Can Morality Be Legislated?

Posted on June 17, 2018


Can we legislate morality? How about any of the great intangibles, like ethics or integrity, that make a culture work right? Martin Luther King, Jr., a giant in the modern civil rights movement, stated quite clearly that “morality cannot be legislated.” But he then added “behavior can be regulated,” implying that behavior can be one the motivating forces in creating morality.

Then, with a wonderful pithiness that makes MLK, Jr. valid through time, and with a sense of humor lacking in so many leaders today, he observed:

“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, can morality be legislated? MLK, Jr. said it can’t. But, can it?

Thinkers across the centuries have thought about this question. One of the greatest church theologians and arguable among the most astute definers of Natural Law, or the laws that rule in the natural world, Thomas Aquinas was once asked, I seem to remember, the question.

“But, of course!” he responded with alacrity. “What a better thing to legislate than morality?”

In today’s world, everyone with a perspective, point of view, ideology, or axe to grind appeals to morality or law in one form another.

“Let’s do what’s right,” they will say.

“I know the truth,” one group will champion, “and the truth is that babies are human beings from the moment of conception.”

And another set of truth and morality holders will claim: “women have a right to govern their bodies.” That’s just a sample of some of tough issues we face today. Law, morality, truth, rights, and other expressions of human thought and principles are hurled like in a mud fight.

Morality in the simplest terms is defined as what is right. And the basic tool for putting morality to work are laws. Let’s start with two basic types of law: Eternal law, or the laws of God; and Natural laws, or the laws, generally, of man and nature. Natural laws are derived largely, but not exclusively, from or inspired by eternal laws. The easiest access to God’s laws are in the Bible. The Ten Commandments are obviously a set of laws or statutes.

While the Bible has a lot of laws, Jesus often taught in parables, not applying laws but using examples of behavior which were moral, or not. The widow who gave but a few coins as her tithe, but which represented most of what she had, is one example of a moral lesson, in this case charity and love of God. The father who welcomed home his “prodigal” (who had sowed his wild oats) son is an example of forgiveness and love.

Morality–in just the above two examples–was thinking and doing like Jesus. There are over forty parables, depending on how you count them, and they are the framework of Christian morality. They cross boundaries between the spiritual and natural realms.

Natural law is more complicated. I can read the parables of Jesus and know pretty much what he wants of me, usually things of the heart and mind. Natural laws can be laws of nature—like the absolute and unchanging law of gravity—or “positive” laws derived by men from eternal laws, such as all men are created equal.

The framers of our Constitution clearly understood both God’s laws and Natural laws. The italicized phrase below from the Declaration of Independence specifically refers to the laws of Nature and laws of God. They both issue from the same source: the will of God.

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them….”

So, can morality be legislated?

The answer is, of course, both yes and no, as MLK, Jr. pithily described it above.

Morality can be legislated since morality is a function of law. The laws you pass, however, need to pass the litmus test of being both inspired by and consistent with God’s Laws and Natural Laws. That’s a high bar, but running a town, a city, a state, or a nation is a high calling, not for simple- or close-minded zealots.

Published Sunday June 13, 2018 as “Can we legislate morality” in The Tuscaloosa News.

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Posted in: History, Morality