Scales of Justice

Can you legislate morality?

Some people argue against legislating morality, but what about things like theft and murder? The confusion disappears if we distinguish between….
Social Morality and Personal Morality
Some moral principles govern how we treat each other. This is social morality . It includes standards like …

These ideas lead to laws against assaults, murder, fraud, and theft. Nearly everyone supports these rules — even Adolf Hitler thought it would be wrong to kill him or to steal his property.
In contrast to this are values that govern how we treat ourselves….

  • What we ingest
  • How we worship
  • What we wear
  • How we have sex

There’s far less agreement about this kind of morality. It’s highly personal. So I call it personal morality .
Here’s the crucial point…

  • Imposing your personal morality on others requires you to initiate force against them.
  • You must tread on their personal conscience.
  • Doing this violates social morality.

Some people may consider this a good trade, but…

  • What you can do to others, others can do to you.
  • When you empower politicians to impose personal morality, the morality they prefer to impose will RARELY be yours.

This is your choice….

Do you want the law to enforce social morality, or someone’s version of personal morality? It cannot do both.

If you encourage politicians to enforce personal morality then they must tread on others. But….
If you restrict coercion to the enforcement of social morality, you can still use persuasion to promote your personal values.
Isn’t that the correct path? Isn’t peaceful persuasion the only socially moral way to promote your personal morality?
Teaching this distinction between social morality and personal morality is important. We hope you decide to adopt and share this concept. You can do that right now using Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
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Show Comments 11


  1. I would like to see more material developing the social morality concept. It’s an excellent concept allowing us to apply moral principles at the social level without treading on others personal principles. Further examples and perhaps better defined criteria for what qualifies as a social moral would help.
    Thanx – Charlie

  2. When imperfect men try to enforce ‘ morality’ on society, they inevitably enforce their ‘own’ warped version of it. As a Christian who does not hold to all of the ‘Christian Right’ positions, I too would like a more clearly defined distinction between ‘social’ morality and ‘personal morality’. We may disagree on certain items, but I would think we could agree on the preservation of the rights to life, property, and liberty. Either you or Jim may e-mail me if you like.

    1. Perry Willis Post

      Social morality is comprised of those rules about which 99.999% of all people agree. These are usually transactional rules — don’t initiate force, don’t commit fraud. They are non-controversial. IF the rule you propose does not have broad social agreement to the tune of 99.999%, then it is not an example of social morality. It is a personal preference instead — a rule about how you want to live, rather than a rule about how other people should be forced to live. Your preference may even be one that you share with a great many people, perhaps even a majority, but it is still NOT something that you can enforce against those who disagree, except insofar as you are willing to violate the prohibition against initiated force. I hope this additional explanation helps. Please feel free to keep asking questions if something remains unclear.

  3. Would you consider requiring me to legally acknowledge the validity of a same-sex marriage as someone coercing me to violate my concepts of personal morality?

    1. Would you consider prohibiting me from legally acknowledging the validity of a same-sex marriage as someone coercing me to violate my concepts of personal morality?

      1. Absolutely not, but the current legal system does not function under this premise (meaning the agreed scope of what a legal agreement is (i.e. forced third-party compliance)). What good is a legal agreement if third parties do not have to recognize it? Maybe that’s the point, that the scope should be limited to be more of a contract between two parties (as Perry notes in his response) for matters that are personal in nature instead of social.

    2. Perry Willis Post

      We think marriage is an issue of contract, not legislative dictate. Likewise, how you view marriage is up to you. You should even be free to discriminate against people in relationships that you consider improper, recognizing that others are likewise free to discriminate against you if they dislike your views on the matter. This is what it means to respect individual conscience.

  4. Where do morals come from? What are their basis? Are they cultural? What is an “individual concience”, and where does it come from?

    1. Perry Willis Post

      They come from within you Mike. They are part of your nature, shared with most humans. This is why sociopaths are so dangerous. They lack inner morality.

      1. So you are saying we are born with morals, and are “good” by nature? More likely is that we are born with certain personality traits (passive, aggressive, extroverted, introverted, etc.) and that we are TAUGHT and LEARN moral behavior via parents, siblings, family, friends, etc. Those that are surrounded by people that have low moral standards, tend to be immoral themselves, and vice-versa. Of course ther are always exceptions to prove the rule in both directions, but for the larger majority, this holds true.

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