require an adjustment of norms.

As a big aside, I'd like to note that norms should not necessarily be codified into law. Human behavior is constrained by both law and norms.[4] Many laws outlast the norms they were intended to compel.


  1. "Don't kill people." ↩︎

  2. "Alcohol is banned." ↩︎

  3. "You can't water your grass when the reservoir is low." ↩︎

  4. "Laws, norms, markets, and architecture" says Lawrence Lessig (1998). ↩︎

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My thoughts are that morals come from empathy and empathy is something humans have evolved evolutionary as they were forced to act as a group. There has always been strength in numbers, but for that to work, the group must stick together.

When humans started living in larger groups, those with empathy has a greater chance of surviving in a group than those without. Fighting among themselves would cause a group to slip or make it vulnerable to outside threats.

It's quite similar to the more basic empathy that all adult creatures feel for their offspring - creatures who evolve a need to empathize with and take care of their offspring have a greater chance of surviving as a species. And so the parents tend to feed their offspring and defend it from external threats.

Empathy for the group of humans you are living with is similar. By empathizing with others in the group, the group as whole becomes stronger and more efficient. Evolutionary-wise, humans did early on start to compete in the struggle of survival with other groups of humans. As weapons, fire, agriculture etc were discovered, the main treats would shift away from predator animals, the environment and starvation. The main treats would be other groups of humans. As soon as protecting the group against other humans becomes important for survival, keeping the group unison and without conflicts becomes more important.

From this, a consensus of what is acceptable behavior and what is not will emerge. For example killing other members of the group is an obvious example of unacceptable behavior because that makes the group weaker. Those individuals who evolutionary develop a sense that doing so is wrong therefore have stronger chances of survival.

Empathy becomes a desirable treat to ensure that the group is successful, focusing its energy on things like foraging, hunting, research and other productive activities instead of conflicts. Also, the larger a group you can maintain in harmony without conflicts, the stronger that group becomes.

Any action that causes strife and conflict within the group becomes harmful. And from this, a consensus of what's acceptable behavior emerges and morality is invented, although biased towards favoring your own group and kin.

We can observe this not only among humans but among all animals living in groups, carnivores in particular. Wolves or example seem quite capable of showing empathy for those within their pack. Perhaps because they hunt together and so they have a strength in numbers. The better the group is at cooperation and coordination, the more successful they get at hunting and finding food.

So I'm pretty sure there's evidence of humans having morality long before laws were invented, because we can already observe empathy and hints of (very biased) morality among intelligent animals.

Most of morality can similarly be explained from survival needs and evolution.

Similarly, all of this is essentially the same arguments as when religions claim that all morality originates from their religion and their religion only, but atheists claim that morals exist without any religion. And then when it comes down to it, all diverse religions around the world tend to have very similar morals in the end. And early pagan religions didn't necessarily involve morals at all. Evidently morals exist without law and without religion.

Laws would be necessary when the groups start to turn into whole cities or nations. You need to keep your society in check, so that it remains strong against competing societies. A lawless nation would be disorganized and there would be no trust between members of that nation, as then it might be easily conquered/plundered by a rival nation. In order for a military force to function, it needs discipline and that in turn requires a consensus of acceptable behavior within the group, with consequences if you disobey that consensus.

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