Do any of you watch Better Call Saul? You should. It’s an excellent piece of drama (what else would you expect from Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan?) about the eponymous Saul Goodman – Jimmy McGill – in his early days on his path to become a lawyer. Anyhoo, without spoiling it too much, in one of the last episodes of the season one of the characters launches into a brilliant motive rant, concluding with the phrase, “The law is sacred.”
That got me thinking, as it’s not the first time I’ve heard that phrase – and not just in the hyperreality of pop culture, fiction, and drama, but said by real people in real legal settings. It is worth thinking about – what do we mean when we say the law is sacred?
[Mild warning for the rest of this post: I’ll be comparing the law to organised religion. My opinion on religion is based on the assumption that religion, and religious institutions specifically, are man-made. This post neither insists on nor denies the existence of God – a God in which I myself believe – but proposes that religion, not God, is an invention born of human interpretation, human construction, and human error. So if you’re particularly orthodox-religious, you may want to avoid this post. Or, you may want to read on – it’s not that offensive and you may find that having your beliefs challenged is an affirmative experience. Either way…]
So what exactly makes the law “sacred”? Well, it’s worth thinking about what exactly “sacredness” – or sanctity – means. Sanctity is something that, in the religious tradition, can essentially be attached to anything, if enough people agree on it. Much like monetary value, the sanctity of an object, or experience, is not inherent, but is basically a label applied by outside sources. There are examples of this everywhere, from currency devaluation to Li’l Sebastian to, well, so much of organised religion. To an atheist, transubstantiated bread is still just bread. It’s only the opinion of the congregation – the collective will, if you will – that makes it mean anything more.
And what does sanctity entail? It implies some form of otherworldly respect – this sacred object/experience, whatever it be, is due a reverence that we don’t simply offer to other people. It implies that this sacred thing somehow belongs to something greater than us, and so it’s not within our rights to (for lack of a better phrase) mess with it.
You can probably see where I’m headed with this. The whole point of the law as it applies in modern (especially Western) society is that none of us can mess with it. The whole point is that it applies to all of us, and is subject to none of us, because it is something greater than all of us. No-one – as we so often need to point out to our guilty leaders – is above the law.
Moreover, even though the law is entirely man-made, and we don’t have any supernatural beliefs to the contrary, we still afford it this level of respect. In most (especially Western) societies, the law is not viewed as some cheap profession but as a noble pursuit, with a greater level of devotion, qualification, and ceremony accompanying it. And even though the law can be passed by legislators or interpreted by judges, and thus to a greater or lesser extent fundamentally changed by these qualified, devoted people, those changing the law do so in the belief that they’re ultimately building something greater than themselves, something which will apply to them as well as to everyone else, and possibly even to their children. Similarly, you will often hear legal experts talking about the “spirit” of the law, as if there is some ethereal consensus of law that exists beyond our control, and the best we can do in the legal setting is to try and channel the spirit, the nature, of that consensus as best we can.
Even-more-over, on the negative side of things, much like any large religious institution, there exist those in positions of power over the law who will abuse it. They will abuse the authority and reverence afforded their position, essentially abusing the sanctity of the law itself, to their own ends.
So, I hope I’ve established by now that the law is very similar in structure and ethos to a kind of religious institution. But you may ask: if (as I’ve said above) religious sanctity is little more than humans attaching value to something that has no intrinsic value, what makes the law sacred – or just more sacred than religion? It’s the very fact that, unlike religion in today’s society, the law applies to all of us. We depend on the law as the framework of our society, and unlike religious institutions, our society is not opt-in-opt-out (depending on how libertarian you are, that may be regrettable). The law is sacred because the foundations of our society depend on it being so. This is even more true, and much clearer, in the scope of international law – governing interactions between countries: the system only holds up if every party agrees that decisions are binding and universally applicable. For us, the law must be treated as sacred or else it doesn’t work.* And, seeing as we’re not currently living in the world of Mad Max, it seems to be working relatively well. Of course it could be working better, because there will always exist some blasphemers out there, but most of us are holding up our end of the bargain.
*this concept has been explored by much finer minds than I, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the form of ‘The Social Contract‘. Look it up.
It’s late, and this post is getting long, so it’s possible I’ve begun rambling again. Ultimately, the law is indeed sacred; its function and value lies entirely in its universal influence and the respect we give it. It may not be ethereal, or supernatural, but somehow its tangibility lends it even more authority.