The Law Teaches Virtue and Restrains Vice

Several years ago, my city installed cameras at various intersections, and I got caught three times.  After paying the fines of $500.00 each, my driving "miraculously" improved.  The penalty imposed by the law taught me virtuous driving and restrained my carelessness.

You too have experienced the law as teacher that fosters virtue and as restrainer that checks your vices.

But what happens when we don't allow the law to teach us or restrain us?  What if we instead jettison it because it "cramps our style" – usually our sexual misconduct and drug use and other vices?

We don't need to talk in detail about the troubles caused by lifting restrictions on abortion, which fosters more abortions, or no-fault divorce, which paves the path toward the breakdown of the family.  And will states legalize a bad drug – marijuana?

Will we lower standards or submit to just laws we don't like?  The law legislates morality, but maybe we're not listening.

My city no longer has those cameras.

Though I can't vouch for every idea in a philosopher here, they still have great ideas and texts to remind us of the law's two main purposes.


In the book titled Laws, he says the city is ordered like the soul and body.  Each part must work with the others to function properly, or in excellence.  Law teaches them the way.

He writes:

I should wish the citizens to be as readily persuaded to virtue as possible; this will surely be the aim of the legislator in all his laws.

The citizen must indeed be happy and good, and the legislator will seek to make him so [by law].

That which has law and order in a state is the cause of every good, but that which is disordered or ill-ordered is often the ruin of that which is well-ordered.

Laws are partly framed for the sake of good men, in order to instruct them how they may live on friendly terms with one another, and partly for the sake of those who refuse to be instructed, whose spirit cannot be subdued, or softened, or hindered from plunging into evil.


In the Nichomachean Ethics, he writes:

For the legislator makes the citizens good by habituating them, and this is the wish of every legislator; if he fails to do it well he misses his goal. The right habituation is what makes the difference between a good political system and a bad one.

And in Politics, he says the young must be trained in the Constitution of a given state, implying that education about the law fosters good citizens:

The best laws, though sanctioned by every citizen of the state, will be of no avail unless the young are trained by habit and education in the spirit of the Constitution.

In the same spirit of training in the Constitution, he says:

No one will doubt that the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth; for the neglect of education does harm to the Constitution. The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives.

In the next passage, a big state is unmanageable, but the purpose of the law is still clear: "For law is order, and good law is good order."

And here it is implied that humankind is perfected only by law and justice: "For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all."

Let's move to the biblical tradition.

The Ten Commandments

We don't need to quote them, but here are the two versions: Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21.

Two examples: "Honor your father and mother" commands virtue, while "don't commit adultery" forbids vice.

We may not always obey them, but they justly legislate morality.

The New Testament

It is full of moral commands, but this verse speaks of civil law in society: "We also know that law  is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious" (1 Tim. 1:9).

Now let's see how thinkers synthesized Greek and Roman ideas and the Bible into a unified whole.


He writes in the Summa, in the section about the law:

And if the lawmaker intends what is truly, as God judges it, to the general good, the law will foster truly good men.

And nearby he says:

Laws command, forbid, allow and punish[.] … Laws, like statements, are pronouncements of reason, but statements describe, whereas laws prescribe, guiding human behavior. Behavior which is by definition good and virtuous the law commands; that which is by definition bad and vicious it forbids; and behavior by definition indifferent or of little account it allows; and because it persuades men to obey through fear of penalties, law also punishes.

Luther and later followers

After he died in 1546, his followers debated what his doctrine was, and they came up with the Formula of Concord in 1580.  Of the purpose of law, it says:

The law has been given to men for three reasons: (1) to maintain external discipline against unruly and disobedient men, (2) to lead me to a knowledge of their sin, (3) after they are reborn, and although the flesh [works out to be sinful impulses] still inheres in them, to give them on that account a definite rule according to which they should pattern and regulate their entire life.

John Calvin

He writes about Christian society with little attention paid to the separation of church and state, but in his systematic theology it is clear that one of the law's functions is to check bad behavior:

The second office [function and authority] of the Law is … to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice. Such persons are curbed not because their mind is inwardly moved and affected, but because, as if a bridle were laid upon them, they refrain their hands from external acts, and internally check the depravity which would otherwise petulantly burst forth.

We now enter the Age of Reason or Enlightenment, when our nation was founded.

Federalist Papers

In Federalist 15, Alexander Hamilton writes that the government has the power to make laws, even ones that punish and penalize disobedience and have to be enforced with some teeth.

Government implies the power of making laws. It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation. This penalty, whatever it may be, can only be inflicted in two ways: by the agency of the courts and ministers of justice, or by military force; by the coercion of the magistracy, or by the coercion of arms. The first kind can evidently apply only to men; the last kind must of necessity, be employed against bodies politic, or communities, or States.

The Constitution

The preamble says it was written "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility ... [and] promote the general welfare."  This means the law can shape society for the better and bring the virtues of peace and goodness to the public – and in the people.


Avoiding complications, the main point of this short post is to say that the law teaches us virtues and restrains our vices, even to the point of penalizing us for disobeying.  An individual may not follow it, but it still legislates morality for millions of us and gives a standard to aim at.

But if we let the disgruntled few get rid of laws that don't suit their tastes because they stubbornly refuse to be taught or restrained ("You can't legislate morality!"), then we're going down the wrong path as a society.

James Arlandson, Ph.D. (1994), has been teaching college and university for years and has written a supernatural historical fiction about his ancestor and the seventeenth-century real founding of America: Will Clayton: Founder, Quaker, and Demon Breaker.  His website is Live as Free People, which is updated almost daily.

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