In a different thread I commented that we cannot legislate morality. I was asked, 'why not?'. I thought that that question in and of itself was a loaded one, not to be a sideline to the main point of that thread. So I thought I would start up another one of these 'hot' topic type threads and fingers crossed we can restrain ourselves and avoid personal attacks.
When considering legislating morality I look for those areas where it has been done before and one comes to mind first, and that is Sharia Law. It is a much stricter code of morality then I am comfortable with and that brings the first problem of legislating morality, who's morality do we set the laws by? Mine, yours or the Muslim down the block? Do you really want me to be responsible for your morality? or the Muslim down the block?
This is the biggest problem with legislating morality, it removes us from being responsible for our own morality. It is giving the government responsibility for more then any government can realistically control, and would likely result in innocent people suffering and worse at the hands of a government with too much power to not be completely corrupted. I personally do not want to be that close to the real possibility of thought crimes and that is what legislating morality boils down to.
So what do you guys think? Can government ever be allowed to legislate morality considering that makes it one very big government indeed?
Hi Kirsten, you've summed up very nicely why legislating morality is so problematic - one person's version of morality is often radically different and may even conflict with someone else's! IMO it should boil down to asking whether (a) the activity that one is proposing to legislate against is a consensual one that takes place between adults, or (b) the activity is non-consensual or involves people (e.g. children) who can't give informed consent. I think that this credo should trump all other considerations - religious, political, you name it.
Legislating morality makes about as much sense as legislating anything.
Governments exist to strip their people of their power. Kings, presidents, prime ministers - they enjoy their power. They're going to abuse their positions to keep their power.
So, if we actually expect our leaders to legislate morality... guess what "kind" of morality they'll legislate? -- That which helps them out.
It's hopeless to think that government can fix ANY problems. You can't steal from peter, give to paul, and expect problems to go away.
To a certain degree morality is legislated in every society. Laws against murder, rape, theft, extortion, kidnapping, assault, child abuse, etc. All of these laws are simply institutionalizations of the moral values of the society in question.
Why is murder illegal? Because it is considered to be immoral. So there you go.
When people talk about "legislating morality" they tend to be referring to softer moral issues where the negative effects are smaller or possibly nonexistent. These include premarital sex, tithing, certain economic consumption choices, engaging in certain industries or trades, food choices, other lifestyle choices.
I don't think legislating or mandating morality in this way is very helpful--it tends to result in a situation like Prohibition during the 1920s in the US.
But where the public is affected in a significant way, the government can incentivize or encourage people to take certain actions. Such as teaching sex education to young people to minimize the spread of STDs or placing higher taxes on alcohol to reduce consumption and improve public safety.
Morality is a public consideration when it affects the public, when it infringes on another's well-being or freedoms. Otherwise it's got to be a personal thing if it's to have any meaning at all.
I agree with anesidora and Empress Felicity. As long as an activity is taking place between consenting adults and as long as it does not infringe on the rights or freedoms of others, the government should keep its nose out of it.
When there are conflicts, we should generally err on the side of more freedom rather than less. For example, there are lots of people in the world, including some on this forum, who consider it an infringement of their rights to see a homosexual couple walking down the street holding hands. Hey, sorry if your kids ask you awkward questions, but that's hardly an infringement of your rights! You can still answer the awkward questions in ways that pass your hate on to the next generation.
Some issues also need to be examined from a utilitarian perspective. For example, on a moral level, I think abortion is wrong except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother, but on a practical level, outlawing abortion leads to more death and suffering, not less, and if we're going to outlaw it, we need to first make a dramatic reduction in the number of unwanted pregnancies through better sex ed and better access to birth control.
I think drugs and alcohol are similar. Both increase the risk of people doing stupid things that hurt other people, but outlawing them has failed miserably to solve the problems they cause and has actually made them dramatically worse, in some cases, since they get driven underground. Certain precautionary measures, such as outlawing driving while under the influence, makes sense, but otherwise it makes more sense to legalize them so it's easier to keep an eye on people using them.
It's hard for someone to answer that question if they don't know what morality is. People with no morals think in terms of leagl or illegal, and fall back on the concept of "concenting adults" to rationalize the grey areas. Morals are the basis of law. Beyond that, the enforcement authority has more effect than any other. Without police, laws are meaningless; with enough police, order can be kept without any laws at all. For example, the Grammar Police have no legal system to back them up but they certaily have an effect on our writing.
Back to the orignal qestion of legislating morality. Laws about when someone decides, "people ought not do that," and the idea becomes a law.
No, we can not. All things are possible. Not all things are bennificial. Social norms are best left to individual communities to decide. Roe VS Wade, simply divided the Nation.
Just the question "What constitutes something as moral?" could lead to an endless philosophical discussion. It's a tough one to tackle.
That being said, most can agree that actions which involve rape, murder, theft, and any other act which involves one individual harming or violating another, are wrong. They should be punishable either through law or force.
However, it is important to recognize that no matter the consequence, their will always be murder, rape, and theft. Always. No matter what. You cannot legislate a society into not committing these crimes. However, what you can do is empower the victim to pursue justice either through a court system or through consequential force (self-defense, bearing arms, etc.).
Now, if people cannot be legislated into not harming others, what makes anybody think a society can be legislated into not harming themselves?
Personal habits exist regardless of law, and it will always be so. If the actions of an individual do no harm to anyone other than the self (think drug use), then I believe that a government has no right to make a law controlling such actions. Similarly, if there are two or more consenting adults voluntarily engaging in an act with each other (think gay marriage), then the government should also have no say in the matter.
In a truly free society, these things should be permissible.
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