Children, especially in their early years, absorb with great alacrity the norms of the culture they’re born and bred in, and a key part of that enculturation involves learning the normative rules of language, play, respect, and dignity, as well as the norms of moral sensibilities. The first rules children learn relate to boundaries set by parents or caregivers. For instance, as children begin to speak, the rules of language—such as subject-verb agreement and the proper use of irregular verb conjugations that often impede children in their language-acquisition journey—are introduced to them through corrections. As children engage in play, at home or with friends at school, the games they play, with intricate rules that they must learn and follow, become important developmental tools for them. In societies with more organized and sophisticated games, umpires and referees ensure players follow the rules and resolve disputes when ambiguities arise or when players break the rules. Children, naturally free from guile and pretense, are innately inclined to take rules seriously and often wax indignant when they witness others flagrantly disregarding rules. Their indignation—that exasperation at witnessing the unfairness of a cheater—sparks their moral growth, and right and wrong become weighty words.
Cultures vary in their approaches to instilling a sense of right and wrong in children, and in determining how to encourage rights and redress wrongs. One key difference in approaches relates to the religiosity, or the lack thereof, of the specific culture. In cultures where a significant number of people remain religious, parents often introduce scripturally derived concepts of reward and punishment, promote emulation of prophetic or sagely character, and warn of God’s wrath or bad karma upon those who break moral codes or disregard divine sanctions found in such presentations as the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule. Other cultures, especially in modern secular societies, take a more humanistic approach, arguing that basic moral precepts—such as telling the truth—are simply self-evident and result when good people act appropriately. In other words, good people exhibit upright moral behavior, they tell the truth, they don’t steal, and they abide by the rule of law. Teaching young people these basic principles of behavior takes time and constant vigilance, since many youth display a rebellious spirit expressed in testing limits, getting away with things, and violating the status quo. Young people commonly question the mores of a culture, and shifts in cultural norms usually occur first among them.
The rule of law, normally codified in constitutions, and in statutes that legislators derive from them, also manifests in a society’s culture, which makes the law self-perpetuating, as children grow into adulthood knowing the normative behaviors and understanding their civic responsibility in obeying the law.
Most morality—the knowledge of right and wrong conduct, and of our consequent duties and obligations—can be reduced to two fundamental concepts evident in their codification in the rule of law: fulfill your promises, which forms the foundation of our civil codes; and don’t harm anyone, which grounds our penal codes. In other words, do what you say you are going to do, and do no harm.
The differences among cultures also point to the definitions and values regarding the human being, what constitutes human flourishing, and the definition and purpose of law. While moral cultures differ in many ways, some social scientists identify two predominant types: honor cultures and dignity cultures. However, social scientists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning identify the emergence of a third type of culture that threatens to supersede our dignity culture. In their book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, they examine the victimhood culture that now competes with the traditional Western rule-of-law culture.1 While taxonomies that attempt to encompass wide swaths of behavior often underplay or even eliminate nuances and important differences, they, nonetheless, can help clarify important distinctions.
Examining these three distinctive cultures and their relationship to the rule of law can help us determine how well they promote the common good and human flourishing—and, for Muslims, how well they align with Qur’anic teachings.
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