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World Building Thursday: Legal Systems


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Many an author, when creating a fictional society will do one of two things, either borrow from modern law codes or create arbitrary laws for their society, just to give it a sense of uniqueness. But the law is more than just a few statements on what is permissible or prohibited in a give society. Legal systems permeate every aspect of society. The three major areas covered by a legals system are: criminal (things such as theft and murder), property (who owns what and what can they do with what they own), and contracts (the agreements between buyers and sellers). That means that most transactions between individuals will be covered by some sort of law or long standing tradition backed by the force of law.

With that in mind, there are two general views of the law: moralistic and functional. The moralistic view sees the law as a codification of existing moral traditions and the protection (and projection) of the institutions that create said traditions. The laws of the land serve to enforce said beliefs and to bring all social interactions within the bounds of tradition. It tends to be a very rigid, conservative system that will not change until the underlying traditions change first. A functional law code is one that result driven. Laws are created to either prevent certain results or to create them. It is a “problem-fixing” approach to the law. The law serves to correct clashes that arise from social interactions. It tends to be more fluid than the moralistic approach, since the perceptions of what is and is not a problem changes over time as well as the proposed solutions.

The reality of any law code, at any time in history will reflect a combination of these two views and in unexpected ways. For example, Europe had, for the longest time, usury laws that controlled or prohibited the granting of loans based on judo-christian beliefs (moralistic), yet laws about murder could be quite lenient, with fines being payed by the perpetrators to the victims families. There is also the matter of intersecting traditions from different cultures or different times, some are discarded, other modified, and still others reinforced. And even today, people often argue over the validity of a law using arguments grounded on both views.

Writers would do well to explore the effects of any law code(s) on their society, their sources for such codes and the functional as well as moral implications of  that code.


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