Can the Law Help Us to be Moral?



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Can the Law Help Us to be Moral?
Kimberley Brownlee and Richard Child1

A good constitution is not to be expected from morality, but, conversely, a good moral condition of a people is to be expected only under a good constitution.

– Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace2

1. Introduction

There are many interpretations of what it means to be moral and, hence, many ways of interpreting whether the law can help us to be moral. For consequentialists, what matters is whether the law can help us to realise more valuable states of affairs than those we could realise without it. For deontologists, the issue is whether the law can help us to honour our moral duties better than we could do without it. And for virtue ethicists, the question is whether the law can help us to be more virtuous than we could be without it.

In this essay, we consider our central question from all three of these perspectives. In doing so, we are careful to distinguish between (a) law in the abstract and (b) the actual law of any particular legal system. We show that, although some particular types of legal systems can indeed help us to be moral in each of the three ways just noted, many actual legal systems are conducive to great immorality and injustice. Being moral and living well under such regimes is likely to be much harder than it would be otherwise, even in the absence of any legal system.
2. The Instrumental Value and Intrinsic Value of Law

If law is indeed of value in helping us to be moral, its value is either instrumental or intrinsic (or both). Insofar as the value of law is instrumental, it functions as a tool to help us achieve various moral objectives.3 We shall consider law’s instrumental value under three headings: (1) Law as a moral advisor; (2) Law as a moral example; (3) Law as a moral motivator.

If, as well as having instrumental value, the law also has intrinsic value, this means that, where it exists, the law itself instantiates a certain type of moral value, irrespective of any further ends to which it contributes. Several writers argue that the subjection of human conduct to the rule of law is a uniquely valuable ideal that represents the most moral form of human governance.4 We maintain that, although law is indeed capable of having intrinsic value, this is so only as a contingent matter.

3. The Instrumental Value of Law: Law as a Moral Advisor

The law would be a good moral advisor for us if following its instructions would help us to be moral. This is the advice model of moral expertise. The advice model is about propositional knowledge (i.e. knowing what to do). A car repair manual gives good advice on fixing a car if its instructions tell us clearly what to do to fix the car and thereby help us to fix the car. But, of course, the manual itself cannot fix the car.

There are two main ways in which law might play a role as a moral advisor. These we refer to as the ‘coordination function’ and the ‘moral leadership function’ of law.
3.1 The law’s coordination function

One way in which law fulfils its coordination function is by taking various abstract moral norms and ideals to which the people in a particular jurisdiction are (or should be) committed and specifying them in greater detail. Consider, for example, coordination norms for driving on public roads. Abstract morality is indifferent to which side of the road we drive on.5 There is no moral reason as such to favour one side over the other. However, there is a moral reason to drive safely and, hence, there is reason to coordinate our driving so that we do not crash into each other. (For vivid evidence of this, see this driving video.) By instructing us to drive on the right or the left, the law takes the vague moral imperative to drive safely and turns it into a concrete guide to action. By treating the law’s instruction as authoritative, we act better morally than we would do if we each tried in our own way to apply the moral imperative to drive safely.6

Another way in which law might be thought to serve us by solving morally relevant coordination problems can be found in the work of Thomas Hobbes.7 Hobbes argues that law is valuable not just for refining existing morality but for actually creating it in the first place. In the absence of the state – a situation known as the ‘state of nature’ – each individual is as much of an authority as any other when it comes to determining the content of morality, and in particular the content of people’s rights. The problem is not simply that no one can truthfully claim to know the content of people’s already existing rights. The problem, in this view, is that there are no existing rights: people have no claims upon each other. In this case, the instrumental value of law, and the reason we have to bring a legal system into existence, is not related to its ability to specify existing rights in more detail, but its ability to create a system of rights in the first place.8
3.2 The law’s moral leadership function

There are two parts to the moral leadership function. First, the law exhibits moral leadership when it incorporates moral norms that, while generally endorsed by the wider population, are neither universally endorsed nor endorsed with enthusiasm at the time of their enactment. Examples of this moral leadership might include the law’s recognition that rape should be prohibited even within marriage, that children should be provided with special protections, and that people with impairments have distinctive needs that should be accommodated. A concrete example is the US federal government’s adoption of anti-discrimination civil rights legislation in 1964 that preceded popular support for equal rights in many states. When Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, he is said to have admitted to his aides that he knew he was handing the South to the Republicans for generations to come. (Here is the speech by Johnson at the signing of the Act.)

The second, more dramatic way that the law can fulfil its leadership function is by identifying and promoting moral norms that at the time are endorsed by only a fraction of the wider population. By highlighting neglected moral norms in what is often a forceful manner (see section 5), the law serves us by expanding our moral horizons and prompting us to attend to issues to which we might not otherwise have given much thought.9 Of course, the extent to which the law can actively defy public opinion and forge ahead to protect rights and goods that popular opinion does not yet appreciate depends on how responsive the law is to democratic pressure. If it is responsive to such pressure, then deep cultural or religious prejudices may inhibit the law’s ability to blaze a moral trail. It is a paradox of democracy that the limits it places on lawmakers’ autonomy is both its greatest strength and one of its greatest weaknesses.
3.3 The Limits of Law’s Role as a Moral Advisor

The law can fail to carry out its coordination and leadership functions most straightforwardly by enacting clearly unjust or immoral rules. If, for instance, the law denies basic political rights and liberties to women, then, far from fulfilling a moral advisory role, the law reinforces injustice and obscures the moral truth.10

But the law can fail to provide moral coordination and leadership in other ways too. Consider, for instance, laws that are formulated in hopelessly complicated language so that we who are subject to them are unable to understand what is required of us. Or consider laws that lead to unavoidable conflicts with existing rules, or that require us to act in ways that are physically impossible. To the extent that a legal system includes rules that fail to meet these basic standards – standards that constitute core aspects of what is commonly referred to as the ‘Rule of Law’11 – it will fail to fulfil its role as a moral advisor, even if there is nothing obviously immoral about the substance of the relevant rules.12

Of course, even if the rules that make up a legal system are morally worthy and entirely consistent with rule of law requirements, the law cannot be a moral advisor to us unless we treat its instructions as authoritative. Just as the car manual cannot help us fix the car unless we choose to follow its instructions, so too the law cannot help us to be safe in our driving or decent in our other activities unless we choose to follow its instructions. The important question then is: When should we treat the law’s requirements as authoritative?

Joseph Raz famously argues that, although it is inherent in the very nature of law that it claims legitimate authority over us, this claim is only justified when it is true that our submitting to the law’s authority – and thus treating its directives as peremptory reasons for action – will better enable us to comply with right reason than we could do if we tried to determine how to act by ourselves (i.e. by deliberating directly on the reasons that apply to us rather than via the law’s mediating authority).13 So, for instance, we might better comply with the reasons we have to drive safely if we simply obey low speed limits on winding roads instead of following our own deliberations about how to drive here, since it would be fun yet dangerous to drive fast, and hence tempting to those of us who are weak-willed to act against right reason if we followed our own deliberations.

Raz’s view is entirely consistent with thinking that the law’s claim to legitimate authority is rarely justified. (Indeed, it’s consistent with thinking the law’s claim to legitimate authority is never justified.) Whether or not the details of Raz’s ‘service conception’ of legitimate authority are correct, it seems likely that the only credible answers to the question about when the law has genuine authority over us are bound to refer at some point to the moral worthiness of its content. Of course, it may be open to us to treat the law’s requirements as if they are authoritative, even when they do not qualify as such. But what is certain is that the law can only help us to be moral if we have good reasons for submitting to its authority. And, as we explain below, this means we must never accept the law’s authority uncritically.

Finally, the ability of the law to be a moral advisor is inherently limited because its content is inevitably morally incomplete. Law cannot, and should not, attempt to intrude into all areas of morality. First, there are moral values, such as generosity, that cannot be realised if the associated conduct, such as donating to charity, is done out of a sense of legal obligation. As soon as such conduct is demanded of us by law, it ceases to have the uncalculating spontaneity and voluntariness that make it capable of realising the moral value of generosity and becomes more akin to the payment of taxes.14 Second, there are parts of morality that can but ought not to be incorporated into law, such as a spouse’s moral right not to be lied to about infidelity and the moral value of listening to another person well enough that we can summarise to her satisfaction what she has said. (Watch Jacob Needleman discuss attentive listening as a deeply moral act in which we let another person’s thoughts into our mind.15) And, finally, there are parts of morality that can be and may permissibly be incorporated into law but are not because the law cannot do everything. On matters above a moral minimum, the law is often silent.16 Hence, the law’s moral advice to us is inescapably incomplete.

These considerations mean that, as an advisor, the law is at best imperfect, at least when judged from a virtue-ethical or consequentialist perspective. Since the law invariably ignores many of the best parts of morality, it can only imperfectly help us to be virtuous and to achieve morally valuable outcomes. (Of course, there may be no other guide that could do better, but that’s unlikely. A wise parent or a humanistic spiritual tradition might well guide us better than the law.) The inherent limitations of law’s advisory role are less problematic from a deontological perspective. Since it is capable of incorporating and adding specificity to fundamental parts of morality, the law has the ability – at least in principle if not always in practice – to help us honour basic moral duties such as the duty not to harm others.


4. The Instrumental Value of Law: Law as a Moral Example

The second potential aspect of the law’s instrumental value is its ability to set a moral example. The law would set a good moral example for us if following that example would help us to be moral. This is the emulation model of moral expertise. The emulation model is about performative knowledge (i.e. knowing how to do something). A master chess player, who looks at a board and just sees the best move, has impressive performative knowledge of how to play chess. If we could do as she does, we would play chess well too. But, if this player cannot explain what she did to get the best move, then she cannot advise us on what to do. (The emulation model discussed in this section and the advice model discussed in the last section can be combined. Some experts – perhaps the best experts – know both what to do and how to do it).

There are two ways that the instrumental value of law might manifest itself as a moral example: first, when the law practises what it preaches and, second, when it serves as a model of virtue.
4.1 The Value of Law Practising what it Preaches

To suggest that law might be valued for practising what it preaches is not necessarily to say that law as law possesses intrinsic moral value (we discuss intrinsic value in Section 6). Instead, this part of law’s value lies in its instrumental role in increasing the likelihood that we will act as we morally should act. Thus, just as the law can advise us by incorporating certain moral norms into its instructions, so too it can set a good moral example by itself embodying those moral norms. For instance, a legal system that instructs its subjects not to kill can set a good moral example of this by outlawing capital punishment and refusing to sanction unjust wars. Similarly, a legal system that instructs its subjects against invidious discrimination based on sex, age, ethnicity, disability, nationality, or sexual orientation can set a good moral example by ensuring its own institutions are non-discriminatory.

There is an interesting question here of whether the law can succeed in setting a good moral example if it does not preach what it practises. If the officials primarily responsible for the operations of the legal system, such as judges, police, and prison officials, invariably respect moral constraints such as prohibitions on killing and torture, but the law itself does not explicitly include these prohibitions in its rules, will the law nevertheless succeed in having some positive moral influence on people’s behaviour? Or is it a necessary condition of such influence that the law also preach what it practises? We will leave this empirical question open.
4.2 Law as a Model of Virtue

As we saw above, some parts of morality, such as forgiveness, generosity, and kindness cannot be incorporated into law as demands upon us because doing so would rob them of the uncalculating good intentions that make them the moral treasures they are. However, to some extent, the law can model such virtues through its policies. The law can choose to be generous to strangers to our society who are in need. It can be welcoming to visitors and migrants. It can be helpful to other communities that are struggling or facing disaster. It can be forgiving to people who offend. It can be supportive of people who are vulnerable. It can be appreciative of people who are politically engaged even if they dissent. It can be tolerant of different ways of living. Thus, through its policies, the law can model, to some extent, the conduct that goes with virtuous states such as forgiveness, generosity, and kindness.

There is a further, more abstract way the law can model virtue. As H.L.A. Hart points out, the practice of subjugating our will to the directives of a system of general norms necessarily involves the application of certain ‘formal values’ distinct from the substantive values instantiated by the particular content of the rules.17 These formal values include seeing questions of conduct from an impersonal point of view; taking account of the wants, expectations and reactions of others; and exerting self-discipline in adapting our conduct to a system of reciprocal claims.18 Thus, even if the content of the law in a particular jurisdiction is not especially morally worthy, the experience of conforming our conduct to a system of generally applicable norms in conjunction with other people who are, by and large, doing likewise, will give us a vivid example of many of the formal elements of practical reasoning that go with conforming to the dictates of objective morality. Emulating the example given by the experience of living in conformity with legal norms may make it easier for us to conform to moral norms.
4.3 The Limits of Law’s Value as a Moral Example

One obvious problem with treating law as a moral example is that, in general, the mere existence of law suggests we don’t trust each other. It suggests we don’t expect that each other will generally honour the fact that killing, raping, torture, theft, assault, and defamation are wrong. (That said, we do seem to expect each other to recognise at least some acts as beyond the pale. In many jurisdictions, there is no law against cannibalism, and this may because we take it for granted that, outside emergencies, people won’t think it acceptable to eat a human being.) The distrust of each other that the law embodies casts a shadow over its merits as a moral example. Just as profit-driven enterprises make a poor model for generosity even if they give generously to charities, so too a distrust-driven enterprise like law makes a poor model for trust and openness, even if the law is applied honestly and openly. The nature and purpose of the enterprise of law colours any moral example it sets.19

There are many interesting questions here, which we will flag, but not address. Does the pessimistic apparatus of criminal justice show that lawmakers actually think the laws they make are too demanding? Or do they think the laws they make are reasonable even though they expect people to fall short and act wrongly? If they do think the laws are reasonable, is that because they think the laws are somehow divorced from other parts of policymaking such as the incentives, the support, and the education that people get (or don’t get) to help them live well?

A final reason for thinking the law has limited value as a moral example lies in the morally problematic things that the law must ask its members to do as a matter of course even in a reasonably good society. The law calls upon us, as officials and citizens, to do such things as threaten people, attack people, make laws that harm people, lie to people, detain people, isolate people, charge people with offences, make judgements on people’s guilt, sentence people to be punished, impose punishments on people, deprive people of their resources, and perhaps, in extreme cases, incarcerate people and possibly kill people. Carrying out (many of) these tasks is unavoidable even in a reasonably good society. The best that the law can do is minimise as much as possible the moral burdens it places on us in doing its bidding.20

Given the complexities of practical reality, it is essential that we adopt an appropriate attitude toward the overarching general rules that are law. It is ill-advised to see them as anything other than inevitably imperfect guides to action. And, it is vital that we cultivate a general sense of responsibility and sound practical judgement with which to interpret and apply the overly blunt, general demands of the law. As Gerald Postema notes, doing so depends not only on the quality of our training, but also on our ability to draw on the resources of a broader moral experience, which in turn requires that we seek to achieve a fully integrated moral personality. This is because practical judgement is both a disposition and a skill that must be learned and continually exercised. 'It is important,' he says, 'if we are seriously to consider matters of moral responsibility…that we pay attention to the conditions of development of this disposition and the exercise of this skill.'21

5. The Instrumental Value of Law: Law as a Moral Motivator

In addition to advising us on the content of morality and providing examples of how to act morally, the law might play a third instrumental role in helping us to be moral through its unique ability to motivate us to act in accordance with the dictates of morality. In this section, we consider three ways that the motivational power of law might contribute to helping us to be moral: 1) through directly communicating coercive orders to us; 2) through the indirect pressure to respect the law exerted by wider society; and 3) through the law’s role in supporting mutually beneficial practices by underpinning duties of reciprocity.


5.1 The Direct Coercive Power of Law

The most obvious way in which the law can ‘help’ us to be moral is by coercing us to act in accordance with moral requirements. (See Fred Schauer’s ‘Or ‘Emet Lecture on Law and Coercion.) If the content of the law in a particular jurisdiction is morally commendable, but those subject to the law are not motivated (or are only weakly motivated) to comply with its requirements, then the benefit of attaching a prudential incentive to the law’s directives is obvious. The threat of sanctions gets the job done by pushing us to comply. Of course, there are limits to the kinds of moral value that can be realised through such directly coercive methods, and we discuss these limits below.

A possible objection might be that, in commending the (qualified) instrumental value of legal sanctions, we are commending not the instrumental value of the law, but the instrumental value of the state as the effective enforcer of law. If this were the case, then the point we’ve just made about the instrumental value of coercion would be tangential to our main question, which is whether law can help us to be moral. The issue here is whether the coercive characteristics that we typically associate with law are a necessary aspect of the concept of law or whether their coincidence in every extant legal system is merely a contingent fact that tells us nothing about the nature of law. Undoubtedly, it seems true that we can make sense of the idea of a system of legal rules without appealing to facts about their coercive enforcement. But merely pointing out this bare logical possibility provides little illumination about the core aspects of legal systems. To resolve these thorny but, ultimately, rather arid terminological issues, we shall simply adopt Hart’s suggestion to see the relationship between legal rules and their concomitant sanctions for noncompliance as one of ‘natural necessity’.22 That is, while conceding that the concept of law can be logically distinguished from the concept of a coercive legal system, we follow Hart in holding that there is a more-than-merely contingent connection between law and coercion. Given the ‘setting of natural facts and aims’ in which we find ourselves, law without sanctions is empirically unlikely, if not impossible, and hence theoretically irrelevant.23
5.2 Indirect Social Pressure and ‘Respect for Law’

The existence of a legal system brings, in addition to the threat of sanctions, a distinct motivational pressure to conform to the law. This pressure comes not from the state, as the public face of the law, but from the wider society of law-abiding subjects. Consider the widespread tendency to think that the law has moral force, and that we have a moral duty to follow it. If it is now illegal to smoke in restaurants in our society, we will be surprised if we see someone smoking in a restaurant. A voice inside us might say, ‘Hey, that’s against the law!’, and we might even decide to communicate our disapprobation. (This idea is played out in the US show ‘What Would You Do?’) It is clear that one effective way the law can motivate compliance is to get as many of us as possible to adopt this critical attitude towards potential or actual law-breakers. Indeed, a rational aim of any government concerned with effective control is surely to reach a point where each of us internalises these critical voices and directs them against ourselves if and when we contemplate breaking the law.

There is little doubt about the motivational efficacy of this strategy when it comes to improving the level of law-abidingness in a society (though there is room for doubt over how successful any government’s attempt to pursue this strategy would be; our level of respect for the law is not something that administrations can easily control). What is abundantly clear, however, is that the moral value of this part of law’s motivational efficacy is again conditional on the content of the laws to which we defer. The goals of maintaining ‘respect for law’ and avoiding ‘bringing the law into disrepute’ often seem to be among the highest priorities of legal and governmental officials. But respect for law is only valuable when the law is worthy of respect.24

5.3 Underpinning Mutually Beneficial Schemes

The most obvious reason for the law to impose sanctions for offending is to increase the likelihood that recalcitrant individuals will follow the rules. That said, a powerful secondary reason is to provide assurance to everyone else who is already motivated to comply irrespective of the threat of sanctions, that their compliance will not be taken advantage of. We touched on the coordination function of law in Section 3, but the emphasis there was on the law’s epistemic role rather than its motivational role. What makes the law’s motivational role so important is that, while few of us are naturally motivated to abide by moral norms for purely altruistic reasons, many more of us are happy to abide by moral norms for reasons of reciprocity. What is needed to make use of this moral resource is some guarantee that those of us who make sacrifices now for the sake of others will receive a similar sacrifice from others (not necessarily the same others) in the future.25

This role of law in underpinning mutually beneficial reciprocity schemes has long been recognised as one of its most important moral benefits, and forms the central plank in social contract arguments for the legitimate authority of the state and the law. Of course, the history of the social contract tradition also makes clear why an appreciation of law’s ability to provide assurances to would-be co-operators is insufficient to guarantee that the cooperative schemes that result will indeed be mutually beneficial. Hobbes may have been right when he said that life in the pre-civil-society ‘state of nature’ was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. But, as the history of the twentieth century made emphatically clear, life for some people under the sway of totalitarian regimes is almost certainly worse.
5.4 Further Problems with Law’s Role as a Motivational Tool

The pessimism about human nature that underlines many extant legal systems can be found not only in the assumption that we need announcements of prohibitions to keep us in line, but also in the assumption that, despite those announcements, we will step out of line, and hence there’s a need for sanctions. The more expansive and harsh our criminal justice system is and the more extensive its use of police, prosecutors, courts, and prisons, the greater our society’s apparent scepticism about people’s willingness to act well toward each other.26 This underlines our point in the last section about the limits of law’s value as a moral exemplar.

When assessing the value of law as a motivational tool, however, its coercive modus operandi raises several further problems that we have not yet noted. First, the fact that laws usually come as coercive orders can actively hinder our efforts to be moral. There are the psychological risks of self-alienation, loss of integrity, and moral dull-mindedness that dog absolutist expectations that we follow the rules. If the law directs too much of our lives, it can impede our ability to cultivate reasoning skills. If we are cowed by the law, or manipulated by it, then we lose opportunities to reflect on how to act. We lose opportunities to cultivate our practical reasoning, good judgement, and will. And, this can make us less motivated to take responsibility for our conduct than we would be if we had those opportunities.27

Indeed, the risk of too many legal demands is not merely that we’ll develop weakness of will, but that we’ll develop resistance of will. The fact that the law always demands that we follow it can be a disincentive to follow it. It can make it more difficult for us to follow the law, even the good laws, than it would be if the law's expectations were not unyielding. Given this risk, it’s in the interests of any society not to have the law assert absolute priority, so that members can cultivate the will, commitment, and capacity for general law-abidance.28

A further worry is that it’s morally perverse for us to act well only because the law demands it. For example, it’s perverse to care for our children because the law expects it and not because we love them. This worry is analogous to a worry in moral philosophy, which Michael Stocker calls the schizophrenia of modern ethical theories.29 Stocker observes that we shouldn’t visit a friend in the hospital because it’s our moral duty. We should visit a friend in the hospital because she is our friend and we care about her. This issue of motivation takes us into deep moral waters. Some thinkers say that, if our act is morally right or good, the motivation that animates us is irrelevant. But, other thinkers would agree with the examples above that, in at least some cases, the motivation is key to the act being the act it is. For a declaration of love to be a true declaration of love, it must be motivated by true love, and not by a sense of duty or even a desire to make another person happy.

Being motivated to act because the law demands it can also pervert our relation to the law itself. This is because, as Stocker suggests, it’s a malady if we do not value what moves us to act. So, if the law is what moves us to act, but is neither what we actually value nor what we should value for itself, then we are moved by something we do not and ought not to value, and hence are alienated from our own motivations. Perhaps, though, we might think of the law’s instructions as helping us to ‘fake it until we make it’. That is, we might just do as the law says because it says so until we appreciate the underlying moral reasons to act as the law instructs.

These points add up, at best, to a mixed verdict on law’s value as a motivational tool. The main worry is that law may ultimately threaten the moral sensibilities that we could cultivate if its imperative voice weren’t booming at us. With this mixed conclusion in hand, let us now consider the potential intrinsic moral value of law.



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