The rule of law is an important aspect of justice and fairness. It recognises that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so when left to the whims of individual people, power can do a lot of harm.
The solution is rule of law- where that power is governed by impartial principles that pay no heed to individual whims or biases.
But in a fallen world, can rule of law really work?
As a quote by a postmodernist I found during university studies says:
“The rule of law, once considered to shield humanity from the exercise of naked power, is eventually unable to perform this task. It ends up reproducing earlier power configurations, while masking this precisely by presenting itself as value neutral. It’s name not withstanding, the rule of law remains the rule of humanity, privileging some while oppressing others.”
The rule of law is meant to protect us from the biased use of power. But those laws were written by biased people, so the power abuse simply moves from the actual use of power, to the system that governs it.
So is rule of law a joke? Is it actually impossible to control power by use of principle?
Terry Pratchett, in his wonderful book Thud disagrees. In Thud an extremely law-abiding policeman who, faced with extremely dangerous criminals, becomes increasingly tempted to take the law into his own hands, leading to this fascinating piece of internal dialogue between good and evil:
“The darkness lunged, and met resistance. “Think of the deaths they have caused! Who are you to stop me?”
“He created me. Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Who watches the watchmen? Me. I watch him. Always. You will not force him to murder for you.”
“What kind of human creates his own policeman?”
“One who fears the dark.”
Pratchett refuses to accept that the rule of law that governs our use of power is simply a man-made construct. Instead, he believes that they are moral absolutes which humans must, and can, through their own conscience or “watchman”, obey. As his policeman confesses, “You just don’t kill the helpless. You just don’t.”
I’ve quoted a post-modernist and Terry Pratchett, but this blog post would be incomplete without Batman. I love Batman. There are many reasons I love Batman, and I can’t go into all of them now, but one reason is because “given enough time and preparation, Batman can defeat anyone.” That’s right- anyone. Even overpowered good guys like Superman, Wonderwoman or the Green Lantern.
I realised the other day that the most fascinating part of this isn’t that Batman, a non-powered human, is smart enough to make plans capable of defeating these superheroes, but that he’d want to.
Batman believes in justice and moral absolutes just as much as Pratchett. He’s just less optimistic about our conscience’s ability to overcome power’s corrupting influence.
That’s why he created plans to defeat every member of the Justice League, in case they turned evil. He even distrusts himself. In one storyline, Superman has turned into a completely evil supervillain, and Batman builds a machine which can defeat him. But he designs it so it can only be used with the consent of three other superheroes, because he does not trust himself with that much power. He really understands that power corrupts even the best principles.
Rule of law is based upon moral absolutes or universal principles. In that sense, Pratchett’s idealism is justified. To the Christian at least, the ideal is really true. But sin tempts us to bend those rules. That’s what sin is. So I guess the postmodernist was right- not that this is the way things should be, but that’s the way things are, until Christ returns. In a world torn between the justice that should be and the sin that distorts it, I think you need a heavy dose of Batman’s distrust for how power can corrupt principle.
In seeking to use power justly, we need Pratchett’s idealism, the postmodernist’s cynicism and Batman’s precautions. That’s the reality of seeking justice in a fallen world.