Updated: Aug 19, 2022
Relativism as a dictionary for Laws
Legal systems exist to serve beyond simply ensuring balance in society — they exist to help us determine the defining pillars of our very societies. We draw out laws and policies to craft the society of our own ideals. Far from viewing it as a daunting rulebook, we can recognize it as structures in place that may be amended to continually improve the standards of living for all. Undoubtedly, there is no perfect legal system, and that is both the beauty and flaw of relativism.
Hence, as man-made structures, legal systems are bound to be flexible to fit the cultural scene of their respective countries. Following this perspective, we are able to see that the diversity across geographical demarcations manifests intangibly into not only distinct cultures, but segregates different ways of running their societies. Therefore, we approach an overriding conclusion, that because we cannot standardize what is “truly ethical,” before the face of cultural relativism, prosecutions can never be justified, at least, to an absolute extent.
Disclaimer: This post enlarges on a neutral perspective of prosecutions across borders. It does not seek to ethically define or comment on the various legal systems. It does not reflect the writer’s personal views.
While achieving “truly fair” prosecutions may be possible in a certain cultural context, a grading of its fairness loses points when we consider it across a universal context. This is because perspectives on what is legally right and wrong are both limited by micro-contexts and subsequently diverse, thus, barely corresponding to a standard, universal plot of ethical dialogue (Well, it would not be a dialogue, or be ethical, if there are not any differences in views?). Having established the stance that prosecutions cannot truly be fair — as aforementioned, for there does not exist a definition of an ideal “fair” — we may briefly analyze the various perspectives on it; We may do so by observing how punishments are justified for crimes across the globe.
Can punishments fit the crime?
The prospect of determining whether punishments are to befit the crime committed has been a pinnacle of debate mainly between two crucial but asymmetrical perspectives: those who argue that the magnitude of punishment may vary in extent according to locally accepted norms and contexts, and those who propound that despite the factual or cultural context wherein a crime is committed, criminals ought to be punished according to the extent they deserve.
Simply in an understanding of such profound debates, we can only inevitably deduce that it is only to a small extent that it is tangibly possible to make the punishment fit the crime, because despite whatever absolutist ethics preach, across geographical demarcations, ethical differences in light of the nature of punishments, and the definition of how “serious” a crime is considered relies hugely on socially acceptable norms—and societies vary across the globe.
Thus, punishments cannot be universalized because whether a punishment “fits the crime” is highly subjective and pertains to varying cultural contexts. For instance, in western democracies, utilitarian and virtue ethics dictate the state’s law and order, where punishments are either generally looked at unfavorably, unless proven to improve societal welfare or to have a magnitude in proportion to the extent of the crime, as they are required to redress a “loss in balance” in society, to make all citizens equal under the law.
The Swedish Prison system promotes rehabilitation as the core measure to approach crimes. It encourages prison-mates to restart a life free of vices. Source.
In most western countries, the methods of punishing a crime rather cling to an open-minded consideration for the criminal’s background and feelings as well as leeway for factual contexts (there is a space for consideration as to what may have led the criminal to resort to the crime and whether the criminal was mentally stable), determining whether they may be rehabilitated, albeit in jail.
This is highly in contrast to the legal systems in communist, autocratic and illiberal democracies, where punishments fit a more deontological perspective; Although to western eyes, this may seem like a crass and vile approach, and may not “fit the crime,” the perception locally is otherwise.
Petitions and pleas for clemency were signed by countless in Singapore, to prevent the death row of Nagenthiran, a Malaysian man who had smuggled 15g of heroin into the country. The case raised a furor, attempting to push the government towards rethinking its laws on narcotics. Source.
For instance, the recent, most infamous case in Singapore, was the sentencing of an intellectually-disadvantaged man, Nagenthiran K. Dharmalingam to Death Row for drug-trafficking. Many renowned personalities, such as Richard Branson (founder of the Virgin Group) spoke out against the case, as it was generally deemed inhumane in the eyes of the western world; Capital Punishment felt extremely far-fetched. In response, the Singapore government — holding one of the toughest legal systems in the world — stood its ground on its decision, and permitted only a temporary postponement of the death row.
Such rigid legal systems exist in religious jurisdictions as well, such as Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, where the influence of Sharia law is prominent. In these countries, engaging in homosexual acts is punishable by death, where it sounds outrageous enough that homosexuality itself is regarded as a “crime,” let alone punishable. For the Islamic authorities, however, it is in respect to their beliefs, and would in return view western liberalism as a cultural shock.
Ending statement + Extra comments
Hence, the inevitability of cultural relativism troubles us in gauging whether prosecution is truly fair and if it does, in what way—the severity of the judgment, again, depends on the cultural context.
You may ask: Alright, what is the point of this deduction?
I believe that from this conversation, we may be able to spot how the very fundamentals of Law have philosophy embedded into it, both subjects intricately entwined together. I think that is what makes many of us passionate about the prospect of Law as tertiary education. The conversations of ethics and philosophy through the lens of real-world contexts are precise about what Law is — and these dialogues are crucial, for they help us forge an ideal tomorrow.