Discussing
Moralism as Policy: Lessons from Prohibition

Nathan Bierma

Paulvanderklay
June 30, 2010

I often hear "you can't legislate morality" but it seems that we in fact do it all the time. The notion of a hate crime in fact legislates a thought crime. If I kill someone because they cut me off in traffic or if I killed them for the color of their skin the law treats it differently. Insider trading is another effort to legislate morality and ethics. <br><br>Our relationship between legality and our notions of morality are also curious. There are many laws that we willfully break but yet are thankful they are present and are upset with others for breaking them. Speed limits come to mind first, parking laws, now a whole range of disposal rules that say what you are required to recycle and what you may not put in that recycle bin. <br><br>We are a funny species. Thanks for the post. pvk

Jamesggilmore
June 30, 2010

The question that always needs to be asked here is this: Whose morality are we backing up with the state's monopoly on violence? What of the rights of those who don't subscribe to that version of morality? The question is unavoidable even in non-pluralist societies, as interpretations of religious texts differ; in pluralist societies like the United States, in which the state is required by law to remain secular, it's even more pressing. Quite frankly, I think that as far as criminal law is concerned, a libertarian philosophy is wisest for pluralism: Insofar as you violate nobody else's rights, your actions should be legal.<br><br>It might be the little bit of libertarian left in me, but I have a hard time justifying sanctions against what are essentially victimless "crimes." Marijuana use wouldn't be a crime against someone else if it wasn't illegal (and thus acquired through means that empower dangerous people); it would be a choice one makes for one's own body, like alcohol use is. Laws against drinking and driving, speeding, etc. are justified in that your actions while driving can pose a direct danger to the well-being of others; a similar situation is not in effect for, say, marijuana or alcohol use when not driving a vehicle.<br><br>I also think we should talk about another example, an example many evangelical Christians don't want to approach when asking this question: that of Uganda, which is still in the process of trying to pass a law (backed by the "Christians" there and their American evangelical allies) that would make homosexuality illegal and punishable by death. Do those who think that morality should be legislated agree with the proposed Uganda law? If not, why not? Aside from degree, what differentiates the Uganda law from the state anti-sodomy laws that many evangelicals still believe should be in place (laws that were struck down in Lawrence v. Texas over the opposition of the "Christian" Right)? How can one philosophically justify the legislation of morality in anti-sodomy laws, while remaining on firm ground to oppose laws like that proposed in Uganda?

Jesse Medina
June 30, 2010

"What if you could outlaw immoral behavior? Not just condemn it as evil, but actually make it illegal?"<br><br>-What would be the spiritual benefit of this? I can see how it might be beneficial from a pragmatic level, assuming fewer people would engage in immoral behavior, but if morality is directly tied to our relationship with Christ - and for the Christian, it is - then outlawing immorality doesn't accomplish much of anything. We are still sinners and still in need of a Savior whether our actions turn out to be illegal or not. <br><br>After all, what law can actually keep us from being prideful or hateful? Laws cannot affect the heart, they can only provide deterrent to keep us from acting on our sinful hearts' desires.<br><br>That's not to say laws don't matter, they do. But as Christians we must be mindful of the limits of legislation - at the end of the day, the law cannot change hearts. Thus I find myself in agreement with jamesggilmore in saying that laws are helpful to the extent that they make it illegal for us to act on our sinfulness to the extent that we are violating others' rights.<br><br>

Melissa
July 1, 2010

Very interesting subject. I agree with your major point, when you make something unlawful you often have a counter-effect in the population- people want what they can't have. In your example, when there was prohibition, people would find and create Speakeasies to find alternatives to the law. They could still get their alcohol but in secret. I can't really say what a more effective method would be to banning alcohol, abortion or any other subject. But, I do think there should always be limit on these. All we can do is pray for the right laws to fall into the hands of those who govern us.

Bvbc6
July 1, 2010

Let us not forget that the though crimes increased the number of alcholics decreased during the time of the prohibition. It was a major social plague prior to the prohibition but after it it had decreased significantly. So, we cannot say it wasn't effective. The cost saved by less drinking and drunkeness is hard to measure but it most likely more than off set the cost for fighting the crime.

Paulvanderklay
July 1, 2010

Libertarianism assumes a particular perspective on anthropology, one that is highly individualistic. If mom smokes a lot of pot or dad drinks himself to sleep every night, are there no victims? <br><br>The other side which is the nanny state approach also fails because it attempts to address what is not within its power. France recently passed a law against verbal abuse in the home. None of us would speak in favor of verbal abuse, but the state's ability to enforce this law is in question. This is why thought crime laws are so tempting, but also so problematic. <br><br>We live in this web of relationships where it is impossible to isolate the consequence of one person's actions from another.

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