Acton Institute Powerblog

When to Make Law

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

A good question and discussion over at WorldMagBlog: “Should everything that’s immoral be illegal, regulated, or punished? If so, by which kind of government (include family and church as kinds of governments)? Can you give an example of a behavior that’s immoral but shouldn’t be regulated by the state?”

My answer:
Here’s what Aquinas has to say on this (in part), and I think it has a lot of merit in determining when and in what situations conduct should be legally sanctioned:

“The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still” (Summa Theologica, II.1.96.ii).

The point is that in cases where the law would cause greater evil to be done, it is not prudent to criminalize the behavior. Prohibition strikes me as a particularly excellent example of this.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Both sides of controversial issues in this country fail to recognize the harm that they are doing by forcing a particular moral belief on the rest of society. As a pragmatist, I realize that I must give some ground in order to get any “good” from the laws that are created.

    For example, a friend of mine is pro-death penalty and will not bend on this issue. After talking with him however, becameame clear that he didn’t want to ever see a murderer released from prison. I tried to explain to him that he would never convince the “other side” that the death penalty was the correct moral action, but that he could convince them to create a system in which murderers are never released. His desire to have the “whole cake” made it impossible for him to accept any type of compromise, even though it would allow him to get the outcome he wished for.

    Another great example is the war on drugs. I agree that drug use is bad and has no place in our society. However, because of our drug policies we are incarcerating our youth, creating gangland violence, and empowering the type of people that would gladly sell crack to a six-year-old. Our policies are doing more harm then good, and from a pragmatic viewpoint we need to change our policy. I know many of you out there are against this, but look at the results.

    Why do children kill eachother on street corners to sell their drugs? Are children that are raised in tjuvenileile detention facilities more likely to be career criminals? Why do drug kingpins that are murderers make so much money? All these problems stem from our drug policies, so you decide, is recreational use of drugs so bad that you would prefer to create and empower murderers and career criminals?

  • The CrunchyCon blog at NRO is currently discussing the issue of factory farming, which is apparently covered and described in some detail in Dreher’s book (my copy currently is on order, having not been privy to the “crunchy con”versatio

  • Pingback: Black Friday and Thanksgiving Thursday | @ActonInstitute PowerBlog()