Legislating for Good Behaviour

Posted on January 27, 2010


Both Labour and the Conservatives seem to be falling over themselves in trying to stop excessive drinking. No one who has strolled down the local high street in any British city on a Saturday night will have failed to notice the often high levels of intoxication of local inhabitants. This culture of ‘binge drinking’ might be the height of incivility in Britain and it is, one could argue, the mark of a culture of excess and hedonism. Government plans to act on this issue might contain good intentions but also flaws.

Although not perfectly analogous, the bid of the current government to promote good behaviour is reminiscent of the attempt of Louis IX, the 13th-century French monarch, to do the same. Louis IX, a devout and morally sound man, tried to enforce on his people, through his authority and legislation, the teachings of the Scriptures and of the Church. Among other things, he prohibited swearing, games played for money, and taverns open to local people. In contrast, Aquinas argued it does not belong to human law to quell every possible vice. First, human law does have a role in moral education but ‘too much too soon’ might be worse and focus, consequently, should be placed on the most serious harms (e.g., murder). Second, prohibiting, say, excessive drinking can actually encourage even more excessive drinking – the law becomes a means of provocation to some. On a more fundamental level, this illustrates Aquinas’s point that human law is drawn from natural reason and all rational beings are able to derive the common principles of natural law. These will direct us towards the common good but the knowledge of how to achieve the common good is not exclusive to a ruler.

More than anything else, this episode seems to be yet another desperate attempt of the Brown premiership to control ‘nitty-gritty’ details of people’s lives. Unruly behaviour, such as binge drinking, cannot be legislated away but can only be fought by promoting virtues, tradition, and, finally, human reason.

(It will come as no surprise to many readers that some material in this blog entry has been inspired by the work of Alasdair McIntyre.)