You Can’t Legislate Morality

One of the most common cliches concerning law and morality is saying, “You can’t legislate morality.” Like most cliches, it contains an element of truth, but not the way in which the saying is usually used. In the sense in which the cliche is wielded by libertarians and other immoral antinomians, it is absolutely wrong. All law is a reflection of a moral code of some kind. That which is prohibited is judged as immoral in some fashion, that which is socially undesirable is restricted and penalized, that which is allowed is judged as permissible, and that which is socially desirable is encouraged with legal benefits. Even an anarchist society would still have moral laws, in that the arbitrary decisions of those who had force would reflect their own moral (or immoral) worldviews. We cannot escape the moral basis of law.

There is a way, however, in which the cliche is correct, and it is a matter that deeply concerns me. The legitimacy of the legal order of a family or organization (with its rules) and of a society with its laws and regulations depends on the moral sense of its people and its leaders. If leaders are corrupt and judges are unjust in a society, but the common people as a whole retain a moral sense, those leaders and judges can be recalled and replaced by others and just and upright leaders can be trained from the ground up. Those who are not entirely corrupted will learn from the experience and behave accordingly.

A far more serious and dangerous situation occurs when the people themselves have been corrupted. The problems with this are numerous. For one, there is no large reservoir of godly people who may become proper and moral leaders in time and with training. Worse, there is no desire for them on the part of a debased people who have lost their willingness to accept responsibility and who are uninterested in holding their corrupt leaders accountable, since those corrupt leaders tell them what they want to hear. Even the existence of a moral constitutional and legal order is insufficient, because without the will of the people to obey laws and without a moral sense in leadership to be self-disciplined under the rule of law, the only options remaining are anarchy (libertarianism instead of genuine liberty under self-government) or tyranny (some kind of socialist or fascist nanny state). In either situation (or some unholy mixture of the two–moral anarchy and economic totalitarianism, for example) there is no way for the legal and moral order not to be corrupt, since the space for constitutional and moral leadership no longer exists when the state or the individual usurp those prerogatives that belong only to God.

I am deeply concerned that we have reached the point of no return regarding morality, or if we have not reached it are soon to reach it. My concern springs from the growing apathy among people to those problems that are easy to see, from the growing loss of self-discipline among large portions of the population, from a rising revolutionary hostility to tyranny without any sense of personal responsibility among the part of the would-be revolutionaries, and because I sense an oscillation in our political order between libertarianism and socialism, with both options unacceptable but no interest in paying the price now to avoid either fate. A restoration of godly morality, a repentance of sins, and a forgiveness of the wrongs that others have committed against us is necessary for a society that is as steeped in corruption as ours is to avoid judgment.

And yet I see none of this. I see no recognition of wrongs, only pointing fingers at other fellow sinners who are perhaps worse, but not necessarily so, only better known for their sins. I see no repentance, only hardened rebellion against the legitimacy of judgment. I see no forgiveness, only people looking to riot and overturn existing unjust orders to put their own unjust orders in place as a substitute, to flaunt disobedience to the law and seek to enshrine their own preferences in law to anoint winners and losers as they see fit in a corrupt legal order. Without these elements there is only an awaiting of judgment to bring the hardened to either death or miserable captivity and chasten and refine in the fire those who are not entirely corrupted so that they may be fit to endure as a righteous remnant on the other side of judgment.

These matters are not problems that laws can fix. Ancient Israel had a perfect law, given directly from God through the prophet Moses, and Israel preferred to reject God’s religious authority and follow the heathen customs of its neighbors, and rejected the legal order of the Torah and replaced it with the corrupt statutes of Omri [1]. Our society has done the same thing. Laws will not fix this problem–the problem is that our laws are written on paper that no one, not even those passing the laws, ever bothers to read until it is time to selectively and arbitrarily enforce them on others. The problem is that the right laws are not written in our hearts and minds. That is the only place where laws do us any good.

I wonder if it is already too late for us to avoid judgment for what we have done. We try to foolishly bribe our enemies into being our friends, who then take our money and laugh and insult us behind our back. We slaughter innocent unborn by the millions just as the ancient Israelites sacrificed their children to the abominations of Molech, and yet we have the nerve to look down on them as primitive and consider ourselves enlightened and civilized. We sell the righteous for a pair of shoes, only we do it in the Philippines or in Bangladesh or in Haiti where someone makes pennies so that Walmart can sell us cheap clothing. These same sins were noticed by prophets such as Amos and Jeremiah and Isaiah and Hosea, and instead of repentance there was a desire to silence those who spoke. We all have unclean mouths and hands–we are all worthy of judgment. Perhaps we are afraid to speak up because we don’t know what else to do, and know that if we point a finger at others we condemn ourselves as well. We would rather overlook the corruption we are involved in rather than to speak up not knowing how else to live. I say this for myself as well as others.

And these are not problems that laws can fix. Laws give us standards by which to be judged, but they do not provide us with the vision to live uprightly and morally if we lack a sound moral sense. We think ourselves rich, but we are poor in justice, mercy, and faith. We think ourselves wise, but we are foolish and blind, unable even to see ourselves for who we are. And I am concerned that our time is running short; we are racing for the cliff without the sense to at least try to slow down our collapse as a civilization. Like Thomas Jefferson, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that His justice will not sleep forever. Nor do I know if I will be fortunate enough to escape that judgment, for I too know I am worthy of stripes.

And in this larger, deeper sense, those who flippantly say that one cannot legislate morality are absolutely right. Only they ought to be the ones who most fervently would hope that one could do so, at least so that it might be possible to escape condemnation for having thumbed one’s nose and mocked and sought to corrupt innocence and decency wherever it may be found. No, it is a scary thing that one cannot legislate morality, because it is a vastly more difficult matter to turn a society from self-destruction, or to cleanse and refine and purify a corrupted human heart. If only it was as easy as passing the right laws, but we are not so fortunate, to our shame.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to You Can’t Legislate Morality

  1. “Ancient Israel had a perfect law, given directly from God through the prophet Moses”

    Does anyone see the problem here? I see the link between God and the people as being a weak link, a human. Didn’t God instruct Moses to tell the people to “come to the mountain” so He could speak “directly” to them, but the people were afraid to face God? I see this as an invitation to all people to communicate directly with God to form a “personal” relationship, and not an indirect relationship as with the case of an intermediary (except Christ). But just as it was in ancient Israel, the individual is afraid to go to the mountain alone (in your heart) to talk and walk with God in His statutes and His laws, all of which are universal and understandable although communicated without words. Think about it, we are still like the ancient Israelites in that we look to (appoint intermediaries) human understanding and we never rely on our personal relationship with God (universal understanding needs no words) to guid or decisions of morality. Even the laws of the jungle are more consistant and produce some equilibrium or “balance” and reflect some semblence of order. Are we below the animals of the wild?

    • Indeed, humanity is the weak link, but that’s not a problem that the law can fix. To have a personal relationship with God requires that we face ourselves who we are and take responsibility for our thoughts and actions. Most people are unwilling to do so, and so we prefer human intermediaries or to avoid any kind of legal or moral order ourselves except for that which is in our own hearts. Ultimately, humans get the government they want and deserve, and that doesn’t speak very highly of us.

  2. Pingback: The Law Is Made For The Unrighteous | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Make No Law | Edge Induced Cohesion

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