Why Conservatives Are Wrong to Legislate Morality

Last April, I wrote a blog post titled “Rousseau Blowing Up The Right of the Stronger.” Rousseau was arguing against the idea that morality is derived from the greater force; in other words, (this idea argues that) if A is stronger than B and forces him to do action X, action X is moral. And so on, regardless of the content of action X. All that matters is that A was the “stronger” and therefore all of the actions B takes because A forces him are moral actions.

Rousseau blew up the argument by pointing out the incoherence in the concept of morality if it is true that there is a right of the stronger. He points out “To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will; at most it is an act of prudence.” Morality exists only because of choice. You have the choice to be moral or immoral. But if morality is a function of the greater force, then 1) you are not acting out of duty (as one thinks of morality), but only necessity (as Rousseau says, the word “right” adds nothing to force and therefore means nothing), and 2) there is no longer any concept of immorality; after all, you cannot even act immorally if you are constantly forced to be moral.

My purpose here is to show how this argument applies to legislation in government, although it may already be clear to some readers by now.

Often, individuals (especially conservatives) attempt to legislate morality. Two examples that immediately come to mind are 1) making drugs (such as marijuana) illegal and 2) making prostitution illegal.

Rousseau is arguing against a general right of the stronger, that is, the right of the stronger in all instances. But does legislation of particular activities leave the concept of morality intact? It does in all particular cases that aren’t legislated against. But it destroys the concept in the areas that are.

Suppose actions A,B,C are immoral and X,Y,Z are moral. Can we force an individual, say, Mr. Jones, who chooses to take actions A,B,C, to act morally? Rothbard responds:

Is Jones moral because he chooses X when he is forcibly deprived of the opportunity to choose A? When Smith is confined to a prison, is he being moral because he doesn’t spend his time in saloons getting drunk?

There is no sense to any concept of morality, regardless of the particular moral action one favors, if a man is not free to do the immoral as well as the moral thing. If a man is not free to choose, if he is compelled by force to do the moral thing, then, on the contrary, he is being deprived of the opportunity of being moral. (Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market, p. 1305); emphasis mine

Clearly, there is no meaning to morality if it is dependent on the right of the stronger. And clearly, there is no meaning to morality in specific instances where force is used and the will of the actor is prohibited.

Photo Credit: francescofissore via Compfight cc

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Posted on August 6, 2013, in Ethics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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