Law Verses Virtue

Posted: September 9, 2009 in Category - A Commentary From Bo, Law Verses Virtue

In one class within my MA program the Professor asked the question whether we believed that a law-based or moral-based system is the better system.  I took the opportunity to apply my knowledge of the Framers and the Bible to answer the question.  The Framers were very concerned with virtue.

John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” John Adams famously announced in 1798. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” George Washington said, Human rights can only be assured by a virtuous people.

Why were the Framers so concerned with virtue?  The conclusion I have come to is that virtue promotes freedom through lawfully obedience and therefore, a free society. See if you agree!


Law Verses Virtue

By Bo Perrin

A law-based system would seem to eventually reduce to despotism. As I understand it a mere law-based, system is a system where obedience is not driven by a moral-induced responsibility to follow a law but out of fear of punishment if a person does not. Inevitable, the organization which punishes the person who violates a law is the State who maintains the organizations to force obedience and the power to change the law at its whim. The purpose of a law is to create a boundary which is not to be crossed. Kant argued that civil society does have a moral content although I would redefine his use of moral. (p. 584) I realize that the term moral is used and defined in different ways leading to ambiguity and equivocation amongst many authors. So, I will define the term moral, ethic and virtue as I understand them. If we accept the normative definition of moral then a moral is a set of standards by which a person, group or society lives. I would define the word ethics as the precise and specific individual laws which make up the standard as a whole and virtue is the internal commitment to follow the standard of ethics which have been given or created. If so, then even if a law does not deal with an ethical issue like stealing or lying this law, with all other laws, becomes the moral of our society. A civil society’s tranquility is based upon the populace who makes up that societal obedience to the moral standard which has created for them. But a law cannot in and of itself force obedience. It is merely a line that has been drawn in the sand in which a society declares that this sort of behavior is not permissible. A law that says that a person should not murder another does not and cannot force obedience but can only summarily declare that a person ought not to do whatever it is the law prohibits. In other words, law seems to be negative because it describes what we cannot do for the most part. Obviously, when we are told the limitations of our actions we are also informed as to what is permissible but in form a law seems to always describe what we are not to do. My understanding is that obedience is either given freely or taken by force which means that if we take away morality, as popularly understood, then force is the only option and force works through fear. As mentioned earlier a law does not and cannot engender or force obedience for its purpose is to merely record what society does not permit. If obedience is not given freely then the only reason a person will obey is because he is afraid of the authorities. You see this in action as you drive down the freeway. There are drivers going 75 or 80 mph in a 65-mph zone until they see the Highway patrol officer sitting in his usual haunt. Of course, then you see the brake lights come on and the drivers slow down to avoid punishment. Of course, I don’t do this! Ha, ha. Anyway, this is an example of obedience being forced through fear of punishment. In addition, I would argue that if obedience to a societal moral has to be force by the fear of punishment then more people will attempt to get around the law and this will lead to an increase the number of violations of whatever law we are speaking about will lead to a break down in the fabric of society. If the general welfare of society is dependent upon the populace’s adherence to the societal moral then the more that moral is violated the more society breaks down and tends toward anarchy. I would disagree that civil society is possible among devils because being intelligent is not sufficient enough for a fully functioning society and leads to a society which is not free. (p. 584)

On the other hand, I believe a society based on virtue is a truly free society. Here I want to replace moral in the question with virtue. There is a difference between knowledge and virtue which is important to a well functioning society. Knowledge also has limitations. Knowledge like law cannot force or propel obedience. Knowledge is merely a set of facts, hopefully, about reality in our world. I do not believe these facts as facts are the basis of our actions. Instead, this or that fact is only the basis for why we choose this or that action. This is why intelligence is not enough for a properly operating society. The society may know all there is to know and what is right or wrong and still not act upon what they know. Humans do it all the time. There has to be something else which compels us to act upon our beliefs.

It seems that the connection between knowledge and action is virtue. Virtue is the internal drive to make a choice which is determined by what a person is taught either through nature or some specific revelation. What makes a society driven by virtue different from a society which is driven by force is simply the freedom to make one’s own choice. Generally, the term virtue is used to refer to making the right choice and properly so in some cases. Nevertheless, in a general sense virtue can also define an individual who does what is wrong or goes against a societal moral if he does so freely. Sometimes going against a societal norm may in fact be the right thing to do. But I am going to use the term virtue to refer to doing what is societally right. In this sense, virtue was very important to the founding fathers as they drafted the Declaration and Constitution. They argued that the form of republicanism which they drafted could only be sustained through virtuous action. Virtue is also one thing, among many, which a Christian is to add to his or her faith (2 Peter 1:5). These virtues are the moral attributes of God (2 Peter 1:3) and these moral attributes are what make for a moral society. As I mentioned a moral is the general societal norm in which ethical considerations are delineate as to what is or is not proper for the populace. The ethical considerations, which we call laws, cannot in and of themselves force obedience. In a virtuous society neither the laws nor the authorities would not have to coerce obedience because a virtuous person would freely render obedience to whatever law we are speaking of as long as that law is moral. If the speed limit is 65 mph then a virtuous person would freely obey the law because of what they have been taught. A virtuous society needs information to know which course is the right or maybe just the best to choose. It also leads to a more fully functioning society as virtue compels action rather than supports inaction. It also engenders societal freedom for the virtuous make decisions to obey out of their freedom to do so rather than through the slavery of the threat of punishment. This also means there is a need for fewer laws to protect society’s welfare.  Finally, virtue also helps to promote a more unified society. If the welfare of society is dependent upon obeying the societal moral and a virtuous person obeys freely then few people, if any, will attempt to find ways to circumvent the moral.

If this insight is correct then the most important calling we have in order to save our nation is to produce virtuous actions in ourselves, friends and children.

  1. Tom says:

    Well said. This was the consensus of the thinking of each and every man who signed the US Constitution and the citizens of the sovreign states they were representing when they bound them to the new union by signing this contract of governance. Well said!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s