THE BLOG
11/08/2007 04:54 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Danger of Following the Law

Laws exist to protect us, right? Supposedly. But I cannot help but feel that while our system of law safeguards our money and property, it simultaneously corrupts our character.

Two cases in point:

A few years ago, I was driving a friend from Boston to New York and got into an accident. Her foot was resting on the windshield at the time, and she sustained some pretty heavy ligament damage that kept her in and out of surgery for a year. To get my insurance company to pay for her medical costs, as well as her "extreme duress," she sued me. Nothing personal, I was told; it's just the system. I believe she meant no harm. Nevertheless, we rarely speak anymore.

This year, I am buying my first apartment. I'm splitting the costs and the property with my girlfriend, but because of the rules of the co-op, she can't be on the lease. We intend to get married, eventually, but that's not stopping everyone from advising her to get a legally binding contract spelling out our rights and obligations. This is with the woman that I plan to spend the rest of my life with.

In both cases, all parties involved are just following the system. My friend sued me because the law is set up to handle two parties vigorously pursuing their own self-interest. So much so that in a criminal case, you can be granted a new trial because your lawyer didn't pursue your self-interest vigorously enough. My girlfriend wants a contract not because she doesn't trust me, but because in a system that is dependent on aggressive self-interest, not protecting yourself is foolish.

The law is an extension of the Constitution, the founding set of principles for our country. But those founding set of principles themselves had ideas on which they were based: the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes believed that life was a "war of all against all," whose political solution was an absolute dictator. Locke, more moderate in his views, still saw government's primary role to be mitigating between everyone's competing self-interest. Simply put, Locke and Hobbes didn't think very highly of human nature.

Other, competing philosophies were considered as well, most notably of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed that man was fundamentally good and -- this is key -- possessed in him the potential for transcendence, which is to say the ability to rise up above his self-interest and act for the good of another person or a larger cause. Thomas Jefferson was an adherent of Rousseau's, but his views did not win the day.

Despite the fact that our government came down on Hobbes' side of the issue, this question of transcendence is not a settled one. Everyday, family, country, and God moves people to work for larger causes, even against their self-interest. Yet our system of laws encourages us in the opposite direction. We as people are products of our environment. How, as impressionable 20-somethings like my friend, my girlfriend, and I are, do these brushes with the legal system not encourage us towards our own self-interest, and away from transcendence?

There was a time in this country, I have heard, when our war-of-all-against-all legal system was left out of transactions. A time when deals were made with a handshake instead of a notary stamp, a time when friends didn't have to sue each other and girlfriends didn't need contracts to be assured of their due. But sadly, that is a time my generation has never known, and never will, and we are the worse for it.