Law in Contemporary Society

This is a revision of AlexHuFirstPaper, although the template being copied onto is his revision. Please diff back to find the original paper. Thanks -- Andrew McCormick?

When Ignorance Is Blameworthy

-- By AlexHu, revised by AndrewMcCormick

Whatever you do, don’t pull back the curtain.

Because the truth is often bleak, if not terrifying, ignorance is bliss. Unfortunately, this is especially true with regard to the law. People are willfully ignorant of what the law does because what it actually does is often frightening. The law can be abused to wreak havoc upon have-nots, twisted to execute personal prejudices, and manipulated by an elite few to destroy the life of practically any individual. In the face of this, people purposely hide from reality, choosing to believe that the law is a scientific process of arriving at the truth, resulting in a cognitive dissonance that says, “law would never hurt me.” Until it does. This is unfortunately true for laymen and lawyers alike.

Willful ignorance has practical consequences, even for the law-abiding layman.

Without knowledge of what the law actually does, it is impossible for laymen to make informed judgments about how to vote on a proposed statute, or to judge campaign platforms of representative leaders. For example, a layman may vote for a platform purporting to be tough on crime, when it simply results in the costly stocking of high-security prisons with low-level drug dealers that pose little actual threat to him or his community. Unfortunately, it is ultimately the laymen that enact statutes and elect politicians through their uninformed votes. Lay-ignorance of what the law does is dangerous; it inflicts harm upon society in general.

It is not, and should not be, the role of laymen to understand and manage the law – that is a job for lawyers.

However willful ignorance of law, for the layman, it is hardly more blameworthy than not figuring out how the food gets into New York and the garbage gets out of it. Firstly, the law’s effects on laymen are indirect, at least until law fails them. Secondly, laymen lack the means to truly understand the system, much less change it (other than by voting for laws which appear “just” on the surface). Thirdly, it would be unfair to expect a layman to figure out how the law works when he has another craft to practice and a living to make. Indeed, the only way he can function as a productive citizen is by ignoring the multitude of nebulous disasters like disease, war, and terrorist attacks, and the mechanics of society and government. It is useless to expect every member of society to understand the process by which highways are funded or voting districts assigned; it is simply enough to expect a layman to try to adhere to the law.

To the layman, ignorance provides a comfort critical to happy existence: the illusion of control. In believing that the law delivers justice fairly and consistently, he is able to live in happy oblivion. He is able to sleep peacefully at night thinking justice is being dealt, and the law will protect him. He might read in the news that a certain petty criminal got slapped with such and such a penalty, and think to himself, “wow, that is unfair!” but he will quickly forget because it didn’t happen to him, and it wouldn’t happen to him. Thus, for the layman, willful ignorance of the law is understandable but dangerous.

For lawyers, understanding the law is critical.

For the lawyer, willful ignorance of what the law does is dangerous and morally reprehensible. To use the law to create justice is lawyers’ responsibility, and to use the law effectively lawyers should approach the law honestly. It is especially dangerous for the lawyer to be willfully ignorant of what the law does because he cannot effective if he strives to hide himself from the true nature of what he claims to practice. If he chooses to pretend that the law is formulaic justice, he will further reinforce the layman’s ignorance and ultimately end up disillusioning both himself and his client. And he will be an ineffective advocate; he will be unable to realize the patience and various tactics and maneuvers necessary to effectively further justice. Simply put, the lawyer must acknowledge and understand the harsh reality of the law; otherwise, he will perpetually remain the novice lawyer in Robinson’s Metamorphosis.

But not only is it dangerous for the lawyer to hide himself from what the law does, it is morally reprehensible. True, accepting the nature of the law is burdensome; the law is a cruel mistress, often twisted, harsh, and unjust. But to deny this burden in favor of comfortable ignorance is reprehensible, because in choosing to become a lawyer, a person has voluntarily pledged to utilize the law to further justice. He cannot pretend that he has another craft to learn or that the law doesn’t directly affect him. A lawyer’s willful ignorance of what the law does is like the plumber who strictly follows the manual even though he knows that it is incomplete and gives only dangerously ineffective instruction.

To properly understand the law, lawyers need to be involved with justice.

Lawyers should care about the state of the law, and should hold themselves responsible for its condition; a reason they do not is that lawyers are often disconnected from meaningful lawyering. Perhaps one way to demand lawyers become involved with justice would be to move to a jury-type (that is, mandatory and random) selection of lawyers to practice as public defenders for initial hearings and procedural actions, and empowering judges to levy serious consequences for poorly performing lawyers. This could result in more attorneys concerning themselves with larger justice issues, and empower public defenders to focus on larger issues of injustice. Parenthetically, I believe S. Korea uses a system like this, although perhaps not mandatory; classmates might contribute their knowledge of other legal systems to discuss practicable approaches.

Because of their unusual abilities, lawyers have a duty to act when they recognize injustice. Unlike a plumber or an auto-mechanic, a lawyer does not work with static rules; rather, he constantly molds, changes, and rewrites the rulebook as he works his craft. It is therefore his duty, not only to his career, but also to society in general, to courageously face the harsh realities of the law, so that as its guardian, he is able to utilize it to promulgate justice.

  • I think this was an effective edit so far as it went, which was to the improvement of the writing. You dealt respectfully with the draft's ideas, and improved its communication by using a more resilient and energetic style. But I don't think you achieved the more complex goal of editing, which is to preserve what is strong while strengthening what is weak, or at least finding a way of addressing the major problems. In the case of the draft from which you started, the major problem was that the machinery was laboring to produce no very large result: the draft said in the end that lawyers are officers of the courts and servants of justice, and that they need to be alert to prevent miscarriages and perversions of justice. While a respectable conclusion, found in thousands of bar speeches since so long that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, to have only a cliche for so much work was a discouragement to the reader. With this, which was the editor's primary concern, I fear you had less success: this draft remains essentially prologue to a truism. Progress involves finding out and stating clearly for the reader what the larger and more unexpected proposition is that follows from your inquiry.


Webs Webs

r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:31:40 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM