“You can’t legislate morality!”
Take a moment and let that statement sink in. Do you notice anything wrong with it? Perhaps not. Many don’t. I’ve heard the claim by both Christians and non. Rather than assuming the truthfulness of the statement, what would an intelligent person do? Wouldn’t a wise first step be to ask a very sincere question: “What is morality?” These sort of blanket statements or platitudes need to be critically examined before we adopt them.
Morality is best defined “virtuous conduct.” Morals are “concerned with the judgment or instruction of goodness or badness of character and behavior.” Of course this raises another important question: “Where do morals come from?” Are we born with them? Or are they something that we acquire over time? If we acquire them over time, what is their source?
When babies are born they are known for a few qualities some find appealing others not so much. Babies giggle, cry (or wail depending on the temperament of your child), sleep and poop, among many other things. From the moment they enter our lives we begin teaching them certain guidelines to live by. When they want to crawl towards something dangerous we redirect them (don’t go there it’s bad), when they shove things into their mouths we may, depending on what it is, immediately take the object away from them (you’re not allowed to have whatever you want), when they throw a temper tantrum because they are fighting sleep we may use a variety of tactics to ensure that sleep is what they find (you need your rest). As the child grows so to does their knowledge of right behavior versus wrong behavior. Throughout the child’s life (from infanthood to adolescence) parents ingrain in their hearts and minds, standards of right and wrong in the hope that good character will be the result.
Lying is bad. Stealing your sisters’ toys or smashing your brothers Play-Do castle is wrong. Having a diet that consists of nothing but sweets is not good for you. Sleeping all day, playing video games all night, backtalking your parents, refusing to submit to those in authority (such as teachers, police officers, etc.) are the sort of things that we teach our kids. This is called training (or dare I use the profane word—indoctrinating) your child up in the way they should go.
All of these principles that have been instilled into our children are what we call ethics. Ethics are “a system of moral principles or values.” In short, ethics are rules or laws. Do you see where I am heading yet?
When a person throws up the blanket statement, “You can’t legislate morality!” They are in a sense right. Morals are not rules, they are the expression of rules, principles, statutes, or commands that we have been taught. As we grow our conscience is being trained to follow a certain set of guidelines. Parameters of behavior are established. Boundaries of character are laid down.
Morals are formed from the ethical standard to which we appeal. We do not legislate morals, but we do legislate ethical standards of right and wrong. Those ethical principles then have a direct bearing on our lifestyle in society.
For example, is it right or wrong to take my neighbors Porsche for a Sunday cruise without his permission? What if I just wanted to keep it for the weekend to make a good impression on my friends? Regardless of my intentions my action would be labeled as theft, and the penalty for the crime would vary depending upon a variety of factors; 1) my neighbor’s response, 2) the stipulations found in the law, and 3) the judgement levied by the courts.
Should we have laws in this country that state the taking of my neighbor’s property without his permission is theft? Isn’t such legislation trying to enforce a morality on me that I may find offensive? Isn’t that law trying to curb my behavior in a way that I may find unfair?
The argument that you cannot legislate morality is not only a misnomer but an argument formed not because people disagree with the establishment of right versus wrong, good versus bad behavior, good versus bad character, but because people do not want to be told how they should live. As one writer puts it, “The statement, ‘You can’t legislate morality,’ is a dangerous half-truth and even a lie, because all legislation is concerned with morality.” The ironic thing is that the very same people who argue, “You can’t legislate morality” have no problem whatsoever establishing an ethical code that enforces a way of conduct (morals) upon others with whom they disagree. They are telling you are wrong, while at the same time telling you are right and they want the state to enforce their standard of righteousness.
The Christian is left asking, “What should I do?” To answer I offer the following rhetorical question: “Is cowering in the corner ever a right response?”
 “morality,” s.v. The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 551.
 Ibid., 551.
 “ethics,” s.v., Ibid, 295.
 In the future we shall speak about the different ethical standards of all people. To ease the suspense, you can break those groupings down to two; God’s or man’s.
 Rousas J. Rushdoony, Law and Liberty (Tyler, TX: Thoburn Press, 1977), 1.