I was talking last night with someone who was for 28 years a magistrate in England. ‘People need Borders’ he said. He started with the example of a child who has to be stopped from throwing (or has to learn not to throw) his dinner on the floor, but he thinks adults need such borders too. (I hope and believe I’m not misrepresenting his views.)
I agree with him. Freedom is as heady a drug as LSD, and more of it than one can handle — or, which comes to the same thing, the removal of too many borders — can make one very ill. It gives one existential angst, which may sound airy-fairy but is in fact something everyone suffers from time to time, though they may not know that name for it: it’s that desperate bewilderment, that panicky feeling of ‘I don’t know where I am’, or it’s like being in a lift and the cable snaps.
The question is — A question is — what sort of borders, and who sets them? He thinks the borders are legal: cross them, and the authorities will punish you. I think they’re moral: cross them, and you will be in a state of sin. (You don’t have to be religious to experience, even if you don’t understand, the state of sin.) Quite probably the original basis of many legal systems is a set of moral imperatives, but in practice the legal and the moral all too often conflict: one must choose between doing what one believes to be right and what someone else says is legal. I hope I would always choose the former.
To look at it another way: I think that if, in a moment of rage, I ‘see red’ and hit someone, then that is certainly not justifiable, but it is human, understandable, and forgivable. But if I hit someone (or imprison him) because I say he has done wrong and I am punishing him for it, that is inhuman and unforgivable. If I have understood him properly, my magistrate friend believes almost exactly the opposite.