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How Important is Discipline in Society? Essay

Among those who work in difficult or dangerous jobs, for example in coal mines, there is often a discipline that comes not from being subject to the will of any person, however rational and well-intentioned, but from the work itself. If it is to be done successfully and with the minimum danger and discomfort to all those engaged in it, certain procedures must be followed and safeguards observed. Since the workers can see that the nature of the work demands this, there is correspondingly less need for discipline to be imposed on them by some other agency.

This is an ideal situation, as far as discipline is concerned: where the discipline is inherent in the work or activity, and where rules and procedures are followed because they are perceived as appropriate if the work is to be done. In the same kind of way it does happen, and fortunately not all that rarely, that a society appears collectively to embrace the idea that behaving within the legal confines is in the public’s interest, and that if they are to be law-abiding, then various routines, such as remaining content with earning one’s own keep and not committing fraud, have to be kept to.

How can “discipline” be defined? Some would reserve the word for the following of rules because the rules are seen appropriate to the task in hand, and would apply the adjective “disciplined” to the abovementioned society but not to another one which has been brought to order by some external force such as the government’s threats of punishment. Others take a more holistic view of discipline in which it is perfectly proper to speak of one person or group of persons being “disciplined” by another’s imposition of authority.

It would be pointless to stipulate that the word should be used in one way or another. However, I wish to stress that whatever words we use, there are clearly differences among the following three cases: one, where we follow rules willingly because we perceive them as right or appropriate; two, where we follow them under manipulative coercion, such as when we are persuaded that there is no alternative to the rules; and three, where we follow them under what may be called punitive coercion, being threatened with punishment or in general some unpleasant consequences if we do not.

In a narrow view of things, many of mankind’s achievements in education, economics, culture, athletics and science can be attributed to the persistence of disciplined, and often self-motivated, individuals. Sterling examples would include Archimedes, the great mathematician, who before being killed by a Roman soldier was drawing symbols in sand; Marie Curie who dedicated her widowed years in continuing research in radioactivity and eventually died of a radiation-triggered illness; and Siddhartha Gautama who exercised strict discipline over himself to mediate under the pipal tree and eventually achieved enlightenment. Even in Singapore, we see a most disciplined mountaineer in Mr. Khoo Swee Chiow who genuinely believes in his cause.

However, discipline in the populace would assume greater significance if we consider its polar opposite: civil disobedience, or the taking of a token action in defiance of the law for the purpose of changing the law. Those who act in a civilly disobedient manner have no respect for law (whereas discipline is the manifestation of a respect for law). It is impossible to have a law that authorises individuals to violate it. Respect for law is essential for any system to function. An effective system of law is possible only when appeals cannot be made to principles outside the legal system. Civil disobedients determine for themselves what laws to obey and what laws to violate.

Without law, there will only be chaos as each individual and group decides unilaterally what is right. The victims in such a lawless society will probably be many of the very same people who argue so adamantly for the right of civil disobedience, namely, the advocates of civil rights, social justice, and peace. If one group can decide for itself which laws to obey, so too will other groups. A system of law protects all groups in society. Without it, anarchy prevails, discussion ceases and violence begins. Therefore, discipline is a form of civilly responsible behaviour which helps maintain social order and contributes to the preservation, if not advancement, of collective interests of society at large.

Having said that, a society whose members are too self-disciplined to ever become civilly disobedient is likely to be a stagnant one. On the other hand, civil disobedience may be good in the sense that a tolerance of it strengthens democracy. For a system to be democratic, it must have broad support among diverse elements of society. The processes of a representative democracy (with a system of representative government based on free elections and a system of limitations on state activity) work slowly, and often groups become disenchanted with the slow responsiveness of government. Groups subjected to discrimination or injustice cannot be expected to rely exclusively on constitutional processes, while remedies take years to be instituted. Faced with the problems deeply felt by a group, its leaders must have an alternative to dissent or resistance.

In the 1960s, for example, black people in America felt that the processes of change, particularly social and economic change, were moving too slowly to produce tangible benefits. Most of them rejected extremist solutions as unsuitable for democracy but saw in civil disobedience a remedy that would allow them to accept the legitimacy of the system. Hence Martin Luther King’s policy of direct action – the taking of non-violent measures like boycotts and sit-ins – which was based on the necessity of violating unjust laws. Here, acts of civil disobedience were justified because racial segregation by law is morally reprehensible.

Another of the twentieth century’s great proponents of civil disobedience was Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Indian leader. His policy of satyagraha (literally “firmness in the truth”) was often equated with passive resistance. He urged his partisans to take peaceful acts, such as marches and boycotts to achieve the independence of India from British colonial rule. Gandhi became famous for his hunger strikes and for other acts of non-violence. One of his tactics was to have his followers lie down on railroad tracks, thus preventing trains from moving. By taking such peaceful acts of civil disobedience, Gandhi contributed to the movement – both in India and in Great Britain – for the independence of his country.

Although not sanctified by law, civil disobedients can strengthen democratic institutions because they channel their energies in directions that a broader segment would ultimately accept – the abolition of slavery and segregation laws, the expression of civil rights, the establishment of nation independence, and the promotion of peace. They bring about positive social changes. Returning to the three cases I highlighted in the second paragraph, it seems clear enough that the first case, whether or not we call it “discipline”, is what any government would prefer to find in its people. After all, it guarantees smooth implementation of even the most unpopular laws and in extreme cases, enables social engineering to be carried out. The question is what we are to do when this ideal breaks down or has no chance to develop. What course of action can governments take to bring about the order necessary for the smooth running of society, and indeed for civilised relationships in general, to take place?

More than often, governments ensure discipline in the people by instituting a legal system. Undoubtedly, a legal system is a specialised system of rules, distinct from moral rules, which at the least provides a framework in which individual behaviour can be in some sense regulated and an element in certainty guaranteed, and which at the very most may provide a comprehensive framework of regulations covering nearly all aspects of the individual’s life. To discuss the importance of discipline, or rather disciplinary action, in society, we would need to validate the existence of legal systems.

It is true that some political philosophers have toyed with the idea of the possibility of social order without law: indeed, the first major work on this subject, Plato’s Republic, describes a lawless utopia in which the free play of the intelligence of the philosopher-kings is allowed to proceed untrammelled by legal restraints. Also, Karl Marx’s future classless society would be free from the restraints of civil and criminal law because those very factors that give rise to the need for law – the institution of money, the social division of labour and the system of private property – would have been removed. What unites all the differing “lawless” utopias is the requirement that these desirable states of affairs can only be brought about by a fundamental change in human nature.

Marx, for instance, stresses that the abolition of the social division of labour associated with the bourgeois mode of production would entail a change in human nature. Yet the most elementary of human nature would make these interpretations fantastically optimistic because it seems to indicate the necessity for some rules, many of which are bound to be backed by organised sanctions (these will come to be known as “laws”). Other political theorists, perhaps with a less elevated view of human potential, have argued that individuals have found the best form of protection in the existence of general rules of conduct binding on all.

It is ironic that in his Laws, a much later work, Plato describes a society under the rule of law. Many commentators have understood this striking change in viewpoint as a capitulation to hard facts. If so, the facts may be no more compelling than that a wise ruler can be effective only through the promulgation of general regulations. No ruler of a large society could make every critical decision and transmit it rapidly through the populace. The best one can do is to define general limits within which individual citizens make their own decisions. Likewise, in practice, Communist regimes have maintained some sort of court system.

Indeed, as the dream of a stateless, coercionless society faded, the notion of “legality” crept back into Soviet jurisprudence. Constitution law was revived and made consistent with socialism; and even some Western legal concepts and practices which would previously have been denounced as bourgeois reappeared in the later development of the Soviet legal system. Thus there was a legal order in the Soviet system. From these illustrations, it becomes more difficult to conceive of a society in which the people are not disciplined by laws.

A system of law provides three qualities for social life: stability, uniformity and cooperation. The type of social stability that law provides is reliability of expectation. When established laws exist, citizens know what they can expect from their fellow citizens and government officials. Criminal law is a system of rules that provides means for the apprehension of individuals who break the law and that circumscribe the procedures that the government must follow in arrest and seizure. Civil law defines the procedures required for legal status with respect to property, contracts, marriages and many other relations among individuals and institutions.

To a great extent, the more persuasive is law throughout a society, and the more are social relations regulated by it, the more stable is the society and the more reliable are expectations of members of the society as to how others will act if they respect the law. The greatest virtue of law is that it achieves an explicitness frequently absent from other regions of social life, say custom, preventing arbitrariness and caprice and making clear what is demanded of individuals.

Next, the fundamental and persuasive feature of law is its promulgation of a general rule binding equally on everyone who fits the conditions prescribed. The principle that everyone is equal before the law is inherent in all laws, not just in a democracy. Uniformity is important for stability, cooperation and fairness. It expresses the heart of the principle of equality before the law. A stable society requires uniform procedures for regulating activities and for rectifying imbalances. Citizens must be informed by formal legislation that activities are prescribed and proscribed. Where cooperation throughout large groups and regions is pursued, stable and reliable expectations are required. Vehicle drivers cooperate at road junctions through the laws that regulate left of way. Finally, the urge towards fairness shared by everyone, even those who reject some laws, requires implementation in laws if it is to be effective.

Thirdly, a society can be beneficial to its members only where it achieves cooperation among them. If all activities were wholly individual within a society, the society would exact the usual price for social life from its members without compensating benefits. Law provides a necessary organisational and structural force in cooperative ventures. Exchange and possession of property could not be as smooth as they are in many countries without rules regulating the flow of money, procedures for the exchange of property and so forth.

The most obvious characteristic of laws is that they are enforced, involving the police, courts of laws, punishments and penal institutions. I accept that the general justifying aim punishment is to secure greater obedience to laws and rules by deterring offenders, both potential repeat offenders and those who so far have not offended but might if not deterred. If this seems too obvious a statement to be worth making, I do so at this point because different opinions have been offered, such as that the general purpose of punishment is to reform offenders, or to visit retribution on them or to reveal the moral order. Judicial punishment is incurred for an offence against laws or rules, which can be inspected in statute books.

The connection is that when a person can know in advance, because rules have been published, what he is liable to be punished for, it is possible for him to exercise the choice and live in the security that are supposed to be the advantages of order being maintained through punishment rather than manipulation or sophisticated bullying. Thus punishment is supposed to have the merit of respecting the individual’s responsibility, of giving him the choice of whether to offend and to pay the price or observe the rule and preserve his freedom, so conferring the benefit that he is in charge, in this respect at least, of his own life and destiny.

To insist that it is precisely where matters of importance are concerned that people must be given significant responsibility may seem strange in the context of punishment, for what we want to do is to prevent crimes and offences, not leave people with the choice of whether to commit them or not. Punishments are not simply a scheme of fines and restrictions designed to put a price on certain forms of conducts; it would be far better if the acts proscribed by penal statutes were never done. The point of punishment is that while it aims to prevent offences, it does this in a way that leaves room for other principles and goods that we value, which a more simple-minded, draconian system of preventing offences would not.

More is at stake than the maintenance of laws at their most efficacious level: if that were all we wanted, we would behave very differently. We might, for example, take measures to isolate or even exterminate those sections or age groups of the population statistically most likely to commit crimes and would no doubt institute curfews. Yet we have reservations about measures such as these because as well as freedom from crimes, we value other things like freedom of speech, of movement and association. In this light, punishment as a means of discipline is important in society.

At the same time, this importance can be diminished in the view of the adverse effects of law and punishment. The value of law is so great and the reverence for law becomes so overpowering that it may become self-stultifying and destructive. Laws can make a society become too stable and inflexible, incapable of adapting to new conditions. The laws of a society may represent social relations long out of date, promoting oppression and invasion of privacy. Law may impose too great a uniformity upon society, stifling creativity, originality, human variation and cultural heterogeneity.

When the faults of law intrude, people become desperate. When injustices prevail within the ruling system of injustice, when society becomes too uniform, inflexible and oppressive, law can be viewed as an intractable evil. When the prevailing legal system is held up as worthy because it is the law, no matter how oppressive and unjust, people lose their respect for law without knowing any alternative. The most pernicious danger is that respect for law may be imposed and not earned, and may be assumed even when the law is unjust. Then we have the hidden oppression of Kafka’s “The Trial”, in which a man suffers under a system of Law that accuses and trials him but never explains why. That system should not merit such respect and must instead be condemned.

In conclusion, I view discipline exercised by and over the populace as important in society; however, it should co-exist with an active civil voice. Can discipline be maintained by means other than law and punishment? Liberal-rationalists distinguish rule-governed behaviour from habitual behaviour on the premise that the former involves “internalisation”. A rule is internalised when it is understood by the participants in a social practice as indicating a right and wrong way of doing things.

Unlike the carefully trained animal in the zoo who follows the keeper’s instructions automatically, individuals who are guided by rules regard them as expressing meaningful standards of behaviour. Furthermore, rules entail the idea of choice for, unlike well-trained animals, humans may disobey rules. Sanctions are needed to cope with the minority of rule-breakers but this does not mean that sanctions can replace internalisation as the guarantor of regularised behaviour.

This concept of “internalisation” is reminiscent of Confucius’ teachings: “Guide them by the edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of trouble but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves.”

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