Legislated Morality

In a previous piece (The Free Market and Morality), I argued in favor of legislated morality, in the abstract. Fortunately, my sloppiness could not survive for long, and I was asked in the comments section to specify what laws in particular I would prefer, which did not involve people actually injuring each other.

(For my purposes, I am going to restrict myself to activities that are entirely voluntary for all parties involved, and do no direct harm to anybody.)

Having thought about it for a few days, I keep coming back to the entertainment industry. Take music, for example. The Greeks knew the degree to which a person’s moral instincts were shaped by the very music they listened to; Aristotle even went so far as to advocate banning certain musical modes entirely from the city, as being too discordant and not instilling the proper love of harmony in the listener. The Phrygian mode especially (which is today called Dorian mode) was seen as promoting vice. Much to be preferred were the morally edifying Lydian and Dorian modes (Dorian is today called Phrygian mode, ironically enough).

Does this seem farfetched? It is widely known today that hooligans generally do not like classical music, and public malls have taken to playing such music on loudspeakers to drive away criminals. How can such people dislike classical music so much that they will actually leave places where it is playing?

I remember when I first began listening to Metallica. I really liked the music, which was unusual for me; generally I consider most rock to be terrible. But at the same time, as I listened I could feel myself becoming coarsened in some subtle manner. Perhaps it was the aggressive electric guitar, or the pounding precussion. It was worse when I would work out in the campus weight room. Someone would usually put on some sort of rap or hip-hop, which makes for excrable listening. Aside from the lyrics, the effect of the music itself was like a jackhammer to the brain, with a relelntlessly pounding beat that obliterated all thought before it.

Music is a language, and communicates information just as surely as words do. That the information is emotional and not logical does not make it any less real. And its effect on the human spirit is profound. Aristotle wrote that good music teaches the listener to recognize and even to seek out true virtue. The opposite is true as well. Are we then to simply allow people to make whatever music they want, and then to inflict it on the public sphere?

The Beatles were seen in their day as shocking, even dangerous. Compare them to the cesspool that is modern music. Can anyone doubt that there has been a real moral decline? Or that its effects are felt throughout society?

Similar arguments can be made for television or movies, or computer games for that matter, and much more easily than for music. Now I am not arguing that "immoral" music should be banned entirely, if such a thing would even work. But it should be banned from the public sphere. If children want to listen to such things in the home, that is their parents' concern. But the public sphere is our concern, and we should not permit it to become the dumping ground for everything that people don't want in their homes, as it has become.

So much for entertainment. The other thing that comes to mind is body piercing.

I am continually astonished by the miracle of the human body. That nerves and sinews and muscle work together so flawlessly (in general), that the endocrine system can maintain such a complex and delicate balance of chemicals, is staggering. And people are so cavalier about poking holes in themsleves?

Earrings and nose piercings have a long tradition, and I have no quarrel with them. But the more exotic manifestations denote a certain disregard of the human body, or even in some cases actual self-loathing. It cheapens the value of human life; it is perhaps suicide writ small. A bit overstated, but not by much. So I would ban all piercings besides ear and nose; teenagers can keep their melancholic angst to themselves, and should not be allowed to damage their bodies on a whim.

Both degraded public entertainment and body mutilation hurt no one directly, or even indirectly except at several removes. They are purely voluntary for those directly involved. And yet to allow both free license, as has been done, undermines the morality of entire societies. It is here where the Non-Agression Principle fails, I think, and where strict libertarians come up short. Morality best grows in an environment suited to morality. It is the task of societies to provide that environment.


Ozarks Nick said...

Okay so wow. When I posed the question I anticipated one of the more common responses. I'm unsure of your policy regarding comments so if my post gets too lengthy or you feel it out of line please feel free to delete it with my apologies.

I don't believe that I've ever heard of a case made for the outright ban (in public spaces) of either of these two things.

But regardless of what it is you want to ban for whatever reason, I always have to ask if it is worth actually making a law?

What I mean is that I believe that things of this nature should be regulated, for lack of a better word, by society -- not by law.

You seem to be making the case that degenerate music has caused our moral decline. But I would argue rather that it is the moral decline that is producing degenerate music (and entertainment in general).

And I believe that society does do a good job of regulating that. As you mentioned yourself, public places often play classical. I've never been to a place blaring heavy metal or rap or some such.

Well except one. There's a hardware store/Radio Shack here in my town whose Radio Shack owner thinks it's wise to play one of his display car stereos at full volume with the bass turned all the way up. I can not shop at that hardware store without getting a headache. So I don't shop there any longer, and I believe that is the key to society's regulating of such unacceptable behaviour.

As was proven with prohibition and is now being proven with illegal drugs if you push an industry underground with laws it'll just keep on going.

But if society lets these punks' wallets know that we're not going to stand for it, then that makes a much louder statement.

So instead of trying to legislate something you don't like, teach your kids not to like it. Get other folks you know that don't like it to do the same.

I think that most of society would agree with you on your stance on these two things, but they're just too scared or don't care enough to take a stand. But there was a time when a kid could get admonished by a stranger on the street for doing something unacceptable.

Laws will not change a society. But if we again teach our young people to value and respect the sovereignty of each and every individual, and we live that way; I think that'll do much better than any thousands of laws.

Anyway, those are my thoughts, take them as you will.

Asher Litwin said...

Heh, if I kept up more currently with Mastiff's comment lines, I could have warned you off asking him such a question... you're lucky you got off easy with him only doing those two things! Hehehe, ok, enough of me being silly.
I must say though... the thought that these things should be banned in public places is a new one I have heard from you, Mastiff... seems more conservative-minded than I expected, the idea that the government should step in and control such moral things. While I can hardly disagree with your idea of these things being less than healthy for one's moral well-being, I have to admit that the thought of the government trying to legislate such a thing is a bit on the iffy side for me, both for my own political ideas and for sheer practicality.
I would have to agree with Ozarks in what he said about the need for parents to teach their kids, although this is hardly something we can hope to be an end-all solution. Morals are too varied among the parents of our generation for that; we all know that too many of our parents today are less than stellar in their morality tutoring. This was driven home to me when several of the members of my cast in the play I am in (in which, I'm sure, I am the only non-liberal) were talking about the Terri Schiavo case and all they could referr to was how the parents must have been huge Bush supporters to get Bush to try to assist them in keeping Terri alive, or it was some "screwed up idea about the value of human life", in their approx. words. They said why should the government worry about such things when they could instead be helping the poor. I didn't open my mouth... the last thing I need is for the entire cast to hate me... but I wanted to express my disgust at that. I couldn't believe that here a woman had literally starved to death (a horrible death by any measure), and all they could think about was how Bush must have been taking money to try to save her. Completely overlooking the issue of the value of life. I mean, Jeeeez!
It's a yucky thought... but there are some things that people cannot be expected to be proper in. We can hope for parents to do the right thing... but we can't expect it.
And yet I still believe that in things like piercings and music the government has no right to regulate. While I don't agree with these expressions of emotion or whatever, it is not the duty of the govn't to fix these things. The government should keep people from killing and cheating each other... let the local gun-toting vigilantes like I hope to be someday take care of the rest... oops, did I say that out loud? (disclaimer: that last sentance was a joke. Please don't hurt me.)
Sorry I wasn't more articulate with my comment... it's 1:40am here in California.

Mastiff said...

Ok, where to start...

I completely agree that the primary responsibility lies with the parents. I don't advocate banning such music entirely, just getting it out of the public sphere where parents have no control. And I mean mostly things like public concerts and such.

I don't mind "driving it underground," since my main concern is that society needs to establish a clear baseline for what is proper. Should you choose to deviate from it, that's your business; but now there is no baseline, no standard.

A hundred years ago, or even fifty, I would have agreed that government regulation was unnecessary, and that society could effectively self-regulate. Unfortunately, since then an ideology has sprung up that says, "I can say whatever the hell I want to, and if you want me to stop, you can $%&* off." It has grown so pervasive that civil society no longer has the power it once did.

Though it goes against my instincts, I see no way to reverse this trend without the coercive power of government. Of course, such laws will never pass, so the point is academic anyway. What we are left with is exactly the approach you describe; but I still do not think it the best approach for the situation, only the most practical.

Re whether degenerate music causes a moral decline or the other way around, I can't say. What I can say is that such music spreads degenerate views that were previously found in smaller sections of society, to the whole. Further, any attempt to elevate the society must fight against these forces before they can get anywhere.

But at any rate, such discussions are academic given our present conventions of government. So what is left is action by private citizens, as you said.

One thing though. You say that laws will not change a society. I profoundly disagree. Consider the corrosive effect of the welfare state, or various forms of gun control, on the national character. People will largely act as they are trained to act, largely think as they are trained to think. Law is a powerful mechanism to do this. That is why we must be so careful not to overuse the law.

Sheesh. Maybe I should just make this into another post. Oh well, too late now. This is fun, thanks for the dialogue Nick :-)

Hey Ash, start thinking of a single incisive question that you can ask your fellow actors without getting yourself ostracized, that will inspire original thought. It's fun to mess with people's heads...

Ozarks Nick said...

One thing though. You say that laws will not change a society. I profoundly disagree.

Okay, perhaps I should have said that I don't believe laws will change society for the better.

Take prohibition or "drug" laws for instance. The thing being "banned" suddenly goes over to the dark side and becomes more desireable to the very type of people that you don't want to have it in the first place.

This is fun, thanks for the dialogue Nick

No problem, thanks for the responses as well.

Asher Litwin said...

I would like to make an addendum to my comment previous... I was tired, and not entirely thinking. I agree that in the public sphere, it actually would be a good thing to remove. However, I think that things such as concerts cannot be ethically regulated. Having such music blasting on the streets is one thing... not like we allow people to have sex out in the streets, so there's precedent. However, for organized things like concerts, I don't think that the govn't should have the right. As a performance artist, I can't advocate removing the ability for people to perform, even if their art is somewhat degenerate. Performance is our life. That simple. You can't expect a band to get their satisfaction from making albums only... their enjoyment comes from a live audience. So that cannot be infringed upon.

Oh, and Mastiff? What would be good questions to mess with fellow actors' heads? *grin*

Anonymous said...

I think the problem with your argument as you present it is that you have chosen two incidents that, although annoying and morally problematic, are not of sufficient importance to allow legislating against. If you allow the government to intrude at too low a level; then you begin to run the risk of having more important issues legislated (such as banning the practice of religious rights -- like circumcision -- practiced by non-Christian religions) and losing basic freedoms. Unfortunately, allowing a free society means opening the door to behaviors that we don't necessarily agree with, but to infringe upon would reduce everyone's freedom. What Nick says is right; we need to teach our children and to embrace ethical systems that will promote moral behavior from generation to generation (morality-based religions tend to be fairly successful at this). Laws need to be used judiciously and only to maintain public order and safety. We need to realize that freedom brings responsibiliity. We need to be teaching THAT in the universities -- not anarchy and the concept that freedom is the ability to do anything I *** well please.

Legislating Morality said...

You seem to think the private and public are different. Private actions have public impacts. Privately listening to naughty-naughty music will have the same social impact as socially listening to it.