Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Morality in politics

“You do not have a right to enforce your morality on other people.”


This is a statement often heard in conversations about any political issue that can be phrased in moral terms. One side will say that something is immoral, and the other side will claim that it doesn’t matter, that the government should not be in the business of enforcing morality.

Being on the left myself, I have seen this kind of argument employed many times against conservatives. I’ve also seen it used by libertarians against progressives. But one way or another, no matter who brings it up, it is a bad argument and usually a hypocritical one. We all need to stop using it.

The idea that government should be morally neutral is an old one. It holds that society can be compared with a complex game in which different people have different goals and follow different values, and the role of the state is to enforce the rules of the game. So the government should be like a referee in a game of football: it should not take sides or support any one player’s goals and values, but merely ensure that everyone follows the rules.

The problem with that vision is that the rules themselves are not morally neutral, so the state is not actually taking a neutral stance when it enforces them. Every government rule (i.e. every law) is based on some concept of right and wrong. Therefore every law is based on a certain view of morality.

We have laws against murder and rape because we believe that murder and rape are immoral. We have laws protecting free speech because we believe free speech is good (which is to say, moral). We have laws that guarantee free public schools for children and Medicare and Social Security for the elderly because we believe these things to be good and moral – because we believe that at least some people have a right to education, health care and a decent income, even if we can’t agree that all people do.

Even laws that don’t have obvious moral implications, like speed limits on the highway, are usually meant to protect people from some danger (like highway accidents). So they are still based on a moral vision – the idea that the government has a moral duty to protect people from certain dangers.

And what happens when you don’t agree with the government’s idea of morality? What happens if you go above the speed limit because you don’t think you need protection from danger? Or if you refuse to pay taxes because you don’t want your money spent to help other people? Or if you stab someone who slept with your wife or husband because you think you have a right to revenge?

The government comes in and punishes you in some way. That is how society works. Not just our society, but any society that has ever existed or could ever exist. There are certain rules, and if you break them you get punished. Different societies have different rules, but they all uphold their own specific rules for moral reasons.

This is why it makes no sense to argue that the government should not be enforcing morality. Enforcing morality is what the government does every time any person is arrested or fined for anything. Now, we can disagree about which particular moral rules are ones that the government should enforce. In fact, every time a person says, “You should not enforce your morality on other people,” what they really mean is, “Your moral rules are wrong, and should not be enforced; but my moral rules are correct, so they are the ones that should be enforced.”

Libertarians, for example, often say that the government should not force anyone to pay taxes to help other people, so they are opposed to state-funded education, health care or social security. They claim a government that provide these things, and raises taxes to pay for them, is too intrusive, imposing a “help-your-neighbor” morality on people who disagree with it and violating our rights to be left alone. But the moment you say that people have a right to be left alone, you are making a moral claim. You are saying that you want the government – and all people in society – to obey your view of morality (“leave-me-alone” morality), as opposed to any other possible moral code. So libertarians demand government-enforced morality just as much as progressives and conservatives do. They just have a different set of morals.

And by the way, the “leave-me-alone” morality, when it includes “don’t touch my property without my approval,” can lead to a government just as intrusive and violent as any other kind of morality. For example, a government that follows libertarian morality can kick you out of your home. That is exactly what has been happening with all the millions of foreclosed homes all around the United States. If people fall on hard times and cannot make their mortgage payments anymore, then their homes become the property of the bank. So, in the name of enforcing the bank’s right to private property, armed policemen can come to the house, evict the family living there and board up the doors and windows to make sure no one can go back in. Libertarians consider this to be moral.

In reality, there can be no such thing as a government that does not enforce some vision of morality, someone’s idea of right and wrong. To complain that you do not want morality enforced on you is hypocritical, because, assuming you want to live in society, you also wish to enforce some kind of moral rules on other people. The debate should never be framed in terms of whether or not we should enforce morality. Rather, the proper way to frame it is to ask which particular moral rules are correct and should therefore be enforced.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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  • R

    richabbsMay 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    What a “Strawman” argument! Of course libertarians have morals and they advocate that their moral framework is best. The libertarian moral framework, however, does not advocate that those in charge of enforcing governmental powers use that governmental power in favor of one group over another group. Just because the people who control government happen to be in power because the favored group voted them in, does not give them the right to play favorites.

    Let’s take the author’s example of foreclosures. He seems to indicate that the government would be “immoral” if it was used to enforce the bankers’ rights to foreclose on mortgaged “homes” for failure of the mortgagee to honor his/her contractual agreement with the bank. He seems to do so, not based on any principle, such as the rule of law, but rather on some adherence to favoring mortgagees over bankers. I’m sure the author of this piece would even advocate for the government to come in and change the contract between these parties (after the perfection of the contract, not before) and eliminate or reduce the mortgagees’ debts at the the expense of either the bankers or taxpayers.

    This is, of course, what Obama did with GM. Have taxpayers bailout the favored group (GM and their unions, who were both major Obama campaing contributors) and change or strike contracts that the favored group had entered into with others (GM’s suppliers). The rule of law be damned if the progressive’s favored group is on the wrong end of the rule of law.

    So, yes, following one’s morals to establish laws is ethical, although libertarians would argue their moral framework is best (just like progressive would argue thier’s is preferrable, conservatives their’s and so on). However, once established, through reasoned debate and via a democratic process, the laws should be enforced by the government in a neutral and unbiased way. A libertarian, and I believe most ethical humans would agree, that the enforcement of the law be done impartially and not in a way that would favor one particular group over another.

  • A

    Antonio LorussoMay 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    You skip over the part where you put murder in the same moral league as unilaterally taking money by force to pay X (insert what you want funded not voluntarily, but by force). If that’s the principle then anybody can can take anything they want from anybody, but expect nobody to take back from them, which fails the consistency test. Consistency is not sufficient, but a necessary component of any argument that is no more than opinion – that’s how you begin to separate out morality theories, not by conflating moral with good.

    It is good to give someone help voluntarily, or to ask that they be helped. It is moral not to hurt them, it is immoral use force except in the face of force, which means it’s immoral to force somebody to help someone else. If it’s immoral not to help somebody, then we are all evil, because we are by definition not helping everybody, which means you are being immoral in your sleep, because you aren’t helping anybody.

    Morality has to be about specific actions with regards other people you interact with by your actions, not vague outcomes, or it becomes anything you want it to be.

    Your first moral metric should be:

    Who used force first? That’s the person that is being immoral. Who didn’t use force first? That’s the person that is being moral. When you use force any other way, cloak it in all the good intentions you want, it’s immoral. This definition of morality is consistent with murder, rape, assault and fraud. (Obtaining anything by deliberate deception is a substitute for force, because by lying you concede that the other person would not have agreed on the basis of the truth)

    I’ve left property systems out because that needs to be left to agreement between people on what system they use again through mutual negotiation, not top down force, those who want public property will group with like-minded people, those who want private property will do like-wise, both groups will respect each other’s property systems. But once people agree on property systems and to respect other people’s property systems, evaluation by force can be used. Everything else is a negotiation between people.

    Put down the gun of the government or this isn’t a debate, it’s an armed robbery masquerading as one.

  • R

    RhinanthusMay 7, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    The practical question is not “should the government EVER legislate morality” (the author shows that it is impossible to legislate in a moral vacuum) but rather “WHEN should morality inform legislation”? The answer is that laws should reflect moral concensus in society but cannot impose legal restrictions when concensus doesn’t exist. Laws prohibiting murder work because almost everyone agrees that murder is wrong. Laws against the sale of liquor didn’t work because many people don’t consider drinking alcohol morally objectionable. I would argue that the laws against soft drugs, abortion and same-sex mariage are in the same league as laws against sale of liquor: they can’t be enforced because too many people don’t consider such behaviour to be morally wrong and society cannot lock up a significant proportion of it’s citizens.

  • J

    JessicaMay 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Wait, so, just to clarify, you’re not using the word “morality” to refer to any SPECIFIC set of rules of behavior, but to the whole idea that we should have SOME set of rules of behavior. Right? Then I can see what you mean – we all consider some things to be good and other things to be bad, and all governments must also decide that some things are good and other things are bad (therefore taking sides in the morality debate).

  • B

    BrianApr 23, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    I think it’s important to remember that just because different views on morality exist, and just because you acknowledge their existence, that doesn’t mean you think they are all correct or that every view is “equally valid” or any of that postmodern nonsense. Different people, cultures and societies have different moral norms… and some are correct and some are incorrect.

  • A

    A Keen Interest in PhilosophyApr 23, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Also, Mason, you say that some laws are meant to prevent things like murder, rape and theft, and that these are in a sense more “basic” laws because “these laws are universal across all nations, all governments and even without government unofficially formed… There is only one view of what morality in this means at least I hope.”

    But you are wrong. There is absolutely NOT anything like a single view of morality, even when it comes to these things. Sure, we can all agree that murder, rape and theft are wrong, but different people (and different societies and different governments) have very different definitions of what constitutes “murder”, “rape”, or “theft.” For example, in some cultures it is ok to kill a man who killed one of your family members. They don’t think revenge killings are murder. But in our culture revenge killings are considered murder, and they are punished by the government. On the other hand, there are some people in our culture who believe that dropping bombs on cities with civilian populations is murder. Our government does not think so, and considers that form of killing to be ok. Or to use a third example: If a man threatens you with a knife, and you pull out your gun and kill him without warning, was that murder or self-defense? Different people have different views. So you see, we can all agree that killing people is SOMETIMES wrong, and we call those times “murder”, but we do NOT all agree on what separates murder from justified killing.

    It’s the same for the definitions of things like rape or theft. What counts as “rape” depends on what counts as consent, and different people have different views about that (for example, can you consent if you’re drunk?). What counts as “theft” depends on what you think about property relations. Do you believe that the Earth rightfully belongs to all Humanity, rather than a few private individuals? Then you will argue that a corporation cutting down rainforest for private profit is theft. Do you believe that the means of production rightfully belong to the people who work with them? Then you will argue that capitalism is theft.

    So, in fact, there are no such things as actions that are universally considered immoral. You can’t build up your laws on the basis of “well, we can all agree that X and Y are wrong…” No, we CAN’T all agree. Some people will agree and some people will disagree. And the government will have to side with one group or the other.

  • A

    A Keen Interest in PhilosophyApr 23, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Mason, you rely far too much on John Locke. His philosophy has major flaws that have been pointed out by other philosophers after him. The biggest one is the fact that Locke’s “state of nature” is an imaginary thing which never existed. There is no “natural” situation of Man that we can use as a yardstick for measuring various societies. Human beings have ALWAYS lived in different societies with different laws and rules. There are no such things as “natural” laws and “unnatural” laws. No law is any more or less “natural” than any other law.

    You can clearly see the confusion that arises when you try to use the imaginary “state of nature” yardstick to decide which laws are good. On the one hand you say that it is natural for people to “cheat, lie, steal, hurt, et cetera”, which are bad things that the government should stop. But on the other hand you claim that property rights are natural too, so the government should support them for that reason. So which is it? Are “natural” things good or bad? Should the government be restraining our natural urges or letting them loose? You seem to be saying that it should restrain some but support others. Why? And who gets to decide which ones go in which category?

    You see why Lockean thinking is a dead end…

  • H

    hmmApr 17, 2012 at 6:40 am

    i thought you were socialist, MT. the Iron Laws of History are not moral; morality is proper, like all culture, to the current level of development of productive forces… etc…

  • M

    masonApr 14, 2012 at 1:34 am

    This is a very interesting article because it seems to have no relevance at all.
    You seem to be debating an abstract issue and what I mean by abstract is that it exists entirely in an abstraction. And what I mean by that abstraction in a philosophical sense in that you have conceived an issue separate from reality and only by that separation than could you consider, engage and debate it. Doing so and perhaps what conclusions you could reach, could than be applied to reality.
    Except I don’t see the application here. I haven’t really read or consider much about the subject aside for fun but what you seem to implicitly be referring to is the person who set the philosophical foundation of “libertarianism” and that was determined by…John Locke.
    John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” which is a brilliant political philosophy because of it’s powerful clarity which is simple but incisive.
    Basically you have this concept man exists in a “state of nature” and man’s natural interest is to act in his selfish interest and that is often to cheat, lie, steal, hurt, et cetera and exclusive of all things he is only chiefly concerned with his self. Now what John Lock seems to have done is create a political application of utilitarianism; which really is just a modern form of Aristottle’s Politics where he lays out what a society is, it’s function and why it should exist.
    Anyway so man is only considered with those rights and so you must create a society where man does not act in his chief interest, where you must force him to act good and you achieve this end by government and in exchange for the protection provided by government against the wanton acts of other men he gives up certain liberties and in the end we are all better off, we achieve maximum utility.
    So John Locke introduces this idea of property and property seems to be akin to man’s natural interest in his nature but because it is human nature to want to possess and have selfish control over a portion of our lives; than we must extend through this by allowing him property and property rights. You seem to be alluding to this.

    So there are two types of laws. I forget the precise legal terms, but there are laws which forhbit certain behaviors and these laws are universal across all nations, all governments and even without government unofficially formed. Laws against murder, rape, theft, et cetera. Laws which violate morality. There is only one view of what morality in this means at least I hope.
    The second type of law are laws created by the government which may center around ethics yet regardless only forbid an action because the government deems it as wrong not because it violated what is universally considered immoral. These laws can depend on “subjective” view, subjective demands of the populace, need for the government to encourage or discourage certain behaviors and are rarely considered with any moral cause but are essentially marketed that way. It is important for people not to speed as if we all started speeding than more people would die, this would be costly, not good for society, et cetera.
    Then you end the article by referring to factions and maybe you should have referenced that too. Factions being groups that act in their self interest in ignorance of the greatest good for the greatest amount of people and the consequence but not intent is those consequences can support the greatest good(maximum utility), reject it or ignore it, at it’s core it’s opportunistic and counter to utilitarianism.
    I say it has no application to reality but this op-ed piece has only mentioned the same talking points and talking points which can’t seem to have any real effect beyond discussing it.

  • L

    LeniApr 13, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    Wow, random off-topic racist comment with no connection to the article whatsoever. This is new. The un-ironic use of the term “final solution” was a nice touch, too. Signaling much?

  • J

    JasonApr 13, 2012 at 3:08 am

    Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY White country and ONLY into White countries.
    The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them.
    Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY White country and ONLY White countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-Whites.
    What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries?
    How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?
    And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this?
    But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the White race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.
    They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-White.
    Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White.

  • B

    BrianApr 13, 2012 at 1:20 am

    Hmm, I never thought of it that way. People who say “don’t impose your morals on me!” always have some morals of their own that they want imposed.
    Even “everyone should be able to do whatever they want as long as they don’t harm others” is still a moral rule (and one that nobody REALLY supports, if you push them on it – there are always some private activities, like building your own nuclear warhead, that all sane people want outlawed). It’s a moral rule because it still needs enforcement. Someone needs to come in and punish you when you harm others (and that same “someone” has to decide what counts as “harm”, of course).