Sunday, October 18, 2009

Is a person moral if they simply obey a law?

I've been pondering this question ever since The Mail & Guardian reported last month that the National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC), a religious body, announced that it wants to revisit South African laws legalising same-sex marriage and abortion. The NILC has strong political connections with the ruling party, hence all the publicity.

I don't want write about the NILC's intentions in this post (as others have responded here and here). Rather, I want to ask the question: will simply passing laws to govern moral behavior – which some fundamentalists want – make citizens more moral?

I don't think it will, for the following reasons:
  • Laws might govern your actions, but they generally can't govern your personal and hidden desires. If your desires are strong enough, you will find a way to break the law anyway.
  • Laws might encourage conformity and obedience, but they generally do not teach personal responsibility.
  • Laws might provide a set of rules by which to live by, but they generally do not teach why those rules are important.
  • Laws might externally govern conduct, but they do not develop an intrinsic morality within the individual which governs conduct without compulsion. Isn't it better for a person to refrain from doing something, not because is illegal, but because they don't want to do it?
  • Laws might be prohibitive in nature, using fear to persuade. Fear works well in the short term to impose control, but such a system risks losing its power if people lose their fear.

In other words, I believe laws or commandments (religious or otherwise) should not be used as the primary tool to ensure that individuals live morally. I believe that the best way to build a strong, ethical society is primarily through education, by fostering respect for oneself and others, finding joy in diversity, and encouraging responsibility towards society.

I'm not arguing that morality and law are totally separate entities; one only has to consider the law against murder to realise that laws do overlap with morality in some cases. What I'm trying to focus on is the purpose of making laws, which, in my view, is to maintain social order, to protect the freedoms and rights of individuals (hence, the decree against murder), and to arbitrate disagreements between parties. I don't think law is the right tool to use in order to foster moral behaviour.


Anonymous said...

Good post, Kevin, and I agree. Of course, laws are good and necessary in society for the reasons you mentioned. Outlawing abortion, for example, helps protect the lives of the unborn, but simply creating this prohibition does not necessarily address issues of the heart and won't altogether stop the behavior.

Laws, however, can help bring to light some of our moral shortcomings. In terms of biblical faith, the institution of Mosaic law helped individuals understand their inability to save themselves via their own intrinsic morality--hence the need for a Savior (Gal. 3:10-11).


Laughing Boy said...

I think you're right, Kevin. Laws, even moral laws, do not create a moral society. To put it another way, conforming to moral guidelines does not make me a moral person. I also think you've correctly identified the reasons why this is so. However, could it be that laws are enacted, not with the goal of creating a moral society by slavish obedience, but in order to set the criteria for the punishment of the immoral?

An ideal community would consist only of moral people, but not everybody in any actual society is moral. (Is anybody completely moral?) So what's a government to do? Make laws that put down the guidelines for all to see. Then all it's members are without excuse. How can a murderer be brought to justice if there is no law on the books prohibiting murder?

Given that we do not live in ideal societies where everybody seeks to live in harmony and brotherly love, doesn't it make sense to have laws and punishments in place to discourage unlawful behavior in those who might, at times, be tempted to do bad things? And if some decide to do bad things anyway, doesn't it make sense for society to have means to deal with them fairly?

These ideas apply in Christian theology as well.

"Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law [members of that community], so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God [because now we all know the rules]. For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law [people aren't made moral by mere obedience], for through the law comes the knowledge of sin."

—Romans 3:19-25 [my comments in brackets]

Very good, though-provoking post, Kevin. I hope your studies are going well.

Good thoughts from you, too, phil.

gip-k said...

I personally do not believe that you are moral simply because you obey the law, because not all laws can be considered "moral."

It's funny that I should come across this post today, because 2 nights ago I was listening to Christian talk radio. Of course, they were discussing why they felt that abortion was wrong, whether or not it was legal or illegal. Somehow the discussion turned to how in Germany, when the Germans were being hostile to the Jews, they were obeying Hitler's declaration. After the war was over, some of the people tried to justify themselves by simply saying, "We obeyed the law."

Obviously, harsher punishments for crimes might discourage SOME people from committing crimes, but in the end, people will follow the dictates of their own conscience and will. That's pretty clear when you look at our murder and theft rates.

Anonymous said...

The clearest guide to morality that I have found thus far is the libertarian non-aggression principle plus property rights theory for ethics; then within the scope of those ethical boundaries, whatever personal "moral rules" I believe will make me happiest in the long run.

Anonymous said...

Question for the commenter above: Do you believe in an objective (absolute) morality for all persons, or are moral codes subjective and relative since you believe they rely upon an individual's personal happiness? To put it another way, how do you determine what is moral if two different people have mutually exclusive ideas about what will make them "happiest in the long run," if both opinions fall within the scope of your determined ethical boundaries? Just curious.


Matthew said...


Please note that I'm differentiating "ethics" from "morality." I see ethics as more of an absolute science, or at least an attempt at such, whereas morality is whatever subjective stuff I want to make up for myself. I use ethics as a kind of boundary, where necessary, to govern my relationships with other people who may not like my personal morals; whereas my moral code only applies to myself and to those who consent to it.

The idea of libertarian ethics is that they apply universally to all relationships between the properties of different people (said properties including their bodies). Hence, that part of my "rules" (ethics) is absolute.

For anything else, I can make up my own rules. An individual can set whatever "moral code" he wishes to on his own property (this is what I have found to be philosophically workable; I'm not saying you won't be arrested if tomorrow you decide that you can be nude on your front lawn and then act on that decision). People can also agree to abide by certain rules via contractual agreements with each other.

Although property rights theory can tell me how not to screw with other peoples' business, it doesn't necessarily tell me what will make me happiest. Thus, setting up personal rules is relatively trickier.

In case I forget to check back here and you want more information about this sort of thing, my first suggestion would probably be to try the forums at either or Note that the people at these two venues have slightly different philosophical foundations, and so the culture will be slightly different at each; if you don't like one, try the other.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for taking the time to clarify your position, particularly your bifurcated approach towards morality and ethics. I'll check out those sites you referenced.


Melanie said...

Absolutely agree. Have you read Eat,Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert btw? It has rocked my world and I would be interested to know your take on it.

Kevin Parry said...

Laughing Boy, I do agree with you than one of the reasons of law is to hold accountable those who might pose a threat to society or to others. No matter how ‘ethical’ a society might become, there will always be some individuals who will strive to harm others, as well as place society at risk. This is probably why the branch of criminal law exists.

My studies are going well, thank you. By the end of next week it will all be over, for this semester at least :-)

Matthew wrote
I can make up my own rules. An individual can set whatever "moral code" he wishes to on his own property

Your comment was very interesting, Matthew, and I will also read up on those sites. But I was wondering, and I ask this based on my own (and probably flawed) understanding of your comment, if there are many actions that one can do within “one’s own property” that doesn’t involve or affect others, either directly or indirectly. If a person views child pornography – even if they do it in the privacy of their own private ‘property’ space – are they still not indirectly ‘harming’ the child by supporting a trade that exploits individuals who are under the age of consent? Are there are any moral actions that don’t affect others?

All the best