Digest of terms

law

a term with both general and specific connotations. In general terms talk of laws covers a range of related concepts such as rules, regulations, principles, prescriptions for conduct, some regarded as explicitly moral, others rather as customary. In more specific terms, a system of law implies institutions such as the judiciary, the police, the prison system, and a legislative body. Here law is clearly man-made, a development that some highly conservative Muslims find unacceptable, seeing it as derogating from the role of God and Qur'anic revelation as the only proper authority in such matters. Related tensions between human and religious authority concerning moral are common in other major religious traditions.

The relation between law and morality is complex. Legal systems function in important part to uphold very basic moral values such as honesty and respect for life, and to regulate social relations in a stable way for the public good. Clearly, though, there are different conceptions of the public good, and of morality in general. Systems of law thus display considerable variety. They are, though, deeply linked to perceived moral values, and are increasingly under pressure to reflect changes in moral values, as has occurred e.g. in respect of homosexuality.

In liberal societies a distinction is drawn (but by different people in different places) between public and private spheres, and the law is seen as upholding public morality, leaving private or personal morality as a matter of individual choice. In contrast, there are societies like Saudi Arabia where attempts are made to give all morality the backing of law, a position known as 'legal moralism'. In some ways this is reminiscent of small-scale traditional societies where what we now identify as law and morality have not been thought of as separate. In a modern society, by contrast, it lends itself to the charge of being totalitarian.

Devotion to the minutiae of rules, especially moral ones, is commonly criticized (paradoxically) as 'legalism' - a charge commonly leveled, historically, by Christians at Jews, based on what scholars now regard as caricatures of Pharisees in the gospels (and reinforced by mistranslation of Torah as 'the Law', rather than as 'teaching').

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