Even Bartertown Had Laws

In post-apocalyptic Australia, “Mad” Max Rockatansky, played by Mel Gibson in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), finds himself stranded in the desert after he is attacked by a father-and-son robbery team who patrol the skies in a pieced together airplane scavenging for anything of value that they can sell or trade. They spot Max’s caravan filled with bits and pieces of accumulated treasure in a world decimated by nuclear war. After knocking Max from his vehicle, the father drops from the plane and guides the camel-pulled jalopy to points unknown.

Max follows the thief and his commandeered goods to Bartertown, a dark oasis that serves as the last outpost of what passes for civilization. It’s the best a city can do after a nuclear conflagration. But to enter Bartertown, all weapons must be surrendered to the authorities—“It’s the law.” Max unloads his concealed arsenal from under his long coat to the astonishment of unlookers who have never seen so many weapons.

In the midst of a societal breakdown, there is moral order in Bartertown, even if it’s a bit off center. The absoluteness of the law comes from on high—literally. Perched high above the clutter and confusion of Bartertown, Aunty Entity rules from her shrouded enclave of secrecy where plots are hatched for complete control of the makeshift city, but all in terms of the law properly interpreted, of course. [product id="1518" align="right" size="small"]

The people of Bartertown are repeatedly told to “listen to the law,” a law that Aunty created to bring order out of mayhem. Laws are simple and direct. “Two men enter one man leaves. . . Bust a deal, face the wheel.” There are no judges, juries, or lawyers in Bartertown. One suspects that they and their reputations went up in smoke with the nuclear blast that made Bartertown an inevitable necessity. In the long run, however, the law is demonic and justice capricious. “You take your chances with the law. Justice is only a role of the dice, a flip of a coin, the turn of the wheel.”

Even Robots Need Laws

Isaac Asimov was best known as a science fiction writer. Interest in Asimov’s works has been rekindled with the release of the movie I, Robot, loosely based on a compilation of short stories that were published in book form in 1950. It was with his fiction works dealing with robotics that Asimov developed three laws to govern the behavior of robots. Asimov is given credit for being the first person to use the term “robotics” and to offer a vision of the future where robots would exist to serve their creators.

Asimov’s laws were put into action in the superbly scripted science fiction classic Forbidden Planet (1956) when we see Robby the Robot unable to carry out a command to kill a human being. Morbius, his creator, using technology developed centuries before by the Krell, instinctively knew that any creation, no matter how primitive, needed a moral code to live by. Not coincidentally, the robot of Asimov’s first story in the I, Robot collection is called “Robbie.”

Asimov’s robot laws are curious given that he was an atheist. Creating laws violates a major tenet of evolution. Evolutionists are materialists. For the materialist, only matter is real. Laws have no material substance; therefore, they do not exist in a real way. Law is nothing more than a social construct for the moment. J. B. S. Haldane, geneticist and author, put it like this: “[I]f materialism is true, it seems to me that we cannot know that it is true. If my opinions are the result of the chemical processes going on in my brain, they are determined by the laws of chemistry, not of logic.”(1) Even so, Asimov and other atheists realize that laws are required for living with others. The creator, as a builder of robots, gets to make the rules; he must make rules or the creatures will overwhelm their creators. Then there’s the further problem that these robots could never have evolved. They had designers, and evolutionists do not believe in design. [product id="1520" align="left" size="small"]

Like so much of the atheist worldview, it must borrow from the Christian worldview to sustain itself. Darwin and his successors believe that morality is found in biology. But any moral code that the Darwinist comes up with is measured against an existing morality that does not have its roots in evolution. Robert Bork, writing in the Preface to Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction, reveals the flaw in an evolutionary ethic devoid of a fixed and unimpeachable reference point:

Some few years ago friends whose judgment I greatly respect argued that religion constitutes the only reliable basis for morality and that when religion loses its hold on a society, standards of morality will gradually crumble. I objected that there wee many moral people who are not at all religious; my friends replied that such people are living on the moral capital left by generations that believed there is a God and that he makes demands on us. The prospect, they said, was that the remaining moral capital would dwindle and our society become less moral. The course of society and culture has been as they predicted, which certainly does not prove their point but does provide evidence for it.(2)

The banal evolutionary optimism of Isaac Asimov has been voided by the reality that moral reasoning has no secure place to stand since God has been replaced with a random and purposeless cosmos. Asimov’s future, since it is unpredictable and ever evolving, could easily become a society where Robo Cops and Terminators patrol the streets, and where their law is just as valid as any law proposed by man.

Doris Day Needed the Protection of Law

We move from Mad Max, robots, and Terminators to Doris Day. How can there possibly be any relationship? In the movie It Happened to Jane (1959), Doris Day, a businesswoman and widow with two children, has her shipment of lobsters spoiled through the negligence of the railroad. She wants restitution for the wrong done to her. The railroad offers her $750, the cost of her product. She refuses. She tells the railroad’s lawyers that she lost more than just the lobsters, she lost future business. She wants multiple restitution, and she will use every legal means at her disposal to get what she believes is owed to her. [product id="1501" align="right" size="small"]

Jane lives in a world where justice is not “a role of the dice, a flip of a coin, the turn of the wheel.” The law is real, and she insists that it apply to everyone equally. Her world, her moral world, is a far cry from the barren wasteland of Bartertown and the uncertain future of I, Robot. Her antagonist, played by cigar-chomping Ernie Kovaks, would adapt well to the moral ruthlessness of Bartertown. Like Aunty Entity, he plots from his train-motif throne room on ways to hinder Jane’s attempts to secure justice. At first, his lawyers do his bidding. But one by one, they desert him after they see how he bent the law to fit his unjustified ends. They finally awake from their moral slumber to embrace a view of law that they learned from parents, a law that has meaning. Law school and riches of life corrupted them, but they find their way back from the abyss of moral indifference.Endnotes:

  1. J. B. S. Haldane, The Inequality of Man (1937) 157. Quoted in Ric Machuga, In Defense of the Soul: What it Means to Be Human (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Books, 2002), 189, note 19.()
  2. Robert H. Bork, “Preface,” in Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, (1983), 1993), xviii.()
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