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Saturday, August 3, 2013
On Legislating Morality (Yours, Mine, and Ours), Part One

What is morality? Whose, if anyone's, ought we legislate? Does speaking of multiple moralities make me a moral relativist? A little-known morsel of relevant history from the Mayflower period. (The first post in a two-part series.)

This post is the first in a two-part series. Part Two is here.

Morality: Think Big

A lot of people I know use the word morality only in the context of sexual morality, but the word is much broader than that. Morality is our sense or definition of what is good and what is evil.

I assert that good and evil actually exist. This is not a universal belief, I know, but otherwise it makes no sense to speak of morality. A thing is moral if it is good, right, just, etc., or, in some religious systems, if it is according to the will of God. A thing is immoral if it is evil. Moral choices are choices between good and evil.

Each religion or philosophy has its own distinctive morality, its own sense of right and wrong. Each believer has his or her own distinctive morality. And you don't have to be religious or believe in one or more deities (not necessarily the same thing) to have a moral sense. The atheists I know have keen senses of right and wrong. They overlap quite a bit with the moralities of the religious people I know. Even the people I know who claim that nothing is inherently right or wrong at least tend to believe that intolerance is wrong, and most of them disapprove of genocide, too -- so they have their own rudimentary morality.

Consider the example of the small firestorm which arose in American Fork in December 2011. The city council here considered proposed ordinances which would have made it illegal for most employers to fire or decide not to hire, and for most landlords to evict or refuse to rent to, a person on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation. I wrote and spoke publicly in favor of those ordinances, which were eventually tabled after one of the original supporters on the council backed down. (If you're here for that discussion, not this one, look here.)

On Tuesday, December 13, 2011, there was a hearing on the proposed ordinances. Some of the people who spoke there -- not to mention the entire American Fork City Council at the time -- I know to be fellow Mormons. They arrayed themselves on both sides of the issue, for various reasons. While I was arguing that it was immoral to deny people jobs and housing because they're gay -- or because an employer or landlord suspects they're gay -- others were arguing that it's immoral to infringe on landlords' or employers' religious freedom or property rights by preventing them from turning away anyone whose moral or religious choices displease them. Outside City Hall, someone was putting anonymous fliers on windshields, quoting a passage from Leviticus about how homosexuals should be killed. He or she was a Mormon, too, I am sad to report; I know this because I know which version of the Old Testament was quoted.

My point is this: Among just the Mormons in this picture, there are least three different moralities.

Am I a Relativist?

By now some of my readers are troubled. I appear to be a moral relativist, because I have written of multiple moralities, that is, of different people having different moralities. Does not every decent believer know there's really only one morality, God's, and anything which conforms to it is moral, and anything -- any "morality" -- which differs from it is actually immorality?

On one hand, I'm not a moral relativist. On the other hand, I'm not God, either, and I don't profess to know God's mind perfectly. So let's all relax a little and ponder the many different approximations of God's morality that exist among mortals. Inevitably, some of these approximations are more accurate than others, and almost everyone thinks his or her version is the most accurate. When rational people discover a better approximation than their own on a given point, they embrace it. People with lively moral sensibilities do this continually, without ever being moral relativists.

In this context there are two fundamental differences between me and some other people. One is Paul's "through a glass darkly" thing. I embrace the best approximation I can find, but I'm aware that it's imperfect. Yours may be better in some ways. At the moment I don't happen to think yours is better -- when I do, the better parts will become mine, too -- but I know the possibility exists.

The other difference is that my understanding of freedom includes believing that you must be as free to explore, develop, and practice your own sense of morality as I am to pursue my own. If you are less free than I am, you might make a case that my morality is being imposed on you. And vice versa. But not even this essential freedom can be absolute. It must be weighed against everyone else's similar freedom.

Whose Morality Should Govern?

Consider this proposition: Mine is the morality which should govern, because it is the most correct. More practically, the majority's morality should govern in any community, because part of our collective morality is democracy. Of course, because mine is best, I should do everything I can to make sure my morality becomes the majority's, so we can use our political processes and public institutions to impose it on everyone else, for their own good. We needn't worry about the points where a minority's morality differs from ours, because we know that on those points they are wrong, and we are right.

If that last paragraph doesn't make your skin crawl, if it doesn't seem like a recipe for tyranny, we need to talk. I think it's an abomination.

But if not mine, and if not the majority's current moral whim, as best it can be measured, whose morality should govern? Or should morality be divorced from government altogether?

Common Principles

Wherever there is law and government, someone's morality informs the law. A prohibition against murder and provisions for the punishment of it are almost universal in human society. In general, humans agrees that murder is wrong. This is a moral judgment. We might make it because of our religious beliefs or for some other reason, but in any case we codify this moral judgment in law. We don't kick and scream about legislating morality in this context, but this is because the law reflects our own morality, not because it is divorced from morality.

There is less consensus (I am sorry to report) in such matters as rape and theft, but they are still illegal in most societies. We judge them to be wrong -- that is, immoral -- and we codify that judgment in our statutes.

The difficulties arise in matters where there is no general consensus, especially where a minority demands the right to do something a majority believes to be evil. The minority may argue that it is immoral to impose the majority's morality. The majority may shake its collective head and mutter something about the "new morality" being nothing more than the "old immorality."

The questions here are thorny. To what degree am I morally obligated -- or in religious terms, to what degree is it my duty to God -- to use every available means, including government power (force) to prevent people from doing things I regard as immoral? Will God condemn me for allowing others to behave badly? Generally speaking, to what degree should the majority's morality -- rooted in religion or otherwise -- be forced upon everyone?

A Case Study

This is not a new problem. Some of the earliest Americans, the Mayflower Pilgrims, faced it. Their approach was enlightened and was, perhaps, not altogether what you might expect, especially if the distinction between Pilgrims and Puritans is blurred in your mind.

It is well known that the Pilgrims were seeking a place to practice their religion unmolested by governments and state churches. It is less known that only about half of the Mayflower's passengers were Pilgrims. The other half were "Strangers," not a different sect, just people who were recruited to provide knowledge and skills necessary to the new colony. The Pilgrims' spiritual leader, John Robinson, remained behind with most of his flock, planning to join the new colony later. (He died before doing so.) In his farewell letter before the Mayflower set sail, Pastor Robinson -- as hindsight now informs us -- earned a place of honor among the American founders, without ever leaving Europe. Aware of the dangers of mixing temporal and spiritual authority, which the Pilgrims had seen firsthand, and conscious of the population of Strangers making the journey, he counseled his people (as historian Nathaniel Philbrick describes it in Mayflower, p. 41), to

create a government based on civil consent rather than divine decree. With so many Strangers in their midst, there was no other way. They must "become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government," i.e., they must all agree to submit to laws drawn up by their duly elected officials. Just as a spiritual covenant had marked the beginning of their congregation . . . , a civil covenant would provide the basis for a secular government in America.

Accordingly, the Mayflower Compact establishes the vision of civil, secular, non-sectarian government. In it the Pilgrims agreed to

covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation . . . and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

Thus one of the earliest American colonies thought it wise for their government to be based on a non-sectarian, civic morality, instead of the particular views of the dominant Christian sect.

Part Two in this two-part series considers the Declaration of Independence as the primary expression of our American civic morality, discusses some complexities, and briefly examines a difficult test case: homosexuality and gay marriage.

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