In the Netherlands an important, unwritten law principle exists which says that all Dutch people are expected to know the law. It’s obvious that we cannot know the ever-expanding body of written laws that has been created to keep our society going. That’s why some law experts have qualified this principle a bit by saying that people only have to know those parts of the law that apply to their own personal situation. But even then, can we expect lay people to constantly update their knowledge of these specific laws which might be constantly changing in content? I think there is a better way to make sense of the principle.
The Golden Rule
I think what is meant is that people must know the spirit on which the rule of law is founded. And that is the famous Golden Rule, which is much older than any of the written law codes (and is also shared by all the major religions, as Karen Armstrong so persuasively argued in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life). This Golden Rule can be formulated either positively or negatively: ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’ or ‘do not treat others the way you do not want to be treated’. Knowing this rule means more than being able to intellectually remember the sentence: it means to act according to this principle in all situations that occur.
Respect for the other
According to the Golden Rule, all behaviour has a reciprocal quality. It focuses our attention on the other. Realizing the importance of the other in one’s life is essential for the acceptance of the basic idea behind all written law codes. They all assume that respect for the other is of prime importance. For example, traffic laws are there primarily to ensure the safety and wellbeing of other people on the road. Criminal laws are there primarily to let us know that the lives of other people should not be damaged or intruded into. And environmental laws are there to protect that gigantic other on whose life we all depend: Mother Earth.
The birth of inner law
It’s important to learn to respect others early in life. Any parent or carer knows that the only way to teach rules to children is by example. If children are raised well, they acquire a body of unwritten inner law by minutely observing the behaviour of the adults around them. They learn that life is about adults cherishing and caring for children, that is: about strong, powerful persons being humble and caring for weak, powerless persons. When they learn to give to another human being, to be kind and helpful to others – in other words, learn to transcend their egocentric needs and desires –, the Golden Rule comes to life. And gradually virtues like trust, gratitude, attention, honesty and compassion are born from this well.
The foundation spirit
Of course a complex society like ours cannot be run by just collectively trusting the inner law of all people: we cannot do without written law codes, not for the moment anyway. But when a basic sense of inner law is not present – when the Golden Rule has not been learnt – we cannot expect these written laws to be effective. The absence can never be compensated for by an extra dose of outer law – like any criminal shows and any police force knows. And laws that go against the Golden Rule in the long run will not work either. So I think it makes sense that the principle that everyone is expected to know the law, basically refers to knowing the Golden Rule – being able to apply it in all situations, and being conscious that it is the foundation of all written law codes.