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Can We Legislate Morality?

During the Irish potato famine, desperate people needed help desperately. Parliament passed a law with moral overtones, but individuals governed by the law found a workaround.

Their workaround was to evict starving people from landlord-owned homes. In doing this, the landlords were no-longer responsible to help the people who were living in landlord-owned houses, as Parliament had required.  

In assessing the Poor Laws, could we conclude that Parliament had attempted to legislate morality?  Why, or why not?

Put differently ... when the landlords were refusing to help their tenants, and Parliament passed a law requiring the landlords to help, could we say that Parliament’s new law was an effort to legislate morality? Explain your answer.
                                        
Robert Morrison MacIver (1882–1970, a Scottish sociologist and educator, talked about efforts to legislate morality in Chapter 5 of “The Modern State,” which Oxford University Press published in 1926. He uses these words on the topic:

What then is the relation of law to morality? Law cannot prescribe morality, it can prescribe only external actions and therefore it should prescribe only those actions whose mere fulfillment, from whatever motive, the state adjudges to be conducive to welfare.

What actions are these? Obviously such actions as promote the physical and social conditions requisite for the expression and development of free—or moral—personality.... Law does not and cannot cover all the ground of morality. To turn all moral obligations into legal obligations would be to destroy morality. Happily it is impossible.

No code of law can envisage the myriad changing situations that determine moral obligations. Moreover, there must be one legal code for all, but moral codes vary as much as the individual characters of which they are the expression. To legislate against the moral codes of one’s fellows is a very grave act, requiring for its justification the most indubitable and universally admitted of social gains, for it is to steal their moral codes, to suppress their characters.

Using 21st-century English, what is MacIver saying?

Do you agree, or disagree, with him? Explain your answer.


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