The Law’s Moral Purpose
The BreakPoint attempts an answer to this question: If laws can’t make people good, why do we try to legislate morality? The BreakPoint answer has two points: First, law is a moral teacher - an enduring standard by which we cultivate order and civility in society. In the biblical perspective, the law is meant to embody objective standards based on divine prescriptions for social order. Second, a system of objective law, which reflects a society’s moral consensus, is essential for maintaining order in society.
The second part of the answer is the critical point. Laws are passed by government to maintain order and control. When a government is losing its control of its people, laws can be passed with the hope that further control can manage the problem. For example, when a local government has so betrayed its populace that too many rise up in rebellion, ‘martial law’ is applied with severe restrictions on the community interactions, thereby breaking up any public demonstrations.
Morality is based on our human nature. Our human nature recognizes both our individuality and that each of us has a right to his own person and his own personal possessions. Anyone that hurts either has committed a wrongful act.
Traffic laws are alluded to as an example of laws for order - where a rule for efficient behavior has been recorded as a law. This transition from rule to law allows for a legal judgment of fault when an accident occurs, so that the proper assignment of blame and retribution can be determined.
The first part of the answer, that laws define morality, has a problem. With the biblical perspective, the laws that define proper behavior are being based on ‘divine prescriptions for social order’. This means that the laws seeking to define morality are being written based on someone’s interpretation of ancient texts.
When laws are passed that intrude on a person’s right to his own body and his possessions, then a state of conflict arises. The most obvious example of this was the Prohibition era. I am sure that there would be little disagreement that drinking too much alcohol in a short amount of time can lead to a loss of judgment and reflexes, with a wealth of unfortunate consequences to follow. However, for most people, they recognize these consequences and so they drink responsibly.
When the government passed a law (a Constitutional Amendment!, #18) whose goal was the abolition of alcohol consumption, the law was attempting to establish a rule for moral behavior that denied the populace had any responsibility for their alcoholic consumption. Since the control was irrational, a sophisticated network of alcohol distribution was created to meet the demands of those that still wanted their choice in the matter. This conflict between the people wanting to maintain their choice versus those that wanted to prevent them from having that choice eventually lead to the repeal of that law (#21).
Laws cannot teach morality. Morality is part of our humanity. Each person is responsible for his/her own behavior. When it interferes with the rights of another then that person is legally responsible for the consequences of his/her own actions.
The BreakPoint answer includes the problem of legalizing drugs. Drug use is a personal responsibility and drug abuse becomes a community problem, starting with the person’s family and extending further as more help is needed.
The health of a community depends on how well it responds to the needs of its constituents. If someone has a drug abuse problem then hopefully there will be people and organizations to help that person. Passing a law to prevent anyone from using a particular drug means that the community has decided that it does not want to help those people that might have tendencies toward abuse but would rather instead sentence those people to punishment in prison. The American prison system has a substantial percentage of its inmates coming from drug-related charges.
The attempt to legislate morality has the opposite effect - it is destroying our communities instead. A lesson had been learned in the Prohibition Era and it seems the lesson has been forgotten.
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created - Mar 2005
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