The American Heritage Dictionary defines law as a rule of conduct or procedure established by custom, agreement, or authority. Since even the most primitive forms of life have been known to live by some rule of conduct, by definition, law has existed before the dawn of the human race. However, no other species have adopted laws to fit their immediate needs more than humans. As groups of humans began living in larger and larger groups, competition for resources such as food, water, shelter, and even mating partners grew increasingly intense. Therefore, the leaders of these basic forms of society found it necessary to set guidelines for sharing and protecting these resources. As these societies grew in complexity, so did the need for laws. While in its nascent stage law primarily protected tangibles such as life, limb, and property, the scope of laws has grown to encompass moral values as well. However, these values often differed from society to society. With each passing year, more and more laws are coming into effect. Consequently, more and more people are growing incognizant of the laws that govern them. In effect, this ignorance of the law nullifies its effectiveness as a deterrent of crime. Therefore, modern law has taken a more passive role as a medium for holding people accountable for their actions.
Voltaire once said that a multitude of laws in a country is like a great number of physicians, a sign of weakness and malady. Historically, laws have been created in an attempt to correct perceived problems within a society. An epidemic of adultery must have occurred before laws forbidding such activity came into existence. Several affluent members of society must have been robbed before anti-theft laws were passed. Undoubtedly a number of politicians were shot and killed before gun-control laws were believed to be necessary. For the most part laws are created out of fear of becoming victimized. As illustrated in the preceding examples, most laws are designed specifically to address crimes in which the distinction between an offender and a victim is clear. However, laws against so-called victimless crimes suggest that its intent exceeds that of mere protection. For instance, according to California Penal Code 286, sodomy is sexual conduct consisting of contact between the penis of one person and the anus of another person. Any sexual penetration, however slight, is sufficient to complete the crime of sodomy. Assuming that both persons involved in the crime of sodomy are consenting adults, the law is clearly protecting an imposed moral position rather than the rights of the parties involved. Simply speaking, such laws are created to push a predetermined ideology of morality upon the public as a whole.
In the view of some, laws are mere extensions of what people already know to be morally correct. The Ten Commandments, perhaps one of the best examples of what is known and accepted to be fundamentally moral, supports this claim. The Sixth Commandment, thou shalt not kill, easily translates to California Penal Code 187, which states that murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought. Similarly, the Seventh Commandment, thou shalt not commit adultery, can be likened to California Penal Code 285, which states, persons being within the degrees of consanguinity within which marriages are declared by law to be incestuous and void, who intermarry with each other, or who commit fornication or adultery with each other, are punishable by imprisonment in the state prison. Lastly, the Eighth Commandment, thou shalt not steal, directly correlates to California Penal Code 484, which states that every person who shall feloniously steal, take, carry, lead, or drive away the personal property of another obtains credit and thereby fraudulently gets or obtains possession of money, or property or obtains the labor or service of another, is guilty of theft . In each of the aforementioned examples, the intent of the law as it is associated to what is traditionally considered to be moral conduct is clear. However, what is considered to be moral often differs from culture to culture. The act of stealing, as it is defined in California Penal Code 484, is widely accepted as morally appropriate in many gypsy cultures. Likewise, although bigamy is equally as accepted in many Mormon and African cultures, under California Penal Code 281, which states, every person having a husband or wife living, who marries any other person is guilty of bigamy, the practice is clearly forbidden. Furthermore, in cases involving controversial topics, such as abortion, gun control, and capital punishment, the difference between what is considered to be moral and what is not is ambiguous at best. Most often in these cases the definition of morality lies within the eye of the beholder. With such variances in the moral values of cultures and individuals, the law must undoubtedly go beyond that of simple morality.
Another common view of the law is that it protects the general public from crime and danger. However, since a law cannot physically stop a bullet or prevent a burglar from breaking into a home, it is better viewed as simply an intangible manifestation that gives only the perception of security. Does capital punishment really prevent murders? Does a restraining order really prevent an ex-husband from beating his ex-wife into a bloody pulp? Does the threat of being sent to prison really prevent sexual predators from raping women and molesting children? Most sensible people would agree that laws cannot actually prevent crimes from occurring. However, in many instances, laws can deter criminals from committing crimes. For example, the recent decrease in drunk-driving related deaths has been directly associated to the passing of stiffer DUI laws. Similarly, there is a direct correlation between the decline of car-jacking incidents and the passing of anti-car-jacking laws. These examples clearly illustrate that laws can make a difference in the reduction of crime. Still, such is only the case of laws that are widely publicized and known throughout the public. In order for a law to serve as an effective deterrent of crime, people must first be aware of the existence of the law. Case in point, it is quite common for a smoker to throw away a lit cigarette on the side of the road once they are finished smoking it. Yet, what many smokers do not realize is that by doing so they are in direct violation of California Vehicle Code 23111, which states that no person in any vehicle and no pedestrian shall throw or discharge from or upon any road or highway or adjoining area, public or private, any lighted or nonlighted cigarette, cigar, match, or any flaming or glowing substance . Only after being cited and fined up to $10,000, will this law truly deter smokers from repeating such an offense. Simply speaking, a conscience effort to obey some laws comes only after the violation has been committed and the offender has been punished. Although this can prevent the reoccurrence of a crime, it cannot negate its initial occurrence. Moreover, the aforementioned example is merely one of the many hundreds of thousands of unknown laws currently in effect today. Since such widespread ignorance ultimately undermines its effectiveness as a deterrent of crime, the true functionality of laws has been reduced to simply a means to hold its violators accountable for their actions.
In conclusion, although the creation of most laws can be observed as merely a byproduct of a natural fear of becoming victimized by crime, some laws have been unquestionably created with the sole intent of protecting a preordained ideology of the definition of morality. Nevertheless, law is sometimes viewed as an extension of what people already know, or should know, to be morally correct. However, since what is deemed to be right or wrong often differs from person to person, simply relying on an individual s sense of morality in respect to self-government would result in inevitable sociological chaos. This holds especially true for those who lack the mental competency to differentiate between moral and immoral behavior. Although some laws have been proven to be effective deterrents of crime, this holds true only for those laws that are known to exist. Furthermore, it is necessary to remember that even the most severe of punishments will not deter the motivated criminal. Therefore, the very essence of law is reduced to a mere mechanism to hold people accountable for their actions or lack thereof. Accountability for the law, regardless of moral beliefs, must be applied unconditionally and without prejudice to all persons within the jurisdiction of the governing body in order to safeguard the law s effectiveness. Although this can be construed as force-feeding perceived moral beliefs upon the society as a whole, accountability is necessary to insure that the violators of crimes are justly punished for their actions. Without such universal accountability, it would be impossible to apply laws upon a morally diverse and legally ignorant society.