Mises Institute: Law, Praxeology, and Unintended Moral Decay

Attorney Robert Zumwalt at the Mises Institute writes about laws as an attempt to control individual choices, morals, and actions in Law, Praxeology, and Unintended Moral Decay. An excerpt is below, but it is worth checking out the article for context.

…Devlin argued, in his 1959 lecture, “The Enforcement of Morals,” that systems of laws are necessary to preserve a society’s “common morality,” which he believed was necessary to prevent the society’s “disintegration.” To him, this concern justified passage of legislation regulating the conduct of individuals’ lives. In his view, societies are justified in enforcing a common morality through legislation because this common morality is necessary for their own preservation.

To be fair, there is something admirable in Devlin’s analysis of the function of a common morality within society:

For society is not something that is kept together physically; it is held by the invisible bonds of common thought. If the bonds were too far relaxed, the members would drift apart. A common morality is part of the bondage. The bondage is part of the price of society; and mankind, which needs society, must pay its price.

However, Devlin did not stop at this basic observation that a natural means by which societies remain bonded is through a shared morality. He proposes that this need for a common morality justifies the imposition of legislation regulating individual conduct:

If society has the right to make a judgement and has it on the basis that a recognized morality is as necessary to society as, say, a recognized government, then society may use the law to preserve morality in the same way as it uses it to safeguard anything else that is essential to its existence. If therefore the first proposition is securely established with all its implications, prima facie society has the right to legislate against immorality as such.

There is an unspoken assumption at work here, however, which is that legislation against immorality does in fact strengthen moral bonds within societies. Unlike purely theoretical legal systems confined to academic literature, actual legal systems are subject to the reality that the societies they govern are composed of individuals who act to satisfy their own chosen ends. Viewed from this praxeological perspective, a strong case can be made that vigorous legislation is at least as likely to degrade social morals as it is to improve them.

Proponents of theories like legal moralism seem to assume as a starting point that men can be made to follow certain moral patterns just because the law directs them to. But laws do not change the ends men wish to achieve, they only impede men from achieving them. Thus, if the law forbids the sale of alcohol on Sundays, the result for some men will not be that they drink less of it, but that they will buy more of it on Saturdays and Mondays.

If hard liquor is outlawed, they will drink more beer or wine. If alcohol is prohibited altogether, some will evade legal enforcement. And those who do end up drinking less will not do so because the law has awakened in them a realization of the immorality of alcohol. They will do so only because they prefer to avoid punishment.

Therefore, the idea that legislation of moral behavior will induce a desired moral character in society ignores that individual men do not act for the purpose of fulfilling the “higher principles” for which the state passes its laws…

This is not an argument against societies pursuing shared moral values, nor necessarily against societies enacting laws that reflect moral values already universally agreed upon. But it is evident that moral values come from the individuals who make up a society, not from the edicts that legislators hand down from above. This brief praxeological exercise suggests that the meticulous legislation of modern regulatory states may in fact engender moral decay, as cynical compliance with bare law comes to replace respect for a shared morality as the overriding characteristic of society.

Fr. John Peck: Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought

Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought by Kirk Durston over at Fr. John Peck website is somewhat of a review or condensation/distillation of the book Sex and Culture. That book is a six hundred page summary of research by social anthropologist J.D. Unwin.

One winter afternoon I was relaxing with a half-dozen fellow graduate philosophy students discussing theories of law and punishment. About an hour into the discussion, it occurred to me that some moral laws are necessary because, although they might limit pleasure and enjoyment in the short term, they actually minimize suffering and maximize human fulfillment in the long term.

A few days ago I finished studying Sex and Culture for the second time. It is a remarkable book summarizing a lifetime of research by Oxford social anthropologist J.D. Unwin.[1] The 600+ page book is, in Unwin’s words, only a “summary” of his research—seven volumes would be required to lay it all out.[2] His writings suggest he was a rationalist, believing that science is our ultimate tool of inquiry (it appears he was not a religious man). As I went through what he found, I was repeatedly reminded of the thought I had as a philosophy student: some moral laws may be designed to minimize human suffering and maximize human flourishing long term.

Unwin examines the data from 86 societies and civilizations to see if there is a relationship between sexual freedom and the flourishing of cultures. What makes the book especially interesting is that we in the West underwent a sexual revolution in the late 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s and are now in a position to test the conclusions he arrived at more than 40 years earlier…

I have prepared a 26-page collection of quotes from his book that summarize his findings; but even that would leave you with a significant under-appreciation of the rigour and fascinating details revealed in data from 86 cultures. Here are a few of his most significant findings:

  1. Effect of sexual constraints: Increased sexual constraints, either pre or post-nuptial, always led to increased flourishing of a culture. Conversely, increased sexual freedom always led to the collapse of a culture three generations later.
  2. Single most influential factor: Surprisingly, the data revealed that the single most important correlation with the flourishing of a culture was whether pre-nuptial chastity was required or not. It had a very significant effect either way…

Unwin found that when strict prenuptial chastity was abandoned, absolute monogamy, deism, and rational thinking disappeared within three generations of the change in sexual freedom…

For the first part of the 1900’s, mainstream Western culture was rationalist and experienced enormous technological advances — from horse-and-buggy to cars; from hot air balloons to supersonic flight and spacecraft landing people on the moon; from slide rules to computers. Unwin’s three main predictions — the abandonment of rationalism, deism, and absolute monogamy — are all well underway, which makes the ultimate prediction appear to be credible … the collapse of Western civilization in the third generation, somewhere in the last third of this century…

Click here to read the entire article at Fr. John Peck.