Bench Memos

On Public Regulation of Morality

In a Public Discourse essay today on legal regulation of pornography, Princeton professor Robert P. George points out that there is no “sharp line that distinguishes a realm of ‘private’ morality that is not subject to law from a domain of public actions that may rightly be subjected to legal regulation.” No such sharp line exists because “apparently private acts of vice, when they multiply and become widespread, can imperil important public interests.” And all members of the community have an important interest “in the quality of the cultural structure that will, to a large extent, shape their experiences, their quality of life, and the choices effectively available to them and their children in a domain of human affairs marked by profound moral significance.”

I’ll emphasize that George is not arguing that the non-existence of a “sharp line” settles the matter in favor of public regulation of morality; indeed, he specifically disavows that argument. (Disclosure: George serves on the board of directors of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the think tank I run.)

Relatedly, in a Public Discourse essay last week titled “Abortion, Divorce and ‘Same-Sex Marriage’: No Blood, No Foul?,” philosophy professor Stephen J. Heaney argues that “[w]e have been personally harmed by the regimes of abortion and easy divorce” and that the adoption of same-sex marriage will have “necessary and harmful consequences.”