Thought Control: Government Should Not Have the Power to Legislate Morality

by | Mar 19, 2003

You are jolted awake at 1:00 a.m. by loud knocking on the door. Alarmed, you and your girlfriend rise to answer. The police barge in and arrest you both on suspicion of having had premarital sex. Sound like something that would happen only in a dictatorship like Iraq’s or China’s? Next week the U.S. Supreme […]

You are jolted awake at 1:00 a.m. by loud knocking on the door. Alarmed, you and your girlfriend rise to answer. The police barge in and arrest you both on suspicion of having had premarital sex. Sound like something that would happen only in a dictatorship like Iraq’s or China’s? Next week the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that if not overturned will grant legitimacy to such governmental power. (In a disturbing 1986 decision the Court upheld the constitutionality of such power.)

The case is Lawrence v. Texas. In 1998 Texas police, responding to a neighbor’s deliberately false report of an armed intruder in the apartment of John Geddes Lawrence, entered his unlocked apartment. Discovering that Lawrence and Tyron Garner were having consensual sex, the police jailed them on charges of violating Texas’ Homosexual Conduct Law. Lawrence and Garner are now challenging the law.

At issue is not whether a particular sexual practice among consenting adults is in fact moral or immoral. At issue is something much broader: whether the government should have the power to enter your home and arrest you for having sex because it regards your sexual desires as “base,” the power to enter your laboratory and arrest you for running a scientific experiment because it regards your research as “sinful,” or the power to enter your business and arrest you for making money because it regards the profit motive as “wicked.”

At issue is whether the government should have the power to legislate morality.

If you want to live in a free society, the answer is: No.

To answer “No” does not mean we should throw out laws punishing murder. It means the government’s function is not to become the thought police, charged with ensuring that citizens act on correct ideas. The government’s function is only to stop an individual from taking action (e.g., murder) that violates the rights of other individuals. It means that the absolute moral principles at the foundation of a free society preclude the government from becoming policeman of morality.

Our Founding Fathers understood that, like any other form of knowledge, moral knowledge–knowledge of good and evil–requires a mind free to follow the observed facts and evidence wherever they lead. They therefore created a political system that protects the sovereignty of the rational mind–the very source of rights. Each American has the right to think, to express his thoughts in conversations, speeches and books, and then to act on his thought in pursuit of the values his life and happiness require. (So long, of course, as he respects the same rights of others.) He must have these freedoms because knowledge comes not from obedience to authority but from reason. “Fix reason firmly in her seat,” Jefferson explained to his nephew, “and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”

To incarcerate John Lawrence because he engaged in homosexual sex is to do violence to his reason.

According to Lawrence’s judgment, sex with the right, consenting adult represents an important, moral, life-affirming pleasure. The state demands that he discard this judgment–or face jail. But to force someone to obey produces no moral enlightenment in his mind; it only incapacitates his means of understanding. Even granting for the sake of argument only that homosexuality is immoral, in jailing Lawrence and Garner the government does not persuade them that their action is wrong. It merely makes them fear believing and acting on what they continue to think is right. No knowledge, moral or otherwise, can be implanted by the instruments of coercion. “Force and mind,” in Ayn Rand’s memorable words, “are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.”

Observe that the need of a mind to be free in order to reach knowledge implies that it has the right to make mistakes (you may think Lawrence and Garner mistaken). There is no such thing as the freedom to think so long as you reach “government approved” ideas. That would make the state guardian of “truth.” That road leads only to what it always has led to: the non-thought of, say, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Soviet Russia or Europe’s Dark Ages.

In essence the government of a free society bans only one action–the initiation of physical force–precisely because force prevents an individual from following the judgment of his mind. The government of a free society does not seek to control its citizens’ thoughts by, say, jailing homosexuals or hypocrites. Its function is to stop other people from violating one’s rights, not to force them to be good–which is a contradiction in terms.

Force vs. mind, authority vs. reason, obedience vs. thought–that is what is at issue in Lawrence v. Texas. At the birth of this great nation Jefferson swore “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Let us hope today’s Supreme Court remembers his words. Otherwise, the government’s next knock on the door may be for me or you.

Dr. Ghate is a resident fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute where he teaches in the Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center. He has lectured on philosophy and Objectivism throughout North America.

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