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VIII: Social Custom 1 and Law

VIII: Social Custom1 and Law

In primitive society as well as in antiquity and in the Middle Ages social custom (Sitte) and law can hardly be distinguished. In their conjunction they are the solid order of life in which the individual is embedded; they are the skeleton the permanent constitution for the behaviour of the individuals and their mutual relations. Western society to-day is characterised by an enormous decay of social custom and as a consequence by an enormous increase of laws. The behaviour of the individual nowadays is only to a very small degree ordered by social custom but to an increasing degree his freedom is limited by legal prescriptions. The causal relation between the two facts is obvious: where social custom is strong only a minimum of legal prescription is necessary.

The destruction of social custom in modern times is closely connected with the development of individualism. The individual wants to shape his life as it pleases him or as it seems good to him. He does not want to be controlled by the anonymous power of social custom. He wants to have his liberty and he also wants to decide according to his own conscience. The decay of social custom therefore is ambivalent; it may be a sign of spiritual and moral independence or it may be a sign of arbitrary subjectivism. In both cases it is the product of the emancipation of the individual from collectivity. On the other hand it would be wrong to interpret the prevalence of social custom as spiritual inferiority and a defective sense of responsibility. Even a morally and spiritually mature man who is perfectly willing to take full responsibility for his life can acknowledge the necessity of social custom with regard to the common welfare. He would attribute to it the same function for society as to mechanical habit in individual life. It relieves life of unnecessary decisions and makes it free for decisions where they are really necessary. It would be stupid to deny the necessary function of individual habit. Without a great number of such habits life is impossible. The same the mature man might claim is true of the function of social custom in society. He would add a second argument: to acknowledge the necessity of social custom is to acknowledge one's own limitations. Social custom may express the wisdom of the generations which is not consciously the wisdom of the individual. He would add a third argument: that not all people if any reach a state of complete moral maturity; and therefore people need the support of firm social custom. The necessity of social custom can be denied only by those who postulate that every individual be spiritually and morally awake at every moment or who at least think that the absence of custom is more than compensated by the gain in individual responsibility.