Sunday, 30 September 2012


When believers in an unchanging human nature ask me what moral progress mankind has made, I reply that the rule of law has replaced the rule of men. In Poul Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga (New York, 1973), set during the European Dark Ages, warriors pledge loyalty to a king. Things go well if the king is a good one but not otherwise.

"The feuds from this day would grind on for years." (p. 219)

If your kinsman was killed, you accepted weregild or sought vengeance. In either case, this was primarily a private transaction, not an issue for public concern. In Anderson's short story, "The Man Who Came Early," it does not matter that a time traveler who cannot adjust to Viking society does not survive because he is a man of no account.

Feuds could last for generations. British courts must occasionally deal with families who still interact on this basis. Defense in court: "Yes, I smashed his window but it was because he damaged my car." This is legally and socially unacceptable and can result in members of a feuding family being ordered by the court to move to another town and not to return whence they came.

Now, we take it for granted that, whether a tramp is killed or the Prime Minister is assassinated, there will be a murder investigation. Almost certainly, more effort will be invested in the investigation in the latter case. Nevertheless, the last man to be hanged in Britain was executed for killing an anonymous tramp, someone who was of no account socially. Since then, we have abolished the death penalty. War in Europe is now unthinkable though, unfortunately, still not elsewhere.

We have made some progress.

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