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THE BINDING FORCE OF LAW

Law is binding for many reasons (Honore, 1987). A primary reason is that most people in society simply consider law as something that should be obeyed. The awareness and consciousness of law by most people serve as the foundation for law’s existence. People generally submit their behavior to its regulations, although they may have many different reasons for doing so. Some may believe that in obeying the law, they obey the higher authority of the law: God, nature, or the will of the people (Negley, 1965). Other people obey the law because they generally have an inner desire of people to obey; this desire reflects the belief that a particular law is fair and just because it is applied equally, a feeling of trust in the effectiveness and legitimacy of the government, and a sense of civicmindedness. Some people may obey the law merely to avoid legal punishment. In general, though, most people follow the law simply because they feel that, as Tyler (2006) succinctly puts it, it is the “right thing to do.”

Even when laws violate accepted morality, they are often obeyed. In the name of obedience to the law, thousands of people aided and abetted the extermination of more than 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. Readers may be familiar with psychologist Stanley Milgram (1975), who contends that the essence of obedience is that individuals come to see themselves as instruments for carrying out someone else’s wishes, and they therefore no longer view themselves as responsible for their actions. In many instances, the acceptance of authority results in obedience.

In his famous electric shock experiments, Milgram showed that people from a wide range of backgrounds will do morally objectionable things to other people if they are told to do so by a clearly designated authority. His “learning” experiments found that about two-thirds of his laboratory subjects willingly behaved in a manner they believed was painful or harmful to others. Even though “victims” cried out in pain, feigned heart attacks, and literally begged for the experiment to be terminated, most subjects continued to obey authority and deliver what they believed to be high levels of electric shock (Milgram, 1975). The study, in addition to showing that under certain conditions many people will violate their own moral norms and inflict pain on other human beings, underlines the notion that many people willingly submit to authority and, by extension, the law.

An additional reason for the binding force of the law may be that people prefer order and predictability of behavior over disorder and unpredictability. Individuals are creatures of habit because a habitual way of life requires less personal effort than any other type of life and fosters a sense of security. Obedience to the law performs these same functions.

It also pays to follow the law—it saves effort and risk, a motivation sufficient to produce obedience. Obedience to the law is also related to the socialization process. People in general are brought up to obey the law. The legal way of life becomes the habitual way of life. From an early age, a child increasingly gains insight into the meaning of parental expectation, orders, and regulations and becomes socialized. This process repeats itself in school and in the larger society. As a result of all these processes, any need for external discipline is replaced to a large extent by mere self-discipline.

 
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