Thoreau on virtue, law and order (Walden 122)

Thoreau is talking about law and order — how he was arrested for refusing to pay his poll tax (in protest of the Mexican War and of the federal government’s support of slavery), and how he habitually left his cabin unlocked and felt that if everyone lived as simply as he did, theft would be unknown. Maybe so: he had little to steal. He ends “The Village” chapter with a quote from Confucius:

“You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass; the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.”

This is another of Walden’s sweeping statements that’s at odds with a deeply-held traditional attitude… in this case, a punitive notion of law and order.

For our purposes here, I’m not so much interested in his views on criminal justice as I am in his belief in the power of setting a good example. I think he was hoping to influence enough thoughtful readers that together their examples would have a positive effect on society. For most people good behavior isn’t so much about fear of punishment as it is about doing what’s expected of them. If the “superior” person raises those expectations through his or her own example, society becomes more virtuous.

And of course the slavery issue is a good example of that. Slavery was an unchallenged fact of life in human societies until relatively suddenly, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the institution went from being unchallenged to controversial to illegal to unthinkable.

Steven Pinker writes extensively about this process in a chapter titled “The Humanitarian Revolution” in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He examines numerous possible reasons for the change, but the thing that stands out to me is that, while changing laws and enforcement of those laws plays a role, the important changes are those that precede the laws and which take place in the realm of ideas and expectations. For most people, the most important part about a practice being illegal isn’t the threat of punishment, but that illegality is one more way for society to express its disapproval.

Today you’d be hard-pressed to find someone to publicly defend slavery not because it’s illegal, but because it would be considered disgraceful, inhumane, and evil to do so… to the degree that it wouldn’t even occur to most modern people to even consider it.

With issue after issue — child abuse, bullying, gay rights, sexism, racism — we see the same process. Cruel practices and expectations can go from being unchallenged to unacceptable in a few generations. Government plays a secondary role in this; the process starts elsewhere and the laws follow sooner or later.

That doesn’t mean I’ll leave my house unlocked, but I recognize that the main thing keeping it relatively safe is not the locks, not the police, but the fact that the vast majority of people around here wouldn’t think of stealing my possessions. If we want to protect society from evil, Henry believed, we should focus more attention on building virtue than on punishing wrongdoing.

End of chapter, “The Village.”

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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