Legislating Morality

Apparently, some people think it’s improper for the government to impose moral standards on citizens. After all, whose moral standards would be imposed? Who would get to decide which standards everyone else should live by? And would this be fair? Because not everyone individually adheres to or believes in the same set of ethical rights and wrongs, how can the government of a society that is supposed to respect individual rights and liberty choose a particular set of moral standards and demand that everyone live by them?

Well, I’ve got news for you: almost all legislation legislates morality … and we’re all okay with that.

Intent vs. Motive

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This tweet from @ImusZero was a reaction to a headline in Reason Magazine (a libertarian political journal) that Pat Robertson had changed his mind about legalizing marijuana. He had supported it, but recently came out against it, saying that “little kids are getting high.” ImusZero says we should stop legislating morality and let God be our judge.

God is our judge, which is no light matter. It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But we have human judges too. And these human judges are appointed by God for the time being to carry out his work of promoting justice. But what about this stuff about not legislating morality? I responded that almost all legislation legislates morality. She later “liked” my tweet, making me think she misunderstood me as agreeing with her and saying that almost all legislation should be done away with.

What I really meant is that she had no clue what she was saying. Laws against rape, embezzlement, kidnapping, dog fighting, dumping toxic chemicals in the river, and drunk driving all legislate morality. They impose certain moral standards on everyone. But these are obvious laws to have, you might say. Clearly, these things cannot be allowed, and they’re not like a personal choice to smoke a joint. They may not be like the choice to smoke a joint*, but they are all matters of morality. Whether rape or polluting the river are wrong are moral questions. Even whether they are “bad for society” is a moral question, for what is “bad” is a moral question. Is the spread of disease bad? Why? On what grounds do you say so? Are peace and order good? That’s self-evident to most, but it is also a moral question, and ultimately, one must ask whether one’s foundational beliefs can provide the scaffolding for such assertions. They may be called goods because they promote happiness, but why is happiness good? And if happiness is the basis for morality, that leads to conflicts, as someone may derive happiness from doing that which hurts someone else.

In the end, some general moral principles must be reached, moral judgments must be made, and those, through the law, must be imposed upon everyone. We can argue legitimately about what should and what should not be enforced. But to make the general claim that we should stop legislating morality is utter nonsense.

 

* There is a difference between “mutual acts” in which everyone involved is involved voluntarily, and acts in which there are willing and unwilling parties involved. ImusZero may believe everything in the first category should be allowed, though not all those things are necessarily good. My saying that they’re not all good is itself a moral judgement that she may not agree with, depending on her definition of good.

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