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Duties and Law

Duties and Law

This lesson will provide information on duties and law as articulated by religious traditions.
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Welcome to this tutorial on duties and law. In this tutorial, we're going to be taking a look at the difference between secular law and religious law and the ways that religions advise their adherence to interact with the secular authority. We'll be looking at the duties that each religion prescribes with respect to secular law.

We'll be looking at conceptions of divine law in various different traditions and some ethical and legal codes such as the Ten Commandments and the Noble Eightfold Path. Taking a look at the difference between secular law and religious law, we can see right away that secular law is more narrow in scope.

Secular law is designed mainly to prevent harm and to prevent one individual from infringing on the rights of another. So the emphasis in secular law is on individual rights. Religious law aims at something much larger in scope. That is, religious laws designed to actually improve individuals and society.

So we can say that religious law is comprehensive. Religious law is active 24 hours a day whether or not someone is watching. What about religious law today? Each religious body still has rules that govern its operations. And religious law is still used internally by religious organizations.

So a religious institution might have to decide whether or not to defrocked priest or to decide whether or not such and such a person or body is orthodox. And in that case, religious law might be consulted internally. And secular law still occasionally consults religious law, say, in family law case or contract law case where they want to find out what's in the best interests of a religious person.

They might consult that religious law in an advisory capacity. Beyond the codes of religious law, there's also divine or eternal law. This eternal law was first described by Aristotle as primordial law, primordial justice, or justice in a perfect sense. Aristotle distinguished between divine law and human law in the Nicomachean Ethics.

St. Thomas Aquinas built upon this tradition. The theorists listed here all acknowledge that there's a difference between divine law and human law and that human law doesn't always measure up to the standard of divine or eternal. In the last century, Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about eternal law in his letters from Birmingham Jail.

And he said, look, I might be breaking the human law, but I'm living by the eternal law. So don't condemn me for my actions because my actions are just in the most absolute sense, in the sense of an eternal law or an eternal justice. And he looks back towards St. Thomas Aquinas and this earlier tradition of eternal law.

So in Christianity and becoming a believer, Christians decide to submit to this eternal law and to give up some of their individual rights in order to submit to a divine order which is regarded as being higher and more important.

Going on to the Ten Commandments, these have been in controversy around the country in various different court houses where the Ten Commandments have been displayed. And this has wrinkled some civil liberties groups as they argue that this broaches the establishment clause in the Bill of Rights.

Nonetheless, the Ten Commandments are important influences in our legal and ethical traditions. Here are the Ten Commandments listed for you. They might be enumerated slightly differently in different traditions, but these are the Ten Commandments.

Thou shalt have no other gods. No graven images. There's only one god Yahweh. This is commandments of monotheism. Do not take the Lord's name in vain. Remember the Sabbath day. Honor thy father and mother. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not covet.

So today, notice how some of these seem less bad than others. Do not take the Lord's name in vain. I'm sure everyone has broken this one when they, say, stub their foot on the coffee table. But this one, thou shalt not kill, this is enshrined in our legal system. Thou shalt not bear false witness. We call that perjury, right? So that's part of our legal tradition.

So some of these have made it into our legal tradition, and some of them are less emphasized in secular law. Similar ethical codes exist in other traditions. One tradition that comes to mind right away is the Noble Eightfold Path which stems from the Fourth Noble Truth of Buddhism.

These are eight ways that people can reduce suffering in the world and come closer to Nirvana, that is the cessation of the cycle of rebirth. And they're listed for you. Right view. Right intention. Right speech. Right action. Right livelihood. Right effort. Right mindfulness. And right concentration.

So some of these we might say are more ethical that I have to do with our outward actions. Some of them have more to do with practice like effort, mindfulness, and concentration. This is kind of advice about meditation. But these ones have more to do with ethics. And the first two have more to do with inward beliefs. But all of them are ways of orienting ourselves towards the world. And they do function as a kind of religious law.

Thank you for watching this tutorial on duties and the law. We compared and contrasted secular law with religious law and eternal law. We said the secular law has a somewhat more narrow scope and is based on individual rights and liberties. And that religious law, by contrast, aims at actually improving individuals and society.

We said that religions try to spell out what duties their adherence have towards the secular authorities. We talked about Christianity and the divine law. And we also talked about the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue which are the principle commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai which are foundational for Judeo-Christian law and ethics.

We also talked about the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. The eight right ways of being that Buddhism recommends to reduce suffering and to lead to enlightenment the end of the cycle of rebirth. The Noble Eightfold Path can be symbolized by a wheel with eight spokes.

Notes on "Duties and Law"

Terms to Know

Ten Commandments

The principal divine ordinances given to Moses by God.


The Ten Commandments

Noble Eightfold Path

One of the four great truths of Buddhism that leads to enlightenment and to the end of suffering, symbolized as a wheel with eight spokes.