Legislated Morality?

“Can you legislate morality?”

This is the question that Dr. Gurney, my Shakespeare instructor for this semester, asked the class as we began to study Measure for Measure. He saw the play as illustrating the complex dilemma of finding the balance between law and principle. Although he seemed to take it in a different direction and talk more about whether or not it was correct to legislate any type of morality. He saw the rules enforced by Angelo as being too strict, as being wrong to try to ‘tell’ someone how to live life. He briefly mentioned that perhaps making a law forbidding something makes that act more likely to be committed because the law increases people’s awareness of the act.

I believe that Measure for Measure actually deals more with the interplay between the heart and the law, and the hypocrisy that can result.  It explores the often hidden motives that we use to excuse our actions, how we excuse our sin by using the rules to judge our behavior rather than principle or God’s perspective.

Romans actually talks about the interplay between the law and our responses to it. Chapter 6 of Romans talks about how there is no sin where there is no law. BUT, this does not mean that the law is responsible for sin – rather, it means that the law simply makes the sin apparent. 

”  What shall we say, then? is the law sin? Certainly not! indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ” Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”

                                                                                                                                 – Romans 6: 7-13

So our sin is not directly caused by the law, but the law makes our sin very noticeable, and we become slaves to it if we live under the law only. But if we live according to the Spirit of God, we have freedom and in fact can live according to the law with the understanding that keeping the law does not save us but is something we can do to show our gratitute to God for the salvation He has provided for us.

 I believe that the characters Isabella, Angelo, and the Duke illustrate the idea of people becoming enslaved by the law and the law making their sin apparent. Angelo tries to uphold the law, but he fails in his own life, and becomes ensnared by sin. Isabella also tries to uphold the law, but for the purpose of benefiting herself, not God, so she becomes ensnared also by selfishness, which the law does not cause, but certainly makes apparent. The Duke does not try to enforce the law as much as Angelo, but he still does try to hold to the law (or at least, claims that he does), but in the end, he makes sure that he himself remains within the law (so he thinks) but he is willing to cause another person to stumble and break the law.  These characters demonstrate the attitude of categorizing acts by simply their external appearance rather than the motivations for their actions, or the reasons they are done.  Isabella does not judge things by whether God would approve or not, but simply by man’s law and whether humans would approve of her if she did whatever. Angelo is completely selfish and so has completely wrong reasons to act righteously – can you even have righteous acts without a righteous heart? He depends solely on his own power to keep the law. And the Duke seems to have no concern for others whatsoever, only himself. This is not at all righteous according to God, if Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second greatest commandment is to love one’s neighbor as he loves himself.

So, can morality be legislated? Yes. But only God’s Spirit can allow the necessary morality and ability to keep the law. There are certain laws that must be kept and deal with the external actions of humans such as murder, theft, harm. But other actions that deal with humans’  heart conditions cannot neccessarily be legislated  because only God can truly know men’s hearts, and while our actions do often reveal our intentions or attitudes, it is entirely possible to have good actions with sinful hearts.  Measure for Measure demonstrates this idea very well, and I believe it is a very strong indicator that men are answerable to a higher power, that man’s standard of judgement is very lacking, and that only God’s standards are just because He considers the heart as well as the actions.


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