‘Love is impossible without law’
If The Beatles are to be believed, “All You Need Is Love”. This isn’t quite true, says one ANU law lecturer – besides love, he says, there is law.
According to Dr Joshua Neoh, who is an associate professor at the ANU College of Law, a common life would be impossible without the common law. In short, the law unites us in this common life, he posits, and saves us from ourselves.
“Without the authority of law, we would be at the constant risk of collapsing back into the state of war, where no humane relationships could ever survive, let alone relationships of love. Law stabilises social relations and makes the condition of love possible,” Dr Neoh explains.
Dr Neoh is the author of a new book – Law, Love and Freedom – which argues that the law does not just enable love, it may itself be an expression of love.
“Submission to the authority of law is an expression of the love of neighbour. The authority of law unites individuals and binds them together in a community. In a complex society with its coordination problems, the only way of expressing the love of neighbour is through obedience to the authoritative plan for the common good, which we call law,” Dr Neoh told Lawyers Weekly.
“At times, I may disagree with the law, but in matters where a collective decision has to be made, my submission to the collective judgment as embodied in the law, in spite of my disagreement with it, is an expression of my desire to continue living with my fellow citizens in the one community.”
The nexus between law, love and freedom
Law is not just about a set of rules, he continued. It is a “value that is connected to a whole set of other values”, he submitted, which – when put together – makes up what we collectively understand to be a “good life”.
In drawing such a conclusion, Dr Neoh recalled that he explored three key values for his book: law, love and freedom.
“How does one lead a life of law, love and freedom? This inquiry has very deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, the divergent answers to this inquiry mark the transition from Judeo to Christian. Law, love and freedom occupy centre stage in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, also known as the Old Testament and the New Testament,” he said.
“Both testaments could be read as different attempts to realise the values of law, love and freedom in the lives of the protagonists in the respective narratives – the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible and the Christians in the Christian Bible. The book returns to these roots to trace the twists and turns that these ideas have taken as they move from the sacred to the secular.”
Lessons for lawyers from historical and biblical figures
On the question of what modern legal professionals can learn from moral judgments of the past, Dr Neoh said that there are certain questions in life that are intrinsic to the human condition.
These philosophical questions, he mused, are the kinds of queries that each passing generation has to consider and extrapolate from for themselves.
“There is no escaping them, and there is no way in which one generation can solve the problem once and for all, such that that the question will never have to be asked again. The role of law in life is one such recurrent question. When confronting these questions, we moderns are none the wiser than the ancients, or vice versa,” he said.
Although historical and biblical figures cannot solve the problem for us, Dr Neoh said, they are able to show us how they approached various problems and what they thought about them.
“In thinking through these difficult questions, we need all the help that we can get. Compare, for example, what the hippies and the monks thought about law and freedom. To the hippies, freedom is all about being able to do what you want. To the monks, nothing could be further from the truth. Freedom has got nothing to do with being able to do what you want,” he noted.
“On the contrary, freedom is to be found in obedience. The monks lead a form of life that is defined by the monastic code, as an expression of love of God and neighbour. This form of life is sustained by the commitment of the monks to the code. Looking at the lives of the monks shows us a very different conception of freedom.
“It does not mean that we have to accept it, but it gives us options to consider, even if we end up rejecting that conception of freedom.”
Nexus to the prevalence of mental health issues in law
There are also flow-on benefits for one’s holistic wellness, Dr Neoh added.
The “good life”, as he put it, is about “giving a certain direction to one’s life, and making one’s life, literally, a lifelong project”. One does not simply live a life, he said – one leads a life.
“Living a life could be done willy-nilly, while leading a life requires a conscious effort. Leading a life requires giving it a certain direction and not just drifting hither and thither where the wind blows in the sea of values. Leading a life is the ordinary language way of expressing the Socratic insight that an unexamined life is not worth living,” he said.
“Law, love and freedom are values that one has to choose, and in choosing, one commits oneself to those values. If one has committed oneself to the pursuit of law (as a law student) or to upholding the law (as a legal practitioner), then the good life will partly consist in staying true to that commitment.”
As we look to the future, Dr Neoh mused, we must be aware that the moral vision that underpins our legal order is still very much Judeo-Christian in origin and orientation.
“We have secularised our legal system by stripping it of its religious form, but its deep commitment remains fundamentally religious in nature. I am not saying that this is good or bad. All I am saying is that it is what it is. It explains why we in the West are committed to law in a way that other people in other places are not,” he said.
In response to a query about challenges in the modern, professional marketplace that could potentially force a rethink of such moral visions – or even demand a stricter collective adherence to those values by lawyers – Dr Neoh said that we must all remember that law is a value that we have to commit to.
“There is a risk that the commercialisation of legal practice will obscure the idea, which is deeply ingrained in our history and tradition, that law is a moral commitment. Law is a value that we have to commit ourselves to, and the rule of law is sustained by such commitments. Life under law is a shared moral enterprise, which is far too important to be left to technocrats,” he concluded.