Taylor: Quick test for good and bad

You can’t legislate good. Or goodness, if you prefer. You can only legislate against badness.

I think I may have discovered a fundamental law of the universe.

OK, maybe not the universe. But at least of human affairs.

And that law is—You can’t legislate good. Or goodness, if you prefer. You can only legislate against badness.

Think about it—our criminal and civil codes are all about things that you can’t or shouldn’t do to another person. You can’t kill them. Hurt them. Cheat them. Oppress them. Conspire against them.

And we can enforce—more or less effectively—those prohibitions.

But you cannot pass laws that will make people be kind to each other. You can’t make them love each other. You can’t make them thoughtful, considerate, or sensitive.

You can pass laws that will tax part of everyone’s income and turn the money over to a worthy cause—be that cause education, health care, or (as in Germany) the established churches. But you cannot write laws that will make people generous. As soon as the donation becomes mandatory, it ceases to be generosity.

You can penalize promiscuity; you cannot mandate morality.

Goodness, kindness, love—these are always voluntary.

St. Paul listed desirable attributes in a Christian—none of them can be enforced.

The closest thing to a command to be good comes from the Hebrew book of Leviticus, later quoted by Jesus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

It’s like the variants of the Golden Rule, found in every religion and culture: “Treat others as you would want them to treat you.”

Neither of those admonitions can be imposed. Not even by God, it would seem. The best they can do is create a climate in which people feel social pressure to conform to certain standards.

And even conformity may be mistaken. White South Africans conformed, for generations, by treating black people like cockroaches. Devout Hindus still maintain an equally punitive caste system. Some churches and religions apply a kind of gender apartheid to women.

Admittedly, my thesis has fuzzy edges. China bans additional children; the Vatican bans devices to restrict children. Some states prohibit abortion, even for forced sex; others use abortion to undo overly voluntary sex. Judaism prescribes genital mutilation for males; some other societies, for females.

Because these are all imposed, my “law” would consider all of them wrong.

I suspect that I have always rebelled against arbitrary rules and regulations. At times, when I worked in corporate environments, I admit that I did my best to subvert the petty procedures that sprout like mushrooms in the compost of bureaucracies.

I would love to live in a world that didn’t require rules and regulations at all. Where each person was sufficiently concerned about each other person’s welfare that we didn’t need punitive laws to prevent us from harming each other.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that kind of world.

At least my principle gives me a quick test for distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad. If it can be legislated against, it’s probably bad. If it can’t be enforced, it’s probably good.