While they are similar in some ways, the following lesson is meant to discuss the differences between laws and customs. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check for your understanding.
Defining Customs and Laws
On the 4th of July in America, what's the one thing you can count on seeing either by looking up at the sky or by turning on a TV? If you guessed fireworks, that's exactly right. Why, though, do we shoot off fireworks on the 4th of July? We might also ask ourselves questions like, 'why do so many people put up Christmas trees during the Christmas holiday season', or maybe something more universal like, 'why do we hold doors open for strangers or shake someone's hand upon meeting them for the first time'. Nobody forces us to do these things, and if we didn't do them, there aren't any real serious consequences we have to worry about.
The reason why we don't have to worry about not partaking in some of these gestures is because they are cultural customs rather than formal laws. To be more specific, customs are widely accepted expectations of behavior that are particular to a specific place, time, or society. Laws, on the other hand, are formal sets of rules that govern the behavior of a group of people.
The difference between customs and laws given here is subtle, for now, because they do sound somewhat similar. In fact, many formal laws do arise from customs. To get a better understanding of the nuances between the two terms, let's take a look at some other ways in which customs differ from laws.
Differences Between Customs and Laws
We can outline roughly five distinct differences between customs and laws. First, laws are purposively established, whereas customs tend to grow naturally over time. In our 4th of July example from before, the custom of using fireworks to commemorate our nation's independence isn't something that's required for us to do. It grew over time. However, there are definite legal requirements as to who can use fireworks and where they can be used. People actually sat down and established those particular rules.
Secondly, law needs a special agency for enforcement and often involves formal punishment for non-compliance; custom does not. Custom is largely enforced by spontaneous social action. People may think you are unpatriotic if you don't partake in watching a fireworks display on the 4th of July, but no physical penalty will befall you for doing this. However, allowing 12-year-olds to fire off fireworks in their enclosed backyard may violate some very specific laws, and punishment may come from the police.
Laws also tend to be specific, whereas customs often are not. Laws in any area are gathered together and written down somewhere. Customs, on the other hand, are learned by living in a particular area, time, or society. In other words, most of the time, nobody tells you the customs of a place or culture. You often learn them over time through observation. You might learn certain customs by asking a native if you are a visitor, but you will not find them in an official book.
Customs can also fade and disappear without formal removal or recognition by a society. Laws, however, only disappear when abolished by a recognized authority. Some laws may no longer be enforced, but they still technically exist. If a police officer looks the other way as kids play with fireworks, it's not because the law no longer exists, it's because the authority in charge of enforcing that particular rule has chosen not to do so. Thus, just as formal enactment of law is necessary for it to come into effect, so, too, must its formal removal. Neither of these events is necessary for customs.
Lastly, laws generally deal with matters that are vital to the life of society, whereas customs deal more with the ordinary and familiar. The custom of fireworks on the 4th of July is meant to inspire patriotism and commemorate our nation's independence, but doing so isn't vital to how our society functions. Keeping young children from using fireworks in inappropriate ways, however, is meant to protect them and their neighbors from potential harm if the fireworks are misused.
Laws and customs are meant to provide guidance to a society in knowing what behaviors are encouraged and forbidden. While many laws arise out of customs, laws are more formal representation of rules than are customs. Customs also differ from laws in that:
- Laws are purposively established, whereas customs tend to grow naturally over time.
- Laws need a special agency for enforcement and often involve formal punishment; custom does not.
- Laws are often specific, whereas customs often are not.
- Customs can also fade and disappear without formal removal or recognition by a society; laws, however, only disappear when abolished by a recognized authority.
- Laws generally deal with matters that are vital to the life of society, whereas customs deal more with the ordinary and familiar.
When this lesson is complete, you should be able to describe the five major differences between laws and customs.