Can the Law Make Us Better People?

It was the day of the election and we were talking about gay marriage.

“I think what really needs to happen is that people need to educate each other on tolerance and acceptance, because even if the federal government passes a law legalizing gay marriage, it won’t change people’s minds,” she said.

Then, after gay marriage won victories in Maine and Maryland, I was talking to another friend about the same thing.

“You can’t change people’s minds by passing laws,” he said. “We have to wait for people to get there.”

In both cases, I said the same thing:

“Do you think the South in the ‘60s would have voted for the Civil Rights Act? What if interracial marriage had been up for a public referendum?”

For some people, it’s still a chicken and the egg question – did our society become more racially tolerant because of the Civil Rights Act, or did the Civil Rights Act make our society more tolerant? If the federal government passed a law protecting gay marriage, would society as a whole become more accepting? It’s culture, say my friends, that changes minds.

Undoubtedly, human civilization has marched on a progressive path. We crawled out of hundreds of years of subsistence level surviving and invented books, the light bulb, and American football. We invented a federal government to ensure that resources could be communally accessed and shared. Finally, we pretty much universally agree that it’s wrong to own people. We think that education is essential. But did we get here because we became kinder and more enlightened as time went on? Would we have achieved these humanistic gains without government to help us along?

Look, you know why government is necessary. But we need to ask this question, because what we’re really asking here is, can we legislate ourselves into better people?

If we didn’t have laws prohibiting murder, how many people would be on a killing spree right now? If we didn’t have laws prohibiting racial discrimination, how many (more) people would be unemployed, trapped in poverty, and deprived of an education? The truth is we are not altruistic. History has shown that, given the chance, we will take advantage of other people for our own gain. We will pillage and destroy for more money, more land, more sex, whatever. But the other truth is, we are not terrible, either. If we didn’t have a little altruism in us, how could we have cured polio or invented water filtration? This is what being alive is: a constant fight between our best and worst selves.

We can acknowledge that we, as humans, have a tendency to do pretty shitty things sometimes. But because we’re such smart, self-aware creatures, we can beat ourselves at our own game. That’s what the best civil legislation does. When we’re our best selves, we pass laws to keep ourselves from stepping on another person’s rights when we’re our worst. All the legislation in the world can’t stop someone from being racist, homophobic, or misogynist, but it can stop someone from doing something that will cause those beliefs to harm another person. My friends are right when they say we can’t change people’s minds by passing laws. We can’t make people kinder or more accepting. But we can make ourselves pay attention to the bad things we do, and slowly, slowly fix them.