Sunday, September 21, 2008

Legislating Morality: Martin Luther King

Democrats, such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, often claim that since people disagree on the abortion question, the government should not restrict it. This often comes down to the mindless mantra that, "You cannot legislate morality." This ignores the fact that all law is based on one moral stance or another. No, you cannot make someone good by a law, but you may prohibit evil behavior (such as abortions). Moreover, law has a teaching function. Many think that what is legal is moral. Since abortion on demand has been legal since 1973, many think little of it, claiming that "My body, my choice." (Of course, the fetus is not part of the mother's body, but resides within it.)

In order to bring some sanity to this issue of legality and morality, consider this comment from Martin Luther King, made in an address in 1963. He was speaking of civil rights legislation, but the principle applies more broadly.

Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you've got to change the heart and you can't change the heart through legislation. You can't legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there's half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.


Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

Should we legislate against unbelief?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Please read The First Amendment to the Constitution to answer that question.

Yossman said...

Good post, good point: all law has a moral basis. In a wider context where can I get more information on a Christian view of political philosophy?

James Gordon said...

Per usual, I am put off by your comments. You really think that "all law is based on one moral stance or another"? I think not. Laws, and the nature of government, are to promote order among a given social group for expedient functioning. Certainly there will be overlap with the functioning of a society and morality, but a moral code is neither necessary nor sufficient for good lawmaking.

Also, your response to "one salient oversight" is ridiculous. Why then, under the same logic, should we not point you to Roe v. Wade for the legality of abortion? Whether the first amendment exists or not says nothing to the issue s/he brought up.

S/he is exactly right, under your own argument.

1. Laws may prohibit evil.
2. Unbelief, according to Romans 1, is the deepest form of evil.
3. Therefore, laws may prohibit unbelief.

Your argument, sir.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

I don't see the US Constitution as the Word of God.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


I'm not sure why you would demur concerning ML King's basic point, but let me law out some ideas. It is hard to know where to start, but I'll try:

1. Without a moral appeal, law is mere power mongering. Who wants that? Is the state the final court of appeal?

2. Yes, some law is merely procedural, but not all. Moreover, the procedures relate to deeper moral issues.

3. Clearly not everything immoral should be illegal. This was the case even under the OT law. One could be covetous by overeating or spending money stupidly and not have this come under any penal sanction. No, I am not advocating OT law today.

4.Roe is bad law, constitutionally speaking, since the Constitution give no "right to privacy." One of the dissenting justices called it an act of "raw judicial power."

5. Roe is bad law, morally speaking, since it declares open season on the unborn through abortion on demand (along with Boe vs. Dolton). One need not be a Christian to highly value human life at every stage, but Christianity gives special reason to do so: we are made in God's image.

6. There is no biblical reason to make unbelief punishable by law. Christianity is to spread by declaration and persuasion, not by the carrot or the stick.

7. Christians, however, who are American citizens have as much right as anyone else to influence civil government. The First Amendment never argued against that. Rather, it protected the church from the state (giving it freedom) and dissalowed any state-sponsored church (as was the case with Anglicanism in England and the US before the Revolution).

Perhaps these seven points will help clarify things.

James Gordon said...

Thanks for the response.

I understand your points, and, for the record, I am as anti-abortion as anyone. However, I see no precedent for regulating any sort of moral law that should be enforced by non-religious government.

I do not see any reason why #3 should stand. Why does any moral issue have priority over another giving it the right to be legislated by non-religious government? You said, "Clearly not everything immoral should be illegal." Why? Says who? I am trying to avoid the fallacy of the non-existent middle because I think the issues are more complex than such an either-or dichotomy. The point is, abortion has no special status as an immoral act giving is a status to be legislated by non-religious government.

I think you keep jumping from biblical to constitutional reason without any such justification. In so doing, you give the constitutional a canonical status that is unwarranted. Also, I do not think it follows that since Christians are to value life, we are required then to require others to value life as well. Are we to think of US government constitutionally or biblically? Constitutionally, you have a point. But, if we are going to set US government against the biblical standard, then we set ourselves up for many other problems with which we must deal.

Furthermore, I am not arguing that there is biblical reason to make unbelief punishable by law. That is the point. I am saying, though, that if you say that morality can be legislated, then it follows that unbelief, a prime example of immorality, should/could also be regulated. How do you avoid this conclusion? What special status does abortion hold? There is no biblical reason for abortion to be made punishable by law either. And, if there is, unbelief should fall in the same category.

I think you would do well to argue to end abortion on strictly governmental and constitutional grounds. For example, #4 is a good point. It does not muddy the waters by making you susceptible to ad absurdum arguments.

I wonder if there is a disagreement here regarding the basic nature of government?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


So what? The First Amendment is a seminal and ingenious political document, and one worth following. Many non-inspired documents are worth believing and following, such as the medical prescription that saves your life.

Tom said...

There is a tradition stemming from J.S. Mill that claims that the only legitimate ground for the state's limiting liberty is found in the harm principle: you shall not do something that would harm others. Of course lots of actions that cause harm are also morally wrong, but it is not their moral wrongness that should make the action illegal but it's tendency to cause harm. If an action is morally wrong but doesn't cause harm to any person who is not a competent, willing participant then the mere fact that the action is wrong is not a legitimate ground for proscribing the activity.

I'm not saying I agree with this position as stated (and in fact I don't), but there is something to be said for it: in a secular, pluralistic society we should allow individual freedom unless that freedom brings about harm to someone who hasn't agreed to the action in the first place. On this Millian view, morality as such as no place in the legal proscription of action. Immoral actions that harm others are ruled out not because of their immorality but because of the harm they cause.

This Millian line is a position that should stir the hearts of conservatives: it gives government rather little license to limit the freedom of individuals.

Yossman said...


"Immoral actions that harm others are ruled out not because of their immorality but because of the harm they cause."

So if morality is ruled out what basis is there for not harming others? The fact of ruling out harming others is done on the basis of a moral argument, namely that is is wrong to do so.

Tom said...


Are you asking about what would motivate someone not to harm others? You are right that moral considerations should be relevant, although the threat of punishment might be a motivator too.

On the other hand, if you thinking that the motivation for having laws against harmful behavior must be moral in nature, then I think you are wrong. Or at least Mill would (I think). Laws proscribing harmful behavior are justified because they are needed for social order. Of course, the claim that 'the only kinds of limitations on liberty that a state should enact are those that proscribe harmful behavior to others' is a value-laden claim and so will doubtless need a defense that appeals to matters of value and morality. But that's a different point.

None of this is to say that harmful actions are not morally wrong. It's just that their illegality is not grounded in their immorality.

James Gordon said...

Dr. Groothuis,

I am still waiting for a response to my objections to your position. If you choose not to answer, I do not see how your blog can be considered either constructive or curmudgeon.


James Gordon

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


This blog is not my life; I answer as I have time and take time. Silence does not mean capitulation.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


A short response:

"The point is, abortion has no special status as an immoral act giving is a status to be legislated by non-religious government. "

This is wrong. Abortion kills a human being. That is morally wrong. If anyone values human life, they can agree to this. Moreover, they can agree that innocent human beings have the (negative) right not to be killed in this way. This is a human rights issue. Religious and nonreligious people can agree on it.

If secular people disagree, there is no reason to make their view the default position. If they want to legalize and subsidize abortion, they are trying to work out their (flawed) moral framework through civil law.

Moreover, religious people are citizens and can lobby government to take stands that agree with their religion. This is both constitutional (First Amendment) and biblical ("be salt and light").

jr565 said...

All law is legislated morality. Having a speed limit is a law based on a moral calculation. If laws weren't based on morality then law would be nothing but tyranny. Can you imagine a law imposed that wasn't based on a moral argument? Why else would it be imposed then? All laws that are passed are passed because those passing them felt they resulted in a positive moral outcome. Justice is a moral argument. Fairness is a moral argument.

So the fact that laws are written suggests that society can and does and in fact has to impose morality. Though as stated not everything immoral needs to have a law written against it. By the same token are those arguing for no legislation of morality suggesting that we can't legislate against murder for example, or that that's not an imposition of morality? It doesn't even have to be morality derived from religion, but religion shouldn't be precluded from being part of the debate.
Two people of completley different faiths and belief systems might come to the exact same conclusion about the moral rightness of a principle irrespective of where they got their beliefs from and that moral principle will then go into crafting a law. And one should not preclude someone from trying to get a law passed because they are of a religious persuasion.
Those arguing the pro choice position often argue that prolifers are trying to impose morality on the argument by passing a law that restricts their rights. But the truth of the matter is the pro choice position is just as much a legislated moral question as the pro life position. So keeping abortion legal or passing the law in the first place to make abortion legal is and was an act of legislating morality. Same with the gay marriage argument.
Precluding gays from marrying is legislating morality and not precluding gays from marrying is legislating morality. As is having a limitation on two people marrying.
So, society can legislate morality, does legislate morality and has to legislate morality. Whether you agree with how society sided on the question determines your ultimate position, but if you find a law unjust and wish to strike it down or wish to get society to impose a law to restricting something its still an attempt to legislate morality.

As to whether society SHOULD legislate morality, it's a separate question that really has to be decided on a case by case basis, whereby those who craft laws argue the merits (based on moral arguments) and practicalities of imposing or not imposing a law, and then they go about legislating morality .