Why do laws exist? What does the government exist to do? Depending on how you answer these two questions, your entire understanding of the world and our society will change. I would like to take just a moment to explain what jurisprudential views I ascribe to, and why I believe it is philosophically sound.
There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are ‘just’ because the law makes them so.
– Frédéric Bastiat
Morality is not law. Nor should it be. Law is not morality. Nor should it be. Morality is often described as a personal set of principles of behavior each of us ascribe to. This is true, to a point. It is personal. However, that does not mean that there is not an overarching and eternal standard toward which morality should be aligned. Many principles of moral behavior differ between cultures and societies. Some are incorrect, others incomplete. Still, I think it is safe to say that morality is a personal thing.
Law, on the other hand, was in this country and in others dictated by a constitution and the idea of limited government. Morality, many formerly understood, was the realm of family life, church community, and society to instill in the individual. Government was not envisioned, once upon a time, to have any realm over the education or character-building of the individual. Law was naught but a preventative measure, one that would ensure that the citizenry’s negative rights were protected and contracts honored as a loophole to the system. Nothing more, nothing less. The law exists to protect your person, your property, and your freedoms from immanent and certain harm. It is dangerous territory for a government to be passing laws that aim at building the character of a person, and the history of the world is riddled with dictatorships that did the same. There is not a single totalitarian government that did not make morality a purpose of their laws. This is true for the simple fact that forcing morality on a people often conflicts with the negative rights of that people. Protecting people from themselves is wrong. Limited government means protecting negative rights only.
Enter Democracy, whittling away at the idea of limited government and constitutionalism. Everything changes. Everyone wants their personal values imposed on the system, and lobbies accordingly. You will notice today that with all of the people vying for control, we have a hodgepodge of moral standards, many of which having nothing to do with protection of persons or property. Democrats and Republicans have very different standards of morality-as-law – but both believe that morality has a part to play in the government. Democrats believe that the moral principles of equality and “fairness” should dictate everyone’s lives (Many Democrats accuse Christian conservatives of “legislating morality,” quite often, though it is rare that you ever seen any Democrat aware of the fact that egalitarianism is itself a moral principle – one of a more base and thoughtless preposition than Christianity, but I digress… When in a discussion with a Democrat that brings up “legislating personal morality,” don’t hesitate to mention this fact…). Republicans believe that the moral “family values” principles, more typically those derived from tradition and religious mores, should dictate everyone’s lives.
Examples abound when we think of moral principles that are not enshrined in law. And people like it that way, though everyone believes the behaviors to be immoral. Cheating on your spouse is something everyone thinks is detestable. Not many would encourage fines or prison time for cheating. It is a personal matter. On the other hand, there are many things that are illegal but not immoral. Exceeding the speed limit is one such example, as is improperly wiring your house. It is extremely doubtful that if you were in every aspect of your life moral but disobeyed these laws that you would find yourself in hell after you died. Furthermore, we have a duty to resist and break laws that are immoral to begin with. Many, many of our laws are not only morally neutral, but wrong. Legality has no bearing on morality, ingrained as we are to believe that this is not true today.
There is a cognitive dissonance in all of us. Morality is not legality. Legality is not morality. The two concepts are very different, and the realms should be kept separate to have the most functional and flourishing society possible. Not a utopia. Not a perfect society. One where churches and families mean something again, where economic means ensure that everyone has basic sustenance, and where people are free to do as they please and let God be God instead of government telling us what is right or wrong…
Again I ask… Why do laws exist? What does the government exist to do? Do you have a cohesive vision of the purpose of the government?