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It’s A Gray Area:

Governing human conduct

January 10, 2009|By JAMES P. GRAY

On my second day of retirement, I went to my son’s high school to speak to his government class about laws and our judicial system in general. And I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you.

If you think about it, there are many ways to make decisions and resolve disputes other than to take them to courts of law as we know them.

Throughout the history of the world, many if not most of the critically important disputes were resolved unilaterally by individual people such as monarchs, chieftains, or family patriarchs. Disputes have also been decided by wars, gunfights, brawls, duels, and other forms of violence; by chance, such as the flip of a coin, drawing of lots, cutting of cards, or roll of the dice; or by hiring a surrogate so that whoever’s knights or thugs or “boys from the ranch” joust or fight successfully against their opponents win the dispute.

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Of course, leaving the settlement of disputes up to the leader, luck, or local hero of the day has resulted in many disputes being resolved in an extremely arbitrary manner. But at least those approaches provided the benefit of deciding the issues quickly, decisively, and, in most cases, finally. Still, it is hard to argue that “justice for all” was procured very often.

Another thing that most people do not focus upon is the difficulty of writing laws that address human conduct. Today’s life is often complicated and complex. In fact sometimes life simply is not always what it seems, as witnessed by the fact that once Charlie Chaplin entered a “Charlie Chaplin Look-a-like” contest — and came in third. So addressing and governing human conduct and obtaining reasonable results from our laws are not easily done.

For example, consider crafting a law about one of the more straightforward issues in our society: our system of traffic control signal lights. So I ask you to stop reading this right now, and try yourself to draft such a law — and have your children join you. It will be fun, and instructive.

Such a law would be simple, right? A red light means stop, and a green light means go.

But wait. What about a blinking red light? That would mean that a law-abiding driver could never leave the intersection! OK, so we will make a modification for blinking red lights to allow the driver to progress when it is safe after making a complete stop.

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