Reason and Law Are Not The Same

in which Erik experiences a personal lesson (not discussed), reminding him of what he teaches his students:
that law and reason are not the same.

The other day I had given my students an assignment.  In my class on Durkheim and the Anne Sociologique, I had them read the lengthy introduction by Rodney Needham to Durkheim and Mauss’ Primitive Classification. They were to write down and research all of the names mentioned by Needham in the text, paying special attention to the relationships between the names (this was essentially an exercise in intellectual genealogy).  They did a great job, for the most part, except for one thing.

None of them had looked up “Rodney Needham.”  I wasn’t irritated, but laughed a fair bit, finding it hysterical that my students would do such a good job on all the names written by Needham, without ever once wondering who this Needham guy himself was.  One of my students attempted to defend her classmates by correctly pointing out that I had not instructed them to look up Needham, but only the names “in Needham’s essay.”  I retorted that I was hoping to help educate thinkers, not lawyers. My students, being smart people with pretty decent senses of humor, laughed right along with me, which I interpreted (incorrectly, perhaps) as a sign that they, too, understood that the defense was a bit ridiculous if the presupposition of the class was that they wanted to learn something.

Reason and Law are not the same. But we confuse and get bound up in them all the time; too many of us, myself included all the freaking time (much to my constant frustration) confuse the different parts of our lives.  Some parts, like attempting to understand the world in general, learn how things work, or formulate plans for ourselves, operate according to reason, or something almost approaching ‘common sense.’ Other parts, like playing games, writing contracts, or negotiating terms of employment, operate according to completely law-based rules, which have no necessary relationship to reason.

The video above is a short (less than 1 minute) example of two different children’s ability to distinguish between concrete operations (what I’ve parsed as ‘reason,’ above) and formal operations (what I’ve parsed as ‘law,’ above).  In cases where the formal logic has a sensible or moral relationship to concrete logic, formal logic makes a great deal of sense. But what about cases, as in the second child above (beginning at 0:40)? She clearly realizes, as did my students in class, that the ‘correct’ answer to the question she was asked was also an impossible one.  This young woman clearly makes the distinction between legal logic and reasonable logic.

But not everyone does; it is frequent in everyday life for intelligent people to insist on the priority of legal logic.  This appears to be most common in people whose social position or authority is rooted in their legal relationships with others, such as employers and employees, and where invoking legal thinking over reason will give them an advantage. Imagine a person whose contract specifies a standard path for promotion, which is fulfilled by an employee, but an unusual deviance makes it possible for the legal logic to deviate from the reasonable logic.  In this situation, of course, people will choose which logic they deploy based on their opinions that one type will be more useful to them than the other. Just saying.


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