Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms

Is civil disobedience justified when it invokes a moral objection to target a law that has been enacted through a legitimate process? The reason societies seek to establish a legitimate process in law making is because they want to set up common rules and norms which people who disagree with them will still have to abide by. However, history shows us many instances in which, even in a democratic system, civil disobedience both triggered and animated a debate on legitimately enacted rules and, often, led to their revision as well as the reform of the procedural rules that allowed their enactment in the first place.

Rawls’ position on civil disobedience struggles with this question. His position is that, once society has set up principles of justice in an institutional setting, acts of civil disobedience are just insofar as they appeal to the sense of justice of the majority and should be willing to bear the consequences of their actions. We may read the Rawlsian perspective as follows: these acts are still of value because they re-launch a process of public reasoning regarding the law itself.

However, the implications from this statement are broader and baffling. First, we don’t know how far this revision can go. Will it be allowed to cast doubt on the basic principles of justice which society previously agreed to observe? Can it challenge the procedural source of legitimacy for the contested norms?

Second, civic disobedience cannot be reduced to appeals to a sense of justice demanding the revision of law through the same process. Instead, the rationale behind civil disobedience reminds us that there will always be competing conceptions of justice that go as far as challenging the source of legitimacy – what some have come to accept as the just process may no longer seen as just by others. A society’s prior decision at a single historical moment that this is a just process for law making does not end the debate over different perceptions of justice concerning both norms and processes.

Moreover, acts of civil disobedience appear in moments in which different moral norms clash and judgment should be passed regarding which one takes precedence over the other. Episodes in the US history, particularly regarding the civil rights of African Americans, epitomize the important role of acts of disobedience in invoking a higher moral ground against norms approved by the majority through the institutions of a democratic system. We have learnt from history that these moments spawned animosities and brought about new episodes of conflict. They were emotionally disturbing episodes.

This implies that social contract theories tend to adopt an a-historical approach to norm-building and a, strangely- a-social view of public reasoning. Norm-building is seen as cleansed of emotions and often dismissive of the idea that there will be unintended and unforeseen consequences. A reduced historical and social conception of justice is what acts of civil disobedience reminds us of. The process of defining justice as norms and as process remains an open turf for never-ending, reflective social interactions that no constitutional moment can capture, crystallise and entrench indefinitely.

These three elements – the historicity and sociability of norms, normative contradiction, and the emotional dimension in the conflict over norms – is manifested in Sophocles’ masterpiece, Antigone. Sophocles’ theatrical play on civil disobedience was written around 441 BC, about 2,400 years before Rawls’s work. It conveys a nuanced message on norms, normative debates, public deliberation and reasoning, and sees the social nature of all as a human tragedy.

The play is set in the aftermath of a civil war in Thebes and the final battle which Thebes survives the attack of seven exiled Theban generals. One of the generals, Polynices, son of King Oedipus, fights his own brother, Eteocles, a defender of the city. In that fight, the two brothers kill each other.

Creon, the legitimate King of Thebes and uncle of the two brothers, issues a public order for Eteocles to be buried with honours and for Polynices to be left outside the walls to rot unburied as punishment for his betrayal. Creon also orders that whoever tries to bury Polynices’s body shall be arrested and executed.

Polynices’s sister, Antigone, defies Creon’s order and secretly buries her brother in accordance with the religious tradition that demands that the dead must be buried. Soon after, Antigone gets arrested and is brought by guards before Creon and the city. She chooses not to apologize for her actions or claim ignorance of law. Instead, she confronts Creon by invoking that the law of the gods is superior to the law of men.

Creon sentences her to death, publicly stating that everyone should be treated equally before the law. He would make no exception for her niece. Creon presents himself as a just leader who firmly adheres to ‘equality before the law’ even if that means he would sentence to death one of closest family members. The law, he stresses, is above everyone.

Antigone’s public act with an emotional appeal to the law of gods initially fails to trigger sympathy from the people of Thebes and Creon insists on his sentence. Antigone is taken off stage to be buried alive in a cave.

Creon’s own son and Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, rushes to defend Antigone but he too fails to convince his father to change his decision. Even against his son, Creon reiterates his conviction that the law takes precedence over personal relations. But gradually the people of Thebes, the chorus of the play, changes its stance and starts showing more sympathy to Antigone’s drama.

In the next scene, a respected prophet named Tiresias makes a public interference. He tells Creon and the city that their neglect of the moral law will displease the gods and will bring more sorrow and pain to Creon’s family and the city of Thebes. The leader of the chorus changes his mind and asks Creon to reconsider his decision and set Antigone free. We are witnessing here that public is changing its views following a morally charged debate triggered by an act of civil disobedience. Antigone disobeyed the law guided by her love for her brother, but she was also honouring the law of the gods. Creon decides to spare Antigone. Emotions and fears have a drastic effect on public perceptions political decision making.

But Creon’s decision came too late. Antigone committed suicide. So did Haemon and, following the news of his death, her mother and Creon’s wife, Eurydice. The play ends with Creon devastated, isolated, discredited and vulnerable, and the city of Thebes descending back into chaos.

Rather than a clear clash between a hero and a villain, the two protagonists are tragic figures and so is the city itself. Creon wants to demonstrate that he is a prudent ruler who obeys the law that he rightfully sets. But he has to listen to the people he commands. His confrontation with Antigone is his own public act in which he defends his decision. The chorus, representing the people, initially sides with Creon but turns against him after observing a human drama unfolding and after hearing the menacing words of a prophet about the incoming doom. Perceptions of justice are drastically reshaped through an interplay of feelings, reasons and fears. Deliberation is emotionally charged.

Unlike Rawls, Sophocles’ theatrical play presents us with a richer blend of public reasoning, emotions, emotive responses, and unforeseen and unintended consequences in a debate over clashing norms and perceptions of justice. Creon – the personification of equal rules for everyone including his own relatives – is the legitimate political authority but his decision creates a personal and civic catastrophe. Thebes descends into a spiral of death and civil unrest. A just act of disobedience triggers a spiral of turmoil and tragedy. Emotions and personal affections guide decisions that produce unforeseen dramatic developments for the protagonists and the city as a whole.

The Greek drama is purposefully presented as a morally inconclusive story. Antigone had no initial intentions to make her actions a public statement and did not wish to bring down the entire political system. But after her arrest she did make a dramatic public defence of her stance invoking the moral law. Creon was surprised and angered, torn between his adherence to the rule of law and his duty towards his family. The Theban public watches all this astounded, emotional and anxious. This is far from a society that can be equilibrated into an orderly state. It cannot even rest secure about its own convictions.

Sophocles grasped much of what political theory tends to shy away from: the complexity and ambiguity surrounding normative thinking in human societies that tends to bring about tragic or fatal results for every system of norms shaken by its own contradictions. In short, Sophocles lyrically presents us the tragic irony of norms creation. Rather than taking a nomothetic stance, his play helps us reflect on the tragedy of human interactions from a nearly anthropological viewpoint.  

Sophocles allows the audience to pass their own judgment through both logical and emotional engagement. The audience is baffled by the merits of each of the opposing viewpoints – Creon’s defence of formal equality before the law and Antigone’s defence of a higher moral ground. But it is also touched and distraught by how tragic the protagonists are, trapped in the consequences of their own moral standing and reasoning. In Sophocles’ play, society is watching and reflecting on behaviors and norms through pathos, ethos and logos. After each performance, the verdict is a flow of tears rather than a canonical judgment.

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 7): The open texture of the words of the law

However, the law itself has its own endogenous system of production of rules, which operates on the abstract plane of the configuration of the structure of the relationships between its terms, and whose dynamics depends on the negative feedback process implied by the judicial work itself to clarify the words of the law for each specific case to be decided. Both in codified law systems and in customary law systems, the current positive law is clearly defined. The legal systems in which previous judgments oblige judges are even more rigid than codified systems, since in the latter it is enough for the legislature to enact a new code for the positive law to change. On the contrary, the judges must make a hermeneutical effort to modify the doctrine consecrated in a judicial precedent without this constituting an arbitrary ruling.

However, both in coded and customary legal systems, the law, which is always enunciated in express statements, carries with it the phenomenon of the open texture of language. These are not the cases of ambiguity, vagueness, or obscurity of the letter of the law. These latter cases can be solved by the doctrine, composed of scientific works that investigate the debates between the members of the legislative power at the moment of sanctioning the norm whose text carries such problems, or resorting to the normative antecedents of which the current law took its vocabulary.

However, vagueness, obscurity, and ambiguity in the words of the law configure linguistic problems with legal relevance, but not legal ones in themselves. What really matters to study are the cases of open texture of the language of the law, since it is through these cases that the law evolves.

In cases of open texture of language, the anomaly occurs in the universe of events to which the language refers. An obvious example: a constitution written in the 19th century can establish that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of land and sea forces. It would not be necessary to reform its text to incorporate the air force – or even weapons built to act outside Earth’s orbit.

However, the dynamics of legal traffic are mostly made up of less obvious cases in which the open texture of language forces judges to establish the words of the law for the specific case, resorting to a hermeneutic interpretation of the law for which “common sense” is not enough. In customary law these hard cases are those that generate a new precedent that often define what is inside and what is outside the “good legal sense.” The authors disagree among themselves on how to characterize this aspect of judicial work. However, the remarkable thing is that these “difficult cases” generated by the phenomenon of the open texture of the language are what make the law respond autonomously to changes in the conditions of the environment that the same right has as a regular task.

Indeed, Friedrich Hayek states in Law, Legislation and Liberty an attempt to separate law and politics based on the evolution of law according to a process of natural selection of norms. While it expressly recognizes that a legal system can be sanctioned in its entirety by the legislator, it also highlights the ability of legal systems to make an immanent critique of themselves, through the judicial system.

Although Hayek does not analyse the phenomenon of the open texture of language in his work, it does characterize law as a structure of norms that continually readjust to changes in circumstances following a negative feedback process, through successive judicial decisions. In Hayek’s own words, what establishes a legal order is a set of expectations about the behaviour of congeners that will be considered or not according to law. For example, if a party fails to meet its contractual obligations, it can expect the other party to refuse to comply with them and that, if sued, the latter will be supported by the courts. This expectation also works as an incentive to fulfil contracts and reduce litigation.

On the other hand, another feature of legal systems -particularly modern ones- that Hayek highlights is the definition of a range of expectations that will be systematically thwarted. This is what determines a structure for human action and implies the consecration of the principle of closure: everything that is not expressly prohibited is allowed. This allows individuals to form their life plans with the expectation that they will be fulfilled and with the ability to anticipate the behaviour of their peers, since they will be under the same incentive structure. The latter leads to a third characteristic of modern legal systems, which allows them to function as self-regulated systems: the principle of isonomy or of the same law for all. The incentive structure determined by the range of expectations that will be systematically frustrated, in a system that results from the same application for each individual, allows the definition of individual spheres of autonomy, within which each individual has free discretion, but when entering into collision with each other, each one will be able to infer what expectations they can have regarding a possible judicial ruling.

The reverse of this system is the “Administrative State,” by Carl Schmitt, in which only that which is expressly authorized by a decision based on expediency, and the status system of the Ancient Regime, is permitted, that each group had a private legal system or privilege-strictly speaking, our current modern system of rights consists in the extension to all human beings of the liberties or privileges that the nobles had wrested from the kings at the time. Therefore, it is a great risk that the number of regulations is such that the rule becomes that only what is specially expressly regulated can be done, depending on the dynamics of the change of the decision of the authority taken in administrative files, and that such is the segmentation of regulations according to pressure groups and interest groups, that they return to a system of privileges instead of equality before the law.

It is not difficult to find numerous current examples: the public transport system could reach levels of regulation such that it could practically be said that only such activity can be carried out with the express authorization of the public authority to that effect. The alternative is not the absence of regulation, on the contrary, the alternative is the modern State of Law: a set of positive norms, dictated by the competent authority and formulated in general terms. These rules that regulate public transport do not have an abstract content, but rather a concrete one: the set of objectives expressly set by public policy. While the rules of private law have an abstract content, that is, they lack a specific purpose, the rules of public law not only have a specific and specific purpose, but that such purpose must be expressly declared, in such a way that justice they can evaluate whether the willing means disposed by the public authority are related and proportional to the purpose of the rule of public law and, in turn, the citizens consider whether such ends are worth pursuing.

To continue with the exemplification of public transport of passengers and merchandise: there is a sphere that corresponds exclusively to private law. This refers to the rules that attribute legal responsibility between the transporter and the transported: the obligation of the transported to pay the ticket or the freight, the obligation of the transporter to transfer the people and goods without them suffering damages. In this sphere there is no concrete purpose of the norm. It only limits itself to stating the set of expectations that the parties can count on, regardless of who they are specifically and what the specific purpose of the transport is.

Correlatively, the regulation of public transport, which belongs to the orbit of public law, does have certain specific purposes. For example, take care of public safety and ensure an efficient distribution of the cost of accidents. For this purpose, it may provide that public transport companies register, periodically review the status of their units, which must meet certain minimum standards, and establish the obligation to contract civil liability insurance. Anyone who complies with these provisions, for example, could devote himself to the activity of public transport, passengers or merchandise. How many and who will be the transporters is something that the public transport regime should not compete with. The number of carriers will be fixed by the price system. Nevertheless, to the control of public transport must concern that the units that circulate are in good condition, that their drivers are suitable and have an insurance that covers their civil liability, so that the transported does not have to face the cost of accidents before an eventual bankruptcy of the carrier. On the other hand, the system of private law, in a parallel and autonomous way, distributes the responsibilities between the parties, without addressing who is each one.

[Editor’s note: Part 6 can be found here, and the full essay is here.]

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 6): Institutions as algorithms

There is therefore a category of phenomena to which the characteristic of being “simple” is attributed (in contrast to the so-called complex), ordered by logical models whose capacity for explanation and prediction is continuously tested by means of a system of trial and error that allows readjusting these models in a process of continuous approach to the truth. The progress in the knowledge of these simple phenomena also depends on the measurement tools that are available: statistical methods, more powerful microscopes, laboratory experiments, etc.. The investigation of simple phenomena consists of a process in which it goes to a greater degree of specificity and concretion. It is for this reason that it is difficult to distinguish whether their theories consist of logical models or empirical models, since they mostly consist of the description of relations and functions between given events.

In the opposite sense of intellectual inquiry, complex phenomena are located: their study consists in the statement of the relationships and functions that structure an abstract order of events. An everyday example of such abstract orders of events can be found in the phenomenon of written laws, both procedural and substantive. In them you can find credit relationships, procedural burdens, temporary periods to exercise actions or rights under penalty of estoppel, or prescription or expiration, assigned functions to produce legal norms of general or particular scope, etc.. The application of such abstract models to the concrete reality is known as “jurisdiction,” that is to say “to say the right for the concrete case.” Of course, for this depend elements of proof and a critical judgment that interprets the given events assigning the legal qualification and the legal consequences of that that the law prescribes in abstract and general form. The jurisdictional activity could be characterized as a “simple phenomenon,” however, the same would not happen with the “science of legislation.”

In effect, when what is studied is a legislative reform, what is being done is to increase in degrees of complexity in the study of standards. The legislator is no longer exclusively discussing legal issues. It could do it: study for example the coherence of a new norm whose sanction is under study with the rest of the juridical order, nevertheless still it is extremely difficult to foresee the set of consequences of a reform on the global operation of the juridical order. However, if this is already difficult in itself, it becomes much more complex when philosophical and political issues come into play in the legislative debate. In the legislative debate on the sanction of the norms, a point arrives at which the legal analysis ceases, in the sense that the discussion takes the fervour of the political philosophy or the cold calculation of the negotiation to reach a legislative majority.

[Editor’s note: You can find Part 5 here, and you can read the full essay here.]