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Without being commanded?

Huzaima Bukhari

“I have gained from philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the laws”—Aristotle

While driving in Lahore Pakistan, you stop at a red traffic light because that is the law but you notice that the motorcyclist next to you turns his head right and left probably looking for a cop in hiding and when he sees none, whooshes across with a sense of victory, knowing very well that he would not be apprehended since the safe city cameras are only meant for four-wheelers. Had he espied a cop, he would have patiently waited for the light to turn green before budging. Now if this motorcyclist was riding his bike in Dubai, UAE, he would definitely stop at the red traffic light even if he was a lone rider in the wee hours of the morning. Is this fear or a sense of duty, or is it simply rule of law? From his point of view, most probably this is out of fear for the reason that in United Arab Emirate (UAE) rule of law reigns supreme. It definitely cannot be out of a sense of duty because then, he would have observed the law back in Pakistan.

Generally speaking, man tends to defy laws, getting adrenalin rush in some cases while in others, minting huge amounts of money out of doing things declared illegal. Chief among these are engaging in activities, detrimental to the society and self preservation, doing forbidden businesses like smuggling and narcotics trade, indulging in corruption and enjoying illegal enrichment on account of evading taxes. Obviously, the element of fear appears to be missing since blatant violations mean that the offenders are confident that they can get away with their offences as the ones who are supposed to enforce laws and check these breaches are themselves unconcerned about their own duties—and the vicious circle continues to exist.

In civilized countries where the state functionaries perform their work diligently, most loyal citizens try to practice civility and abide by rules, and not merely because they fear coercive action from the police who they know will immediately respond to any infringement of law. However, in our country, the dishonest people are not afraid of the regulators as they can pay their way past any misdoing while the compliant ones are scared of the consequences that follow if incurring the wrath of a public official. Then whether it is the police, bureaucracy, even a puisne clerk or a military official or a politician, those who want to lead peaceful lives try to keep a reasonable distance from them in order not to cause an offence that can backlash into an unstoppable misery despite their adherence to regulations.

Sometimes even the sense of duty can have a deleterious effect. Way back in the early 1990s Lahore was blessed (although short-lived) with a most efficient Senior Superintendent (SSP) of Police (Traffic), during whose tenure rules were enforced manually in a better manner compared to today’s use of technology. The many mini-vans commuting in the city refrained from overloading and stopping randomly while those driving other vehicles also behaved well. Now this dutiful SSP happened to apprehend a provincial assembly member (MPA) whose land cruiser he impounded as it had tinted windows which were forbidden in those days. Instead of being appreciated on upholding law indiscriminately, on this ‘brazen’ act of ‘imprudence’ the SSP was suspended and later transferred elsewhere. Had he been fearful of the power an MPA can wield, he would have ignored rule of law and allowed the defiant member to proceed disregarding his violation, he would have retained his position. Here the command of his conscience was meaningless against the arrogance of the mighty, perhaps because philosophy was an uncharted domain of the latter.  

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) an English philosopher and political theorist based the foundations of the state on fear where the sovereign (the regent) exerts unbridled power over his subjects because in an altogether contrary case, there would be total chaos with each person doing whatever he desired. Hobbes’ critic Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834) disapproved the idea that man’s nature is driven by fear of government and a desire for security. Coleridge argues: “We are told by History, we learn from our experience, we know from our own hearts, that fear, of itself, is utterly incapable of producing any regular, continuous and calculable effect, even on an individual; and that fear, which does act systematically upon the mind, always supposes a sense of duty as its case.” Whatever debate may have taken place between these stalwarts, a century apart, one thing that remains unclear till today is whether people act out of duty, fear or rule of law. This can be asserted in the context of Pakistan for sure.

Rather than fear, if rewards were promised for doing the rightful thing, perhaps, people would be more inclined to obey. Obviously the State is incapable of rewarding everyone who stops at a red signal since that would be near to impossible with innumerable commuters and myriads of traffic signals all over the country; or for that matter giving away prizes to those queuing up for tickets, buses, trains etc. This is quite an absurd proposition! However, on a minor scale, it can be introduced, especially where otherwise, people do not observe discipline. For example, the revenue authorities in Pakistan have tried every possible trick to encourage people to file their returns of income yet the turnout is disproportionately low. If a law is introduced that individuals filing returns would receive a tax credit of say, PKR 5,000 irrespective of their admitted liability, chances are that the number of return filers can increase substantially.

Expecting high moral principles from a nation that has still not emerged from the pits of illiteracy and ignorance is like making a demand from the moon to generate solar panels for electricity. Among the lucky few who claim to have received formal education there are many whose academics have been focused on honing skills to earn a living. The scholars hardly ever get the opportunity to play an important role in the destiny of the country and are mostly commemorated when some international agency recognizes their achievements or when they are no longer alive. Under these circumstances, assuming that the public in general and students and teachers in particular would want to explore the realms of philosophy to induct its teachings in their daily lives, is nothing more than daydreaming.

With due apology to Aristotle who did without being commanded as he understood the benefits of following an order, we as a Pakistani nation can only be coerced to obey, behave and observe the laws through specific commands together with instilling fear by warning about stern consequences for defiance.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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