Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Legislating morality

I have to admit I don't know why anyone would believe that they can legislate morality in a free country.  I believe what I believe.  One blogger I read says that saying "you can't legislate morality" is a liberal dodge using a tired out phrase that is patently untrue.  By his definition, morality is the difference between the right and wrong.  It is wrong to kill another and the laws punish those who do.  It is wrong to steal from another and laws will deal with thieves.  The problem is though with the definition only works if we see a world of black and white and definitive rights with easily defined wrongs.  So so long as you see these ideas through a single pane of glass, then there could be a moral legislation.  While there may be some things that are black and white, when it comes to laws it becomes forever gray. 

When some one kills another it is not necessarily murder.  There is vehicular homicide, negligent homicide, accidental homicide, justifiable homicide, manslaughter, second degree murder, first degree murder and, I am sure, a host of other forms I don't know about.  People charged with crimes regularly negotiate or "plea bargain."  What about robbery? Again there is a host of levels depending on everything from breaking and entering, use of a weapon, and the amount stolen.  Almost every crime has a degree or level attached.  

So we now have a problem.  Oddly enough The United States has more people incarcerated than any other nation.  While the USA represents less than five percent of the world's population, we account for one quarter of the people in prison.  There is apparently some disagreement as to who is in prison for what.  One website says that those in prison for violent crime is around seven or eight percent, another says that eighty-two percent are in for victim-less crimes and another says that over fifty percent are in for violent crimes.  By the way at least two of these sites would be considered conservative.  Most agree that those incarcerated for drugs have declined since 2000, but they disagree as to why.  Some say it is because of the strict drug laws and some say it is simply a decline in drug use or maybe is the lessening of prosecution for some drugs.  The point though is that while there are over two million people in  prisons in local, state and federal prisons our push to legislate right and wrong seems  not to be doing reaily well.  

I am not saying that we stop enforcing our laws, but I am saying that we need to be more careful in the laws we legislate and keep on the books.  At one point spitting on the sidewalk, as unsanitary as it is, was a criminal act.  So as I listen to the controversy surrounding things like the legalization of pot to the criminalizing  abortion, I have to wonder if some of the things people have made a crime or want to make a crime is really going to protect society.  Laws, I believe, are created to protect society so that we can live as a cohesive group.  

This presents something of a puzzle.  On the political scene, the most recent and pressing of the legislative issue seems to be abortion.  I for example am a limited pro-life person, but that said, what I believe is not what someone else may believe and in no case should my beliefs be imposed on someone else.  I do not favor any law or constitutional amendment that would do such a thing.  The history of amendments that limit have not been so good while the expansion of rights in the constitution has only added to our freedom.  In fact the only amendment that I can recall that limited us was one of morality...Prohibition.  It is also the only amendment to ever be repealed.  I am not enough of a scientist to know when life begins.  I do know that no politician or special group should make that decision either and they are probably no smarter than I am in determining when life begins.  It is not a matter of courts or congress; it is a matter of conscience.

This is just as true for marriage.  Just as I believe that the government should not rule what religious institutions should recognize as couple, I also believe that there is zero reason that laws should not recognize any couple who has committed to share a life together  regardless of sexual orientation.  It is not the laws duty to make a moral judgement.  To base one on a religious cause violates the separation of the church and state.

Pot is another issue.  I do not use the drug nor do I condone its  use.  I have heard the argument that it is a gateway drug but I suppose the same could be said of alcohol.  If it can be shown that it is a danger to society, then it should remain illegal; however, if not, then it should be as controlled and taxed as alcohol or cigarettes.  Again the choice to do such things is more moral than societal danger.  Besides, it could be a great money maker.

You cannot win a moral argument, I would tell my students.  Morality is based on philosophical considerations.  It's like choosing Coke over Pepsi, a matter of taste.  What government should do is make the laws based on does it hurt another, does it prevent us from living together safely, is it constitutional.  If it doesn't meet those standards, then  morals of your personal belief system or of mine should not be imposed on another person or group. So the legislation of morality may be trite, but it is not a dodge, not the sole domain of the liberal, and certainly not patently false.