You Can't Legislate Morality


Bob Denton


Chaplains Corner




That was a phrase that was bandied about for a long time. I don’t hear it any more. One reason may be because we have so broadened morality that it doesn’t make much difference. Of course it does to those who enforce the law because we run into the behavioral effects of those for whom it has been diluted.


The fact is the phrase about legislating morality was a red herring. As I gave some thought as to why we have any laws it’s because someone felt we “ought” to change or protect something. And that word ought is always value laden. Even innocuous stop signs – which didn’t exist before automation – are there because of what we believe about the value and health of individual lives. Before those there were somewhat clear understandings of right away on the seas and you’re your horse. Those car seats we want to mandate are there because of the value we place on children. PETA exists to enforce a morality. Both the pro-choice and pro-life groups exist to promote a morality and they, by golly, want legislation either changed or maintained.


We go to court to argue whether things are right or wrong in everything from contracts about health care to the enforcement of Garrity and the truthfulness of both perps and media renditions. Name me more than a few areas of this profession where we are not talking about doing right or wrong?


A couple years ago the most popular words on an inline dictionary were refugee, pandemic, tsunami and levee. These were consulted because they defined big and important – especially “bad” things that were happening. But the lost frequently looked-up word was integrity which the dictionary defined as “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” It is interesting that such should have been the predominate word. Perhaps it was because it defined a vacuum created by the abolition of legislating morality.


From socially creating a mindset that you can’t legislate morality to legislating everything. How did it happen? More importantly, who’s morality and is that morality only a symptom of the passions of the time? If it is, we risk our lives and put others in prison for no other reason than one group’s morality had the power to inscribe it rather than another. Or we “changed” it because one population persuaded it. If so, there is no real foundation why you should or shouldn’t do anything so long as you can get away with it.


In the Hebrew Bible there was a time when everybody did what they each thought was right. It was probably fun for a little while. But it took the whole country down. The people lost their foundation, their heart and you can only keep your mind so long after you lose your heart.



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