Can you legislate morality?

A local newspaper columnist has taken issue with something one of our radio personalities said on the air the other day; specifically, that you cannot legislate morality. Now, this is an old saw repeated by lawmakers and law breakers alike. The columnist, however, claims that yes, you can legislate morality.

I thought this would have been something hashed out by 'dopers long ago, but my search of archives turns up nothing, so I’m asking again.

I don’t expect there’s any emperical evidence that morality can or cannot, in fact, be legislated. But if anybody has any pithy observations, or knows of such observations by great thinkers, I’d appreciate your input.

Well, you can legislate anything; that doesn’t mean it will work, or is a good idea. Forbidding murder is an example of legislating morality that is a good idea and has worked fairly well. Prohibition is the classic example of the opposite. Declaring pi to be 3 would be another example. Really, legislating morality is the sort of thing that needs to be approached on a case by case basis.

Societies can and do legislate morality all the time. Problems arise when there is no consensus as to what’s moral behavior and what isn’t. If there is general agreement as to what immoral behavior should be prohibited (murder, rape, robbery, cheating on taxes, point-shaving, bribery, etc.) no one ever complains about morality being legislated, even though it is being legislated.

The idea is, you can’t make people think something in immoral just by making it illegal. Most people agree that murder is immoral - even murderers will probably get on board with that. Outlawing murder isn’t “legislating morality,” it’s outlawing something everyone already thinks is immoral. On the other hand, a lot of people don’t think smoking marijuana is immoral, and passing laws against it won’t change their mind.

Morality can be successfully legislated and work if people agree that it’s a principle to be upheld. “Forbidding murder” is frequently given as an example of this (I’m not sure I think it’s a good one, since such a thing can also be argued on pure utilitarian grounds – not “killing people is bad” but “I don’t want to be killed, you don’t want to be killed, we generally agree not to kill each other”).

When the morals are not generally agreed to, then attempting to legislate them will cause problems. Some of those problems will be because the law or whatever is widely ignored or subverted, likely leading to contempt for the law and crime rings developed to feed that (see Prohibition). Others will wind up being in effect (if not in intent) laws established to attempt to control or persecute those who do not conform to whatever standards are being legislated (see various anti-queer movements).

The other issue with legislation of morality is that the public standards of morality will change over time. Consider that laws in many places for a long time did not allow for the possibility of spousal rape: marriage was presumed to grant consent in pretty much all cases. Similarly, many places did not allow for divorce except in the case of adultery (or other harm; fault had to be proved), conforming to a particular moral view of the nature of marriage. These cultural-default moral beliefs have shifted; people have fought to change the laws, many of which have had a good deal of inertia.

This is very true, we sure legislate all the above mentioned and thankfully so. I most commonly here the ‘you can’t legislate morality’ statement come up in discussions of abortion and homosexuality. (without draging this thread into these too much: ) The abortion issue basically boils down to whether or not you think the fetus/embryo is alive, if so then one tends to believe it clearly falls under the murder category and should be legislated. If one does contend the ‘aliveness’ of the fetus then one tends to believe it is a simple and personal medical proceedure that ought not be legislated.

Now comes the question as to whether or not you actually CAN legislate morality and make the law mean anything by enforcing it. The arguement of so many pro-choice folk on this point is generally, ‘abortions were happening when the laws banning abortions were in place and all you ended up with were more dead/seriously wounded moms and just as many dead babies.’

Logistically and operationally I think such things as abortion could be legislated and enforced thoroughly in most cases, in most places. Too many doctors would fear loosing their entire practice owing to one proceedure, which may or may not make up a sig. portion of their profits. Though, in this day and age I think that there would be many docs/health professionals who would continue doing abortions in the style of Dr. Kevorkian and ‘I’ll I don’t care about going to jail because I believe the law is wrong!’

Of course, one’s opinion on how the cost - benefit of this comes out largely owes to one’s opinion on the aforementioned ‘is it alive or not?’ question.

Well, isn’t that a moral position ? Isn’t making society better, making it more the way most people want it to be a moral position ? Just because something’s the ( morally ) right idea doesn’t mean it’s a stupid idea; quite the opposite.

I agree. This would pretty much be my response to the OP.

But I would add: I wonder if, sometimes, what people mean by “you can’t legislate morality” is that you can’t make people moral by passing laws. Because being a moral person is an inner thing—a matter of the heart or mind or character or will or some such—which you can’t change through legislation.

I think you got it right there. I consider myself a moral person, but then again I am biased. I would never think about doing many things considered serious crimes like robbery or such. Many other things which I consider immoral but not illegal I will not do (Example, the cashier at the grocery gives you change for a fifty, not the twenty you gave them, it is not illegal to walk away and keep it, it is immoral).

If I go to another state and bring buy some fire works (Legal there), and bring them home,I see no morality issue here. The laws in Wisconsin are soooo stupid about fire works. You can put up a roadside stand and sell them, just not to someone with a Wisconsin ID (Read “Fire works are evil, but not so evil as to turn away the sales tax from the residents of other states”) If I had a mind to, I would do it, and actually wanted to but the wonderful Bush/Cheney energy plan has left me a little short on cash. The point is good laws will be followed by the majority, bad laws will be violated by the majority. Morality has very little to do with it. I can obey the letter of the law and sleep poorly because I know I did wrong, and I can violate the law and sleep well because I was good to what I know is decent.

As an aside, fireworks was a bad example, but darn it we have a 200+ year tradition of celebrating our hard earned freedom by blowing off various body parts and setting our property on fire. Shoot! I thought I was German, I might be Iraqi, or even from Detroit!

Not necessarily. One can, of course, construct moralities in which ‘the way most people want it to be’ is considered a moral good (mine is not one such, because I recognise that there are times and places in which ‘the way most people want it to be’ is something I consider evil – consider the value of ‘most people’ who, in some places, want to enshrine homophobia in law).

As I said, I consider things like “don’t murder” and “don’t steal” to be practical matters: I also happen to have moral beliefs on the subjects, but I don’t need to appeal to them to build a, “None of us wants to be fucked with, so let’s all agree not to fuck with each other” social contract. Being able to spend my resources on accomplishing my goals rather than extensive personal and property defense strikes me as a worthwhile result, and one I would agree reasonable even if I had no moral compunctions about the actions that I thus refrained from.

Likewise, I don’t consider “people are more or less able to get their shit done” a moral good; to do so would require that I know what those people are trying to accomplish so I could state whether I approve of it. I’m just in favor of it, practically speaking, because stuff getting done is more likely to be useful in aggregate than nothing getting done, and in specific, I want to get my stuff done.

What happens when your moral code and my moral code clash? Should there be a law to address it?

Let’s say that I am a woman wishing to fill a perscription for Plan B (morning after pills) to prevent the possible implantation of what possibly may be a two-celled fertilized ovum. (Birth control measures from the night before failed.) I see this as the prevention of pregnancy and a way to avoid an abortion. For me it is the moral and responsible thing to do.

My identical twin sister is the only pharmacist within several hours drive. She believes that it would be immoral for her to dispense Plan B pills because they interfere with conception and destroy a fertilized ovum.

I have to take the pill within a few hours for it to work.

Should she be forced by law to dispense the drug?

I’m getting a lot of different reads on just what the phrase means to different people. My wife and I discussed the question over dinner this evening and she immediately reached for murder – as a concept, I hastily point out, not as an action by herself. But I asked, what about someone having an affair? She and I both believe that it is immoral for a married person to have sex outside one’s marriage. Most people in Colorado would agree (there are a few swingers up around Boulder, but they don’t vote as a bloc) and yet, in Colorado, there’s no law against it extra-marital sex. In fact, since Colorado is a no-fault divorce state, cheating isn’t even “grounds” for divorce.

So, if we passed a law forbidding extra-marital sex, and stipulated prison sentences for people convicted of breaking the law, would we have legislated morality? Or would we have to achieve overall compliance with the law in order to have legislated morality? Or does the fact that a lot of people would completely ignore the law give rise to the cliche that one cannot legislate morality?

You can legislate behavior based on your, or a collective, moral agreement. But morals are personal. You and only you can determine what is moral for you. It’s a misuse of the word, but it sounds so moral-y that people actually think it’s possible to tell others how to think and feel about a given subject. It’s impossible. They can tell you how to behave. Period.

Well, yes and no. Obviously, a law can just tell you how to behave, like you said. But by doing that, your beliefs will come to be affected, and your values will change. For example, look at the civil rights laws. In the 1950s and '60s, you had a lot of racism against blacks, especially in the south, but all over the country. Then you had things like Brown, and the Civl Rights Act, and all the other court cases and laws dealing with civil rights. And those laws, over the course of a few generations, have caused a change in societal values. Outright racism is marginalized now, while just a few generations ago, it was the norm.

That’s an indirect effect of the law, but it certainly didn’t change everyone’s opinion. The racial divide that exists today is evidence of that. You can’t tell people how to feel. That comes from within. If the law helps a viewpoint change, that’s all good. But you can’t simply say, “From now on, you will truly feel that black people are equal to white people in every way,” and sha-zam!…it happens.

Of course you can’t, and I don’t think anybody is claiming that. But you can say, “From now on, black people are equal to white people under the law”, and then consistantly enforce that for a few generations, and people will come to think that black people are equal to white people more than just legally.

It’s true that we all have our own set of moral principles, but we don’t construct them in a vacuum. We learn what’s moral and what’s immoral when we’re kids, from our parents, our friends, our teachers, the world around us, and then we internalize those views and prejudices and use them to build our own opinions. So, if you change the environment, you change beliefs, and you can use the law to change the environment.

And yet, there are those in the civil rights movement today who believe we are no closer to the eradication of racism than we ever were. Entrenched resistance to racial equality has resulted in myriad ways of getting around laws meant to gain equal treatment for all races. And in some ways, those laws have caused even deeper resentments, which are carried forward from generation to generation. If it were true that changing the environment changes the morality, we’d see fewer white racist hate groups on the Internet over time, not more.

Of course, things don’t always “evolve” in the direction you’d prefer.

The Muslim population is growing, here and in Europe, and fundamentalist Muslims engage in all kinds of practices that most liberal, secular Westerners would find abhorrent. Right now, Western nations can legislate against them with some success… but given a large enough Muslim population, I’m not certain secular governments can control things like female circumcision.

It’s ALWAYS tough for governments to legislate against activities that huge numbers of people WANT to participate in. That’s true of things like drugs and prostitution (which many liberals and libertarians would like to legalize), but it’s also true of guns and clitoris removal (which liberals would NEVER want to legalize).

Just a quick aside that this abhorrent practice is cultural rather than religious: it’s neither a majority practice amongst Muslims, nor exclusive to Muslims.

The thing about the internet, God bless it, is that any nutjob can put his views out there and get a worldwide audience. So, I don’t know that the fact that you can find racists on the internet really proves much.

But I continue to think that attitudes have changed. Somebody can’t make racial jokes or slurs in public and reasonably expect a positive result, for example.