Does Legality Establish Morality

Walter E. Williams wrote an article this week titled “Immoral Beyond Redemption”.  In the article he asks, “Does legality establish morality?”  Take a moment and think about this before you answer.

Mr. Williams gives some examples.  Slavery was legal; apartheid was legal; the Nazi’s Nuremberg Laws were legal; and the Stalinist and Maoist purges were legal.  I’ll add some of my own.  Forced abortions are legal; honor killings are legal, stoning is legal, amputation is legal.

Does legality establish morality?  I believe the answer is a resounding no!

How should free people respond if a law is legal yet the law itself is wrong?  How do people judge the law itself?

Let’s start at the beginning.  Prior to government man lived in a state of nature.  There were no government laws only the laws of nature.  Every person possessed certain rights such as the right to life, to property, to association, to contract, to trade, to liberty, etc.  We possess these rights because we exist and they are not granted to us or conferred upon us by other men.  These rights are referred to as negative rights because every person possesses them and requires nothing from any other person except the recognition that everyone has these same rights.

If one man builds his shelter, grows his own food, and produces things he wants and desires; then what he produced is his property.  If another man comes along and takes his property it is wrong.  To paraphrase Bastiat, “life, liberty, and property does not exist because of government.  Rather government exists because man has life, liberty, and property.”  As I watched the Hatfields and the McCoys mini-series the other week it reaffirmed precisely why man enters into civil society.  Neither family was secure in their life, liberty, or property because they were constantly defending these things from attack.  Each family exercised their rights in protecting their lives and property.  Each family violated the others when they sought retribution.

The beginning and the end of government is to better protect and preserve the individual’s right to life, liberty, and property.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Because people institute government the people must protect themselves from government itself.  History is replete with governments exercising dominion and authority over people depriving them of life, liberty, and/or property.  To protect themselves against government tyranny the people devised a set of rules, a rule book if you will, that defines the rules government must follow.  In our case the rule book is called the Constitution and it is what governs government.

When government uses power or enacts laws that are not in the rule book government violates our rights.  Not just one person’s rights, but everybody’s rights.  A particular action may not affect you directly, but indirectly all violations and usurpations of power that violate the rules are seditious acts against the people.  In some cases you may agree with or condone the government acts.  However, by condoning arbitrary acts by the government you implicitly acknowledge arbitrary power which government may use in a future act against you which you may vehemently condemn as a violation of the rules.

When government uses power against some people to take property from them and government then gives that property to another government violates the very purpose for which it was instituted.  If one person steals the property of their neighbor on the left and gives that property to their neighbor on the right it is crime.  Property has been stolen.  It is illegal and immoral, and it is wrong.  When government uses the law to take property from one person and give it to another is it moral?  I believe we answered that question earlier.   Moreover, is it right for government to use the coercion, force, and intimidation to take from one and give to another?  The answer is a resounding no!  Government was instituted to protect life, liberty, and property.  Government was not instituted to turn the laws against the people to plunder their property.

For the most part, civil society is based upon the premise that people are free to chart their course in life, to make their own decision, and be personally responsible for those decisions. Likewise, much of society functions upon the premise that interactions are voluntary.  Interactions in the economy, in personal decisions, in personal relationships are voluntary.  Two people voluntarily choose to engage in the purchase and sale of a good or service.  A personal voluntarily chooses what pants to wear that day.  Two people voluntarily choose to marry.

Government has no business interjecting itself into voluntary decisions.  The entire economy is based upon voluntary interactions.  The government’s role is simply to ensure commerce flows freely amongst the states and with foreign countries.  Adam Smith’s invisible hand is a term used to describe the self-regulating nature of markets.  However, when government enacts tens of thousands of laws, hundreds of thousands of regulations, and controls the money supply and the cost of money (interest rates) there are no free markets.  Government amputates the invisible hand and replaces it with a pernicious claw.

A free society cannot be based upon coercion and intimidation.  A free society must be premised upon voluntary interactions by people personally or economically.  This is what it means to have personal and economic liberty.  Likewise, the absolute right to property must be secure.

If people voluntarily act to enter into civil society and institute government for the sole purpose of better protecting life, liberty, and property are the people committed to the arrangement for perpetuity?  If two people can voluntarily marry they can also voluntarily divorce.  One person cannot force the other to remain in the marriage against the others will.  Likewise I cannot force another person to buy a product I am selling.  Can the very government created by the people use force, coercion, intimidation, and punitive acts to compel people to remain in the arrangement?

Is it beyond your ability to consider that perhaps the parties to the arrangement should part ways and re-form a new government?  Your normalcy bias tells you this makes no sense because all you’ve ever known your entire life is one country.  Perhaps people would be happier to live under a new arrangement.  Even if you don’t agree do you believe you or your government should force people (or states) to remain in an arrangement against their will?  Even if it is within the legal authority of the government to force people (or states) to remain in the arrangement, is it moral?  is it right?

If you truly believe in people living freely you must support the right of self-determination and the right to voluntarily leave the arrangement.

1 Comment

Filed under Constitution, Philosophical

One response to “Does Legality Establish Morality

  1. Many good questions here. Unfortunately, the Constitution is not perfect. It requires people to already be moral in order to uphold its many valuable qualities. Government has some role in setting up those boundaries of morality & many will disagree on where those boundaries begin & end. If 90% of a community agree that cigarettes are dangerous & pass a law to ban them, do they have the right to impose such a law on the 10% who don’t? What about pornography or highly addictive drugs? Why is the speed limit 55 in some places, when a non-moral person would take their own life (and the lives of others) into their own hands? Does your willingness to risk your own life mean I have to be subjected to the negative fallout from your potentially dangerous behavior? When does the will of the majority outweigh the will of the few?

    The Constitution empowers the government to raise an Army & maintain a Navy. Historically, this has always required a form of involuntary conscription. Even if you voluntary enlist, once you are in the armed forces, your freedom to leave is limited by the terms of a contract you may later wish to withdraw from. Is it moral, then, to go AWOL just because you no longer wish to uphold the contract? The original confederation (the perpetual Union) required unanimous agreement for changes & gave states their own sovereignty which allowed them to secede at-will. The revised (more perfect) Union did not grant such sovereignty, but required ratification of only 3/4 of the other states for changes or for new states to join. At this stage, most if not all states have ratified all parts of the “more perfect Union.” If you accept the premise that 3/4 of the states can bind the remaining 1/4 into any decision, then it is very difficult to argue that it is “immoral” for the government to impose upon them an arrangement they have all agreed to by allowing 3/4 to decide for the whole. And if you believe that sovereignty belongs not with the states, but with the individual, then answer if it is “moral” for a person to go around in public completely naked if they choose, drive as if there is no speed limit, do highly addictive drugs & engage in similar activities which history tells us are “immoral,” regardless of how doing so may be offensive or dangerous to others in society.

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