Should killing, stealing, adultery, lying, and drinking be illegal or legal?

Should the 5 precepts be made the law of the land globally?

Should killing be illegal or legal?
Should stealing be illegal or legal?
Should adultery/rape/etc. be illegal or legal?
Should lying be illegal or legal?
Should consuming intoxicants (alcohol) be illegal or legal?

Please qualify your claims/arguments by considering:
To what degree?
Under conditions?
Why or why not?

Please note that there are cases where these are already illegal or legal under certain conditions:

  • Killing is often legal for soldiers, police officers, self-defense, abortion(?), euthanasia, etc.
  • Lying in often illegal in courts, defamation/slandering, falsely yelling “fire!” in public, etc.
  • Consuming intoxicants is often illegal when combined with operating a motor vehicle.
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Thanks for asking this important question! The intersection between morality and legality is one that is often assumed rather than interrogated.

The main point here is that laws are just one means that we have to change behavior. We should avoid the moralizing tendency to think that I believe it’s wrong, therefore it should be illegal. This is nothing but posturing. Rather, laws should be applied only where they are actually effective in changing behavior for the better.

The Buddha preferred to avoid mandating moral rules, even for his monastic followers. His main approach was to set forth a good example, and point out and explain why it was good to do like this. Only when it became necessary did he lay down a legalistic system for the monastics; and of course, he never did that for lay people.

In this way Buddhism is quite different from legalistic religions, particularly the Abrahamic religions, where the religious founder is revered as the one who gifts the law to the people.

King Ashoka, as a rare example of a Buddhist king who actually implemented Buddhist policies, commented on this, saying that he had found that persuasion was far more effective than enforcement.

I have argued this case before, but IMHO laws are really effective in two scenarios:

  • Something that is a serious transgression committed by a small number of people, such as violent crimes.
  • Something that is a minor transgression committed by many people, such as parking tickets.

The point is that for things that cause major immediate harm, we need to employ the law to stop unscrupulous people from hurting others. In such cases we need some way to just stop people.

For things that are more widespread, we can nudge people towards better behavior, but this only works if the law is applied rationally and consistently, and is part of a broader cultural and societal shift.

A good example in Australia is drink driving. When I was a kid, my parents—who were respectable middle class folks—would think nothing of getting drunk at a party and driving home, even with the kids in the car. That was the norm. Then awareness of the issue started to build, new technologies were applied (breathalyzers), and we’d see cops frequently testing. Government policies supported the effort, with consistent, long-term education program targeting a specific behavior, backed by evidence, and reinforced by gradually tightening legal penalties. And it worked!

The point here is that moralizing about alcohol does nothing. We have to look at what causes harm, and what effective means can be used to reduce harm.

Such measures are unavoidably political, in that they will impinge on the desires of some sector of society. Some people like to go out at night and get drunk, and they’re going to resist higher penalties. So the laws must have a persuasive element in addition to penalties. It’s not just making a law, it’s changing societal attitudes.

People change, but they do so gradually. If you go too fast, it won’t work. In the US, they tried to stop people from drinking altogether, but it was a failure. Alcohol consumption initially fell, then rose again as organized crime filled the desire to drink.

This development that has had lasting impact on society; despite failing with alcohol, prohibition is still very much in vogue for other drugs, with the same outcome.

Prohibition was, however, not just about moralizing. It had a major feminist component, as early Christian feminists tried to stop the scourge of domestic violence, which is largely fuelled by alcohol. It didn’t work, and to this day we have not seen the same progress in reducing DV that we have in drink driving. Why this is so is complicated, but it seems that not much progress will be made so long as those tasked with enforcing the law transgress at a much greater rate than the general population.

So back to the original post, in my view we should favor policies that restrict the harm of immoral activities, but do so in a way that is effective and targeted. Here are some ideas.

  • Killing: Ban guns.
  • Stealing: Theft is inherently a crime against property, hence the effort goes into protecting those who have property. However, theft is specially harmful when those who have much steal from those who have little and can afford to lose less. For example wage theft, where employers stiff their employees from what is owed them, is a multi-billion dollar crime, yet it is rarely prosecuted.
  • Sexual misconduct: Rape laws are already in place but rapists almost always go free, and even existing measures to support women often go unenforced. There needs to be a concerted and systematic effort to ensure that rapists go to jail, without further traumatizing or penalizing their victims.
  • Lying: Public officials should be treated as if they are under oath when making ex-officio statements. If a politician lies in the performance of their job, they should be arrested and tried for perjury, with the same standards of evidence and penalties.
  • Alcohol/drugs: Should be legal except in cases where criminalizing them is demonstrably effective in reducing harm.

Bhante has much information packed in your brain. Amazing. :pray:t4::pray:t4::pray:t4:

What Bhante think of the prediction Buddha gave that we will slowly start adding these moral rules?? If it happens it happens right? :joy: supposedly before the next Buddha

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By looking at that figure, I am not so sure Bhante. Could this trend be just a result of improved safety features in vehicles?
Pedestrian injuries/casualties would be interesting to look at to see if societal changes + legal penalties have had a significant effect.

Personally, I wish addictive substances are taxed so much they become too expensive to indulge in excessively. ( sugar +junk food as well). I am not sure how it is in Australia but when a pound of sugar costs MORE than a pound of apples, and governments get elected on promises of “ a buck a beer” rather than reducing the cost of public transit or childcare, I am not sure society has changed all that much.

Like how he delayed laying down Vinaya rules until they were necessary - i.e. actually broken by a monastic?

This reminds me of: Kesi Sutta: To Kesi the Horsetrainer

"Kesi, I train a tamable person [sometimes] with gentleness, [sometimes] with harshness, [sometimes] with both gentleness & harshness.

"In using gentleness, [I teach:] ‘Such is good bodily conduct. Such is the result of good bodily conduct. Such is good verbal conduct. Such is the result of good verbal conduct. Such is good mental conduct. Such is the result of good mental conduct. Such are the devas. Such are human beings.’

"In using harshness, [I teach:] ‘Such is bodily misconduct. Such is the result of bodily misconduct. Such is verbal misconduct. Such is the result of verbal misconduct. Such is mental misconduct. Such is the result of mental misconduct. Such is hell. Such is the animal womb. Such the realm of the hungry shades.’

“In using gentleness & harshness, [I teach:] ‘Such is good bodily conduct. Such is the result of good bodily conduct. Such is bodily misconduct. Such is the result of bodily misconduct. Such is good verbal conduct. Such is the result of good verbal conduct. Such is verbal misconduct. Such is the result of verbal misconduct. Such is good mental conduct. Such is the result of good mental conduct. Such is mental misconduct. Such is the result of mental misconduct. Such are the devas. Such are human beings. Such is hell. Such is the animal womb. Such the realm of the hungry shades.’”

“And if a tamable person doesn’t submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild & harsh training, what do you do?”

“If a tamable person doesn’t submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild & harsh training, then I kill him, Kesi.”

“But it’s not proper for our Blessed One to take life! And yet the Blessed One just said, ‘I kill him, Kesi.’”

"It is true, Kesi, that it’s not proper for a Tathagata to take life.

But if a tamable person doesn’t submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild & harsh training, then the Tathagata doesn’t regard him as being worth speaking to or admonishing.
His knowledgeable fellows in the holy life don’t regard him as being worth speaking to or admonishing.
This is what it means to be totally destroyed in the Doctrine & Discipline, when the Tathagata doesn’t regard one as being worth speaking to or admonishing, and one’s knowledgeable fellows in the holy life don’t regard one as being worth speaking to or admonishing."

How is “necessary” defined?

This relates to the question I had about “under what conditions”?

How can someone gauge whether they are necessary or not?

Good point!

Isn’t it considered the wheel-turning king’s duty to govern in accordance with the Dhamma?

If yes, what exactly does that entail?

If I remember correctly, when the wheel-turning king conquers each quarter, he seems to command his subjects to obey the 5 precepts, right?

Doesn’t the Buddha say in one sutta that the number of beings that kill is more than the number of beings that don’t kill? This sutta seemed to go against the popular notion that violent crimes are only committed by a small portion of the population while the majority do not kill. :thinking:

Also, where does one draw the line in terms of what constitutes “serious” or “minor”?

My question is: why stop only at things that cause “major immediate” harm?
I agree that government can’t stop all harm - that seems to be possible only though Buddhism/achieving Arahantship.

But why not say, try to stop as much harm as is suitable - maybe by using a spectrum of “punishments”/legal measures?

Meaning, instead of waiting until a transgressor commits a serious crime to step in, why not have a spectrum of “punishments” where the more minor a transgression, the more minor a punishment; the more major a transgression, the more major a punishment.

This seems more fair overall.

One example the comes to mind is that cheating and adultery seems completely legal - the government basically seems to protect the right to cheat and commit infidelities - but retaliating with say physical harm against adulterers and cheaters seems to be illegal. This begs the question - why is one form a harm considered worthy of punishment when another is not? Who gets to decide what is worthy of punishment and what isn’t? What is the right answer to such questions, regardless of what anyone thinks?

Could this be done for say, all 5 precepts and say for all sorts of harmful and unbeneficial actions?

Like say an attempt to systematically address many forms of harmful behaviors as suitably as possible (i.e. not resorting to any cruel, disproportionate, unfair, and unjust punishments)?

I ask because I noticed that mentality that some people seem to have is to tolerate harmful behaviors and keep tolerating them - and grow increasingly resentful - until it crosses a certain threshold - and then retaliate with heavily punitive actions. I think this sort of reasoning was used in the Bhagavad Gita for justifying war against the other side, but it also seems common among those who value “tolerance.”

Instead of resorting to heavily punitive actions after severe transgressions occur, I am wondering, why not have a scale or spectrum of punitive actions that begin from very mild and go to very severe.

That way people feel like they got several fair warnings before the committed big crimes, and to avoid situations where only those who commit big crimes are punished while those who commit small crimes go unpunished - this seems to be an unfair and inconsistent application of the law.

Must people wait for say, enough people to die by drunk driving accidents before they begin to take action? Or could this process be undertaken proactively? If yes, how?

Good point.

I have always struggled to understand reasonings where “liking to do a certain action” justifies doing it.
For example, people are a lot less willing to justify those who like to kill, steal, and to a lesser degree those who like to cheat/rape, lie, etc.
So why do the laws have to defer to the “liking to do certain harmful actions”? Why not treat it the same way those who may like killing may justify their actions by saying that they like to do it.

Good point and good examples.

My two main questions seem to be:
how do you define “necessary” when it comes to laws?
is a wheel-turning monarch’s duty to impose the 5 precepts on his subjects?

Good point. It would require a detailed analysis to be sure, but for what it’s worth, here’s the total road deaths in Australia as per Wikipedia:

From the late 80s to the present, the numbers dropped from approx 3000 to approx 1000, that is, it fell to a third. The drink driving figure goes from say 100 to 20, i.e. it fell to a fifth. So on the face of it, deaths from drink driving fell substantially quicker than driving overall, suggesting that vehicle safety is not the only factor.

Still, you are quite right, it’s always critical to be cautious in such things. Causality is a bitch.


Indeed, yes.

He enjoins them to. But he does not criminalize breaking them.

I mean, that’s how the legal system works. My point is, regardless of how serious it is, laws should not be based on mere moral judgement, but on evidence.

Incidentally, this leads to a further interesting observation. If laws are valid based on the fact that they demonstrably reduce harm, they should have built-in requirements to assess that they are in fact achieving their goals. When they stop being effective they should lapse.

I understand the point. But my point is that it is only when things get serious that the law should step in. Before that, it is a matter for public discussion and consideration.

Yes. There are abundant sources of actual harm in the world that are actively hurting people right now. Law must act to curb actual existing harm, not mess around imagining possible harms.

(In software, they call this YAGNI: “You ain’t gonna need it.” The rule is that you should only ever build functionality that you actually need, not what you think you might need.)

Because in human society we by default let people do what they want. We are, rightfully, reluctant to judge others and decide that we know better than them. The wise know very well that imposing moralistic rules only makes things worse. We do not know people better than they know themselves, and we have no right to set ourselves up as judges of others. If we must restrict others’ actions, we only do so reluctantly and cautiously, when such actions cause egregious and obvious harm, especially harm to others.

You can’t. You just do the best you can. Realistically, a legislator must prioritize things that they believe are causing serious harm and attempt to curb or eliminate them. But laws don’t exist in a vacuum, and ill-considered or excessively broad legislation is an open invitation for misuse.


Big plus one, to which I’d like to underline the importance of consistently and dramatically enforcing white collar crime. Businesses too often these days do the calculations and determine that the risk and cost of breaking the law doesn’t outweigh the potential profits… to disastrous consequences.

Remember that even “improved safety features in vehicles” is also a result of deliberate policy choices and regulatory enforcement.