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 22


  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. 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. 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. 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.

  5. All laws as well as the decision not to have a law are moral decisions. We legislate morality in even laws that the law defines as mallum prohibitum. For example it could be fairly argued that there is no moral wrong for someone exceeding the speed limit by one mile per hour or that there was no moral right by driving slightly under the limit. However, there is a moral premise or value behind establishing such a prohibited limit. The value or premise is that we wish to preserve lives and reduce unnecessary, unwanted or unintended harm that frequently occurs from driving too fast for the conditions of the area and roadway. Thus the moral value being legislated from such line drawing is preservation of life and property. If one looks hard enough at any law they can find some kind of value or morality being promoted.

    Similarly, if one chooses not to legislate on a certain subject let us use abortion as an example we are making various potential moral statements that can be interpreted in numerous ways. For example: “a woman alone should have the right to choose whether to carry through with her pregnancy”. To pretend that such a statement does not have an impact on others is simply wrong. On the first perimeter of this allocation of rights is the potential father, then other children, the grandparents, and society as a whole.

    This whole idea that we can make decisions without impacting others is over simplistic. It assumes that we are all unconnected with no interdependencies. However, by living in a society we are all connected. Our decisions or lack thereof impact everyone around us. The only issue is the degree of impact and the consequences of the impact.

    I reject the assertion that 99.99% of the people need to agree on something before it can be reduced to a law. To use my earlier example of a speed limit you will never find that 99.99% of the people agree on any specific limit for any one place, unless you are willing to accept that we have to set the speed limit through a school zone at >90mph which defeats the entire purpose (of saving lives and property). You introduce the “hecklers veto” of the 1/100th of a 1% to determining what sound public policy should be.

    I further reject the notion that “imposing your personal morality on others requires you to initiate force against them.” The failure to enact laws which reasonably protect the +99% of the public from perceived right of the 1/100th of a 1% to speed through a school speed zone is forcing the majority of the public to be subjected to unnecessary and irresponsible danger.

    The problem is almost never whether lines need to be drawn but rather when and where to draw those lines. I would agree that lines should rarely if ever be drawn based upon the opinion of 50% +1 of the populous maybe not even at 85% (note the percentage itself is a subject of line drawing). One must always consider the degree of impact on the various parts or members of society. The legitimacy of the goals. Is there a problem that needs to be addressed? Will the legislation address the problem? Will i make things better or worse? What are the potential unintended consequences of the proposed legislation? It can rarely be reduced to a simplistic formulae however, having guiding principles when analyzing these issues is very important. To that end the suggestions presented by the zero aggression project are noteworthy. Forcing people to consider these (or any) values/morals in creating or choosing not to create legislation is extremely important. As Thomas Payne pointed out Governments function is to restrain the untoward nature in mankind, because society already provides the positive benefits from living together.

    1. The extremity of the view is something I found hard to swallow as well, (on second glance) especially in light of what just happened in New York in relation to abortion.(has the whole DNC in NY a completely broken moral compass?)

      This governor made no attempt to hide his contempt for those who disagree with him, either:

      It’s no wonder that New York is seeing an exodus, if they maintain this level of statism.

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