It’s one of the perennial debates in America, especially when we’re faced with socially divisive issues: Can you legislate morality?
If we mean by that question, “Can you make people moral through laws?” the answer is plainly no. If we mean, “Are laws put in place to govern people’s moral behavior?” the answer is plainly yes.
Morality is actually one of the main things that we must legislate, and my suspicion is that even those who bristle at this statement actually agree. As Frank Turek observed, “It never fails. Whenever some conservative takes a stand on a moral issue, some liberal somewhere will indignantly claim, ‘You can’t legislate morality!’ How many times have you heard that worn-out phrase? Incredibly, it’s not even true.” (From the book Legislating Morality: Is it Wise? Is it Legal? Is it Possible? by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler.)
To be sure, virtually all of us recognize that the attempt at Prohibition was a failure and that it did not help to improve American morals. And this failed policy is commonly pointed to as proof that morality cannot be legislated.
But do we really believe that the law has no place in restraining immoral or illicit or socially destructive behaviors? Don’t we actually welcome such laws? Or would anyone suggest that we should not have laws against things like human trafficking?
Jeff Jacoby recently reported that, “By a vote of 183-50, town meeting members in Middleborough, Mass., last week approved a bylaw making public cursing a civil offense and authorizing police to enforce the ban by fining offenders $20.”
Whatever your opinion is of this particular bylaw, do you believe that there should be some kind of laws against profane speech in public, at least in some settings?
Can you imagine walking through a grocery store with your children and hearing a public service announcement laced with all kinds of profanity, or taking your family to a ballgame only to hear the announcer repeatedly use the F word, or switching to a news station on the radio only to be greeted with every kind of vile sexual description? Yet when the government (or a local company) regulates speech in any of these settings, it is legislating morality. Should there be no such laws?
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.