Philosophy and Law: As Taught by Wikipedia, Part 1

September 19, 2008

I wrote these four articles for publication within my JAG office, but thought they are entertaining enough for the rest of the people who know me. So, here they are, in the chronological order I published them.

This limited run of Monday Morning articles will be a series titled “Philosophy and Law, as Taught by Wikipedia,” which means this will be a refreshing change of pace, if completely innacurate and horribly annotated.

Most people would think that the disciplines of philosophy and law have little to do with each other. One field of study requires people who sit around, think very hard, and write their thoughts down, hoping other people will read them. The other discipline requires people who sit around, think very hard, write their thoughts down, and bill other people for the pleasure of reading them. But the two studies are actually intertwined in countless ways. There is a word for the theory and philosophy of law: jurisprudence.

The Latin word juris is the genitive form of jus, meaning “law.” So, juris means “of law” or “legal.” Prudentia, meaning “knowledge” in Latin, translates into English as “prudence.” The native English word is “wisdom,” which originally also meant “knowledge,” but the English commoners several hundred years ago refused to attribute any kind of wisdom or intelligence to people who stuck them with large fees for what most philosophers had been doing for free. The resentment still runs deep, so the scholars of jurisprudence went with the Latin.

Scholars of jurisprudence, or legal philosophers, hope to obtain a deeper understanding of the nature of law, of legal reasoning, legal systems, and of legal institutions. Many think they might be wasting their time. As jurisprudence has developed, there are three main aspects with which these (allegedly) scholarly writings engage – natural law, analytic jurisprudence, and normative jurisprudence.

Natural law is the idea that there are unchangeable laws of nature which govern us, and that our institutions should try to match this natural law. An example of this would be “people who rear-end other vehicles do it on purpose, so the law should state that anyone who rear-ends another vehicle is at fault.” This is reflected in the state government of Texas’s traffic laws, which I have become an expert in through trial and error.
Analytic juriprudence asks questions distinctive to legal philosophy like, “What is the law?” “What are the criteria for legal validity?” “What is the relationship between law and morality? and other such questions that legal philosophers may engage in. An example of this would be when the driver of the vehicle, when approached by the police officer and handed the ticket, questions, “Did I do anything wrong officer? What law did I break? What gives you the right to determine liability?” This practice is reflected several thousand times a day on highways and roads throughout the USA, but more often in Texas, specifically on I-35 just north of Fort Worth.

Normative jurisprudence asks what the law ought to be. It is close to political philosophy, and includes questions of whether one ought to obey the law, on what grounds lawbreakers might properly be punished, the proper uses and limits of regulation, and how judges ought to decide cases. Possible examples of these issues are demonstrated when the ticketed person is deciding whether to back up into the police car in revenge, the driver claims the police officer was unfairy profiling 18 year old, male, University of North Texas Freshmen drivers, and then claims denial of due process in front of the county judge. Obviously those pictures of my angry face in the police officer’s car camera should not be used in court, since they are being unfairly prejudicial by proving it was me.

Future installments of “Philosophy and Law, as Taught by Wikipedia” will explore these three different fields of jurisprudence. It will continue on Mondays and while I continue to ignore any criticism I might receive back.

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