Many contemporary Westerners view law as did Roscoe Pound, who famously called it a tool of “social engineering”: something the community uses both to reflect itself and to change itself to achieve certain results. Both the wider Western legal tradition and Confucius’s notion of li help us see that one cannot simply coerce social change by commanding substantive ends in positive law. Rather, human law can facilitate social change by rewarding, punishing, or even simply valuing certain actions and thereby also communicating the inherent value of that action. Law does not so much dictate values as habituate them by encouraging their practice.
More importantly, Western legal theory and Confucianism encourage us to ask, not how to use the law to create a better society, but what society’s current laws are already communicating and how they might need to change. Do they serve the higher standard by which human law should be judged, whether one calls it the law of nature or right principles? For the final goal of both law and li is less without than within: that we order ourselves according the higher order on which every human society and person depends.
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