Seventy-five years ago, John Fletcher Moulton, Lord Moulton, a noted English judge, spoke on the subject of “Law and Manners.” He divided human action into three domains. At one extreme is the domain of law, “where,” he said, “our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed.” At the other extreme is the domain of free choice, “which,” he said, “includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom.” Between these two, Lord Moulton said, lies a domain in which our actions are not determined by law but in which we are not free to behave in any way we choose. In this domain we act with greater or lesser freedom from constraint, on a continuum that extends from a consciousness of duty “nearly as strong as positive law,” through a sense of what is required by public spirit, to “good form” appropriate in a given situation, and so on up to the border with the domain of free choice, where there is no constraint whatever on what we may choose to do.

Lord Moulton considered the area of action lying between law and pure personal preference to be “the domain of obedience to the unenforceable.” In this domain, he said, “Obedience is the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey. He is the enforcer of the law upon himself.” This domain between law and free choice he called that of “manners.” While it may include moral duty, social responsibility, and proper behavior, it extends beyond them to cover “all cases of doing right where there is no one to make you do it but yourself.”

Both the domains of law and free choice threaten to encroach upon the middle domain of manners. Moulton’s central point, one of capital importance, is that “the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of obedience to the unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its area testifies to the way they behave in response to that trust.”

In America today the domains of choice and law have eroded the domain of manners. As the realm of manners and morals has been diminished by those who claim that whatever they do is right if it feels good to them, the central domain loses its force. And despite the expansion of the domain of law, the consequent weakening of the central domain has resulted in a diminution of the authority and effectiveness of the law.

We live in a deeply flawed society and are moving rapidly toward that state of nature which Thomas Hobbes chillingly described: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” We cannot end this state of violence and restore the authority of law simply by getting tough on crime, by relying on the police power of the state, or by calling for capital punishment. As both Hobbes and Lord Moulton observed, the sovereign cannot establish his authority by force alone. Authority and civil order depend in a significant measure on the consent of the governed—that is, on obedience to the unenforceable. The more civilized and enlightened the country, the greater its dependence on the voluntary respect and support of its citizens for law and civil order. The rule of law depends on the morality of the people—and that, regrettably, is in precipitous decline.

We must not attribute all our social ills to a single cause, however, for the causes are many. If families had not broken up, if churches had not lost much of their influence, if there had not been an extensive spread of secularism and materialism, if the quality of our schools had not declined despite substantial increases in financial support, if drugs had not become easily available, if some or all of these factors had not been present, we might have withstood the degenerative effects of television and its incessant advocacy of pleasure.

Prior to television and to the breakup of the family, parents typically tried to preserve and extend the ceremonies of innocence in the lives of their children by shielding them from the sordid dimensions of human life~dash\ from filthy language, premature exposure to sex, and mindless, indiscriminate violence. But that is now the common experience of children: by age four or five they speak the language of the gutter, and as teenagers enlarge their experience of violence, obscenity, and sex in all its varieties through television (watched on the average for twenty-five hours a week), the movies, and, occasionally, even the schools.

Television is the most important educational institution in the United States today. Since the beginning of human history mankind has known what Aristotle later set down as the fundamental fact about education: We learn by imitation. Why else would English children learn English instead of German? Or German children learn German instead of Spanish? Children mimic what they hear. And what they see they also do. It is as simple as that.

Common sense tells us that violence endlessly enacted on television serves as a model for imitation. In many of our great cities we find teenagers, in imitation of what they have seen scores of times on television, engaged in wanton acts of violence, blowing away parents, friends, or strangers with a totally amoral, psychopathological indifference to the suffering of others. Even if most youths do not imitate the violent acts they have witnessed, the deluge of television violence infects their sensibilities. Revulsion and abhorrence, our natural reactions to violence, are suppressed. We become reconciled to violence as though it were a normal part of life, as indeed it has become. Mark Antony made the point when, standing over Caesar’s dead body, he prophesied:

Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds …

And now new opportunities are open for our youth as the Internet makes available to anyone accessing it simple straightforward directions for the manufacture of bombs. But our government, which has found it necessary to regulate formulas for ice cream and peanut butter, is reluctant to prohibit the distribution on the Internet of handbooks for terrorists. Such communication threatens our lives in a way that shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater could never do. Can anyone seriously believe that the First Amendment protects instruction in terrorism through the Internet? Its prohibition clearly meets Mr. Justice Holmes’s test of a clear and present danger. It may be technically impossible to control terrorism on the Internet, but that difficulty should not be confused with a constitutional protection.

The level of insensitivity engendered in many of our youth in the last few years is not due exclusively to television and the entertainment industry. On the other hand, it cannot be explained in the absence of tele- vision, for there are no other factors adequate in themselves to account for it. Nevertheless, if the influence of television and films were countered by a strong family, a first-rate educational system, or good job opportunities in inner cities, the impact of television would be far less significant and perhaps even negligible.

It has not had an equal influence on all children by any means. Children from strong homes, children attending vital churches and deeply nurtured by religious traditions, children who have developed sound study habits and who in consequence have little time for television, children who have developed a moral center to guide their choices—all seem remarkably immune.

As television has ravenously consumed our attention, it has weakened the formative institutions of family, church, and school, thoroughly eroding the sense of individual obedience to the unenforceable on which manners and morals and ultimately the law depend. Obviously, we need to rebuild our families, our churches, and our schools. But we cannot complete these reforms until something is done about television, for in both its advertising and its programming it has created demands that appeal, not to the best in our natures, but to the worst.

Alarmed by the deterioration of standards, and recognizing one clear source of this decline, we may be tempted to enlarge the domain of law by regulating television and the entertainment industry. But this should give us pause.

I do not advocate altering the First Amendment, nor do I advocate congressional limits on what television stations can broadcast. But isn’t it time for those who own television stations and networks, and those who own motion-picture companies that supply television programs, to demonstrate their obedience to the unenforceable?

Let the First Amendment stand as it is. But the moguls of television and movies should recognize that they are contributing directly to the erosion, not only of morals and manners, but of the rule of law itself. Are they going to show obedience to the unenforceable by asserting their moral responsibility for the good of our society, or is the pursuit of profit their only guide?

If the television and entertainment industries do not control themselves in obedience to the unenforceable, we shall soon reach the point where programming on television threatens the life of the Republic. But will the American people recognize that it poses a clear and present danger calling for decisive, corrective action?

There is still time for self-correction. But those in positions of responsibility in these industries should understand that we cannot continue indefinitely to tolerate their trashing of our and our children’s sensibilities without endangering our survival. The barbarians television has nurtured and continues to nurture are not at our gates but in our midst. Recognizing that, by its nature, obedience to the unenforceable cannot be enforced, W. Edwards Deming observed: “You don’t have to do it—survival is not compulsory.”

The crisis we face will not be solved by higher or lower taxes, by more or less welfare or Medicaid, by larger or smaller budgets for the military or the police. Our crisis, like that confronting the peoples of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, is, as Solzhenitsyn observed, a crisis of moral decay.

We face a crisis of the spirit. Its resolution far transcends the power of the state; it is a crisis too important, too far-reaching, to be resolved by mere governmental action. Its resolution, rather, is in our hands. When we determine to govern ourselves, we shall have regained control over ourselves and thus regained our capacity for self-government. The future of our country, our future hap- piness and that of our children, depends decisively on whether we as individuals and as a people practice obedience to the unenforceable.


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  1. This essay is adapted from a speech delivered on May 21, 1995, to the graduating class of Boston University, on the occasion of Dr. Silber’s twenty-fifth commencement as president of B.U. Go back to the text.