Over at Master of None, Michael Williams comments on an example of trying to substitute legal regulation for moral behavior. He says:

Many of the problems with our government arise from well-meaning people who reject the quaint notion of morality. They just can’t encourage people to behave morally, so they chip, chip, chip away at the tiny freedoms that make immorality dangerous. They want to prove that the benefits of goodness can be separated from actual goodness. But they’re wrong, and the result of their belief is the ridiculous, contradictory mess we’ve got now.

This reminds me of an argument that I associate with Miss Manners. She says (and I think she’s on to something) that historically there have been three broad mechanisms of social control: law, morality and ettiquette. You might refrain from taking some action because it’s illegal, because it’s immoral, or because it’s rude. Each mechanism is best applied to distinct types of behavior, and uses different types of sanctions to punish offenders.

As the power of ettiquette declined through the 20th century, attempts were made to substitute morality in its place. Thus, things that used to be considered impolite came to be viewed as moral offenses. Now that morality is also declining as a social force, the process continues through attempts to replace it with law. Things that used to be considered immoral thus become criminal.

One problem with this is that the law is an excessively blunt instrument, and works very poorly at enforcing what really should just be norms of polite and/or moral behavior. When law is the only mechanism of social control, the scope of the law has to be coextensive with the scope of behaviors that need controlling, i.e. it has to be coextensive with the full sphere of human action. Another phrase for that state of affairs is “totalitarian police state.”

Another problem is that trying to misapply one type of social control to problems that should be addressed by a different one undermines respect for the misapplied method. Elevating breaches of ettiquette to the level of moral offenses has the unintended side effect of placing genuine moral offenses on the same level as impoliteness. Similarly, placing (now-debased) moral offenses on the same level as criminal behavior effectively makes crime similar to non-violent moral lapses, and transitively reduces crime to the level of a difference of opinion.

(I was quite surprised the day I first realized just how eviscerated the broad moral consensus has become. Try to think of an act that the vast majority of people in the country would consider immoral. Now try to think of another one that isn’t at root a variation on lying. It’s harder than you think.)

Update: I left out an important qualifier in the above request. What I’d intended to write was “Try to think of an act that the vast majority of people in the country would consider immoral that is not also illegal.” The difficulty of coming up with examples is representative of the extent to which law has been substituted for moral judgement.

7 Responses to “Law, Morality and Ettiquette”
  1. Michael Williams says:

    Thanks for the link. I like the ettiquette/morality/law hierarchy, I’ll have to remember that.

  2. Sigivald says:

    Putting toddlers in a wood-chipper, and rape.

    Coming up with #3 might be hard, though.

  3. Kyle Haight says:

    Whoops… I left out a key part of that last paragraph. What I meant to write was “Try to think of an act that the vast majority of people in the country would consider immoral *that is not also illegal*.”

    That would rule out both of your examples. But you’re right with respect to the question as originally stated.

  4. Michael Williams says:


  5. Kyle Haight says:

    I’d need some convincing that suicide is really that widely perceived as immoral. My impression is that a lot of people view suicide as tragic, but not as immoral (if that distinction makes any sense). OTOH, I am in California and that means the cross-section of people I talk to on a regular basis is a skewed sample.

    It’s a good candidate, though.

  6. Dan says:

    Refusing to support your children (prior to them turning 18, that is).

    Yes, *if* a court has ordered you to support your children, then not doing so is also illegal. However, even in the absence of a court order, failure to provide for your children is certainly considered immoral by a majority of society.

    I would also say that it is widely considered immoral for the wealthy people to not share their wealth with the needy, or to live ostentatiously while the poor go without. Some sort of act(s) of philanthropy is expected.

    Finally, adultery is considered immoral by practically everyone. This could perhaps be considered a variation on “lying”, but I don’t think it should be, since most of society would still frown on a married man who, with his wife’s knowledge and consent, sleeps with other women.

  7. Kyle Haight says:

    Good ones. Although I will note that the idea that only suckers get pulled into supporting their children has been emerging in the welfare subculture. It’s not a majority, but it’s sadly not fringe either.

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