Once more, against moralism in community

Legal moralists worry about the degradation of social norms and community connections. Their worry is that immorality tears at the “fabric of society” where that “fabric,” presumably, is the system of moral beliefs held in common by most people in the community.  Legal moralists are thus happy to impose their own moral views on others with the power of government—they think that this must be done if the norms (and moral beliefs commonly held) are threatened. 

In their willingness to use government power to impose their views of morality, moralists ignore the fact that when a government is empowered to force people to act in certain ways, that power crowds out the ability of individuals to interact freely with one another. That is a problem for their view because if individuals can’t freely choose to act in ways others (including the moralists) think is bad, they also can’t freely choose to act in ways others (again, including the moralists) think is good.  The problem for the moralist, then, is that you can’t have a morally good community if people can’t choose freely—you could at best have a simulacrum of such, more like a collection of automatons than a community of persons.  A morally good community is an association of moral beings—beings that choose for themselves—who (often) freely choose the good.  Putting this a different way, the moralist has to believe you can have a community made top down, forced upon members who are free, but that is impossible.  Community thus has to be made bottom-up; community is made by the individuals within it choosing to interact well together.

This applies, by the way, regardless of the level or size of community.  A condo or homeowners association, for example, can’t be made into a genuine community by fiat—even if those trying to do so take themselves to know (or actually do know!) what is best for everyone.  It simply cannot work—or rather cannot work unless everyone in the group agrees—in which case, it is not top down after all.  

To be clear: if you want to start a genuine community, do so only with people who already agree with you.  (Like, but not necessarily as rigid as, a cult.)  I’d add that if you want the community to remain a community, you’ll need a way to guarantee that all who enter it agree with you in advance.  (Again, like, but not necessarily as rigid as, a cult.) Otherwise, you’ll face opposition from some of the newcomers—different ideas about what the community should be.  And those ideas from newcomers (at least those who enter justly), will have just as much claim to be legitimate as yours.  Denying that entails not community, but moralist dictatorship.

4 thoughts on “Once more, against moralism in community”

  1. Andrew, when you say things above such as:

    (i) ‘if you want to start a genuine community, do so only with people who already agree with you’, and

    (ii) ‘if you want the community to remain a community, you’ll need a way to guarantee that all who enter it agree with you in advance’

    you almost seem committed to the idea that genuine community requires unanimity. But surely unanimity is too strong a requirement. When we talk about a healthy community — as opposed to a cult — the room for a certain amount of disagreement is part of what we have in mind. Put the other way around, requiring unanimity would make genuine community essentially cult-like. You yourself appear to recognize this problem when you emphasize twice in short succession the kind of unanimity you have in mind and describe it as ‘… not necessarily as rigid as a cult’. Maybe you could say more about the kind of unanimity you have in mind that is _not as rigid as a cult_. Or you could drop the idea that unanimity is a requirement of genuine community. I am skeptical that there is any conceptual space for a unanimity that is not cult-like since it is precisely the insistence on unanimity that makes a group creepy and cult-like. Therefore, I would recommend that you drop the unanimity requirement.


    1. Cool question. At the end of the day, I do think unanimity is required, but only for a core set of beliefs — those that make up the supposed “fabric of society.” Over time, of course, some of these will be changed (or removed entirely, perhaps replaced). Then you get into a question about whether the community is the same through those changes; a difficult question, but not one I can answer here. Importantly, there will always be non-core beliefs that don’t have to be common. Perhaps all need to share belief in a moral code but not in what colors are best.


      1. Just curious, but what is your impetus for taking up this topic? I don’t know of any serious academic defense of legal moralism having been proposed recently or any significant effort to implement such moralism in a practical political way. So I wonder if I am missing something (which I very well could be, hence my question). I’d also like to know how the issue of legal moralism fits into your current work to the extent that is your impetus.

        I might add that a lot of things that appear to be instances of legal moralism today (anti-abortion laws and transphobic laws, for example) are not actually instances of legal moralism because these laws claim as their primary justification to prevent some kind of harm (even if such claims of harm prevention are dubious). At least these kinds of laws are not pure or straightforward instances of legal moralism because, while the desire to “preserve” certain community norms or values may lurk hidden in the hearts of some conservative Republican legislators, I believe harm prevention remains the primary justification that is used.


      2. The impetus is 2 fold: (1) I know too many people that have very strong moralist tendencies. (2) There has been a rise in what seem to me variations of communitarian legal moralisms as of late. I’m thinking, in particular, of Deneen and Adrian Vermuele (“common-good constitutionalism”).


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