Philosophy Cafe: Moral Values and the State


This month, we consider what role, if any, does the state have in enforcing moral values?

Start Date

2nd Oct 2018 6:00pm

End Date

2nd Oct 2018 7:30pm


Royal Oak Hotel, Launceston

RSVP / Contact Information

Enquiries: Graham Wood, 6324 3920 or

Moral Values and the State

What role, if any, does the state have in
enforcing moral values?

Freedom of the Individual: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” (Mill On Liberty, p18)

The State: One way to understand the state is as the one legitimate source of enforced control of the behaviour of the citizens of that state.

And what justifies that control of behaviour? Mill’s Harm Principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his [or her] will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Mill On Liberty, p15)

This might be understood as the justification for a minimal form of state. But this is only one way to understand the legitimate use of force by the state. Another form of state might be understood as a more interventionist state. Such a state might enact laws that enforce more extensive sets of moral values. And, note, this can simply be through extending the meaning of what constitutes a ‘harm’.

Or it might not be in the form of ‘law’ but other forms of social control. For example, consider the Chinese Social Credit system: “The Social Credit System is a national reputation system being developed by the Chinese government. By 2020, it is intended to standardise the assessment of citizens' and businesses' economic and social reputation, or 'credit'. As of mid-2018, it is unclear whether the system will be an 'ecosystem' of various scores and blacklists run by both government agencies and private companies, or if it will be one unified system. By 2018, some restrictions had been placed on citizens, which state-owned media described as the first step toward creating a national social credit system.” (Wikipedia)

Consider a (Dis)analogy with ‘Secularism’ in Australian Society

Australian Constitution (Section 116): The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

Section 116 of the Constitution prevents the imposition of particular ‘religious values’ on Australian society, but there is no equivalent section that prevents the imposition of what might be called ‘moral values’.

So, should the state just stop us ‘harming’ each other (however, ‘harming’ is to be understood), or should it enforce a more extensive moral value system?

Philosophy Café
On the first Tuesday of each month (excluding January and February)
Royal Oak Hotel – Launceston