You’ll have to excuse me, but it is time to really climb on my soap box (which usually means this will be one of my better posts). The impetus for this post comes from a comment on another blog. I have heard the notion that was expressed in this comment many times, and it is always uttered out of arrogance and ignorance – because it is demonstrably false. The notion is that morality cannot be legislated because every individual has their own ideas of right and wrong. Well, it may be true that every individual has their own idea of what is right and wrong, but it is equally true that the majority of us are wrong! The problem is that morality is eternal and universal: what is right is right for everyone, everywhere and at all times. The same applies to what is wrong. If this is not true, then there is nothing than can be said to be right or wrong: only what can be forced on others. And from this comes the obvious conclusion that, if there is one eternal, universal moral law, it most certainly can be legislated.
I wrote about this previously in my post, LESSONS IN LOGIC: You Can ‘Legislate’ Morality. So, this time, I think I’ll try to explain why the idea that everyone can have their own idea of right and wrong leads to lawlessness. And I am going to lean on a friend to help me do so:
“I never … believed there was one code of morality for a public and another for a private man.”
–Thomas Jefferson, In a letter to Don Valentine de Feronda, 1809
By simple, logical extension, if there is no morality for the private person that is different from the morality of the public person, or for the private and public life of each person, then there can be no different morality between peoples, either. This means that – at least in the opinion of Jefferson – that there is only one moral law. This is Natural Law, and it is evident to all who are honest with themselves:
“It behooves you, therefore, to think and act for yourself and your people. The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader; to pursue them requires not the aid of many counselors. The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail.”
–Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1775
So we are left to determine what we mean by morality: what is it and how is it derived? I submit that morality is an extension of Natural Law which we call Natural Rights, and that it is derived according to how we treat the individual rights of other people. If we trample the Natural Rights of another, we commit an immoral act. But this leads to a problem. If we are going to claim that we all have our own morality, then we have to also claim that we each have the authority to determine what our Natural Rights are. This is where mankind has demonstrated he has an infinite ability to deceive himself.
A simple example can be found in the notion of murder. If we say that we should be free to do whatever we want so long as we do not harm another person, then we will probably assume that everyone understands murder is a definite harm. So, by this definition, does the cannibal hurt his next meal? While you may say yes, murder is wrong, the cannibal might say no, I did not commit murder. And, in his society, the cannibal will be correct. Many cannibalistic societies have a different notion fo murder from that of non-cannibals. If you are an outsider, then it is not murder to kill and eat you. You are simply dinner, just like you going by McDonald’s to buy a Big Mac.
But what if we are not dealing with cannibals? What is we are in a very ‘advanced’ society where the most learned and enlightened elite rule? Now suppose you are suffering from an incurable disease or a birth defect. These ruling and enlightened elite have decided that the quality of life you will live is not worth the pain you will endure, so they order you to be put down. To them, it is a kindness, like putting down a family pet that is suffering. So how can you object if you are the person to be put down? After all, these elite and enlightened scientists – people who know better than you because they are ‘smarter’ – have said this is a kindness. So it is not murder. In fact, it is not even a ‘harm,’ it is a ‘kindness.’ Now, before you scoff at this example, stop! This line of reasoning has been and is used all over the world – including in the United States.
Now, let’s take this even further. Suppose these enlightened elite determine that an entire race is suffering from sort of defect and they should be eliminated for the good of humanity. Even if they are willing to admit there might be some wrong in killing this entire race, this elite says it is a greater good to eliminate them because it will strengthen the rest of mankind. So, on balance, this ruling elite decides that the ‘greater good’ is to kill off this ‘degenerate’ race of humans – for the betterment of all mankind. How can you object? After all, their morality is no better or worse than your morality, so it comes down to whether or not you – as a member of the race condemned to extermination – can resist the will of the enlightened elite. If they are stronger, you will be eliminated and you have no moral justification to object because we all have our own morality. And again, before you object, don’t! This is another real world illustration that has happened and is still in practice today.
The logic here is simple: unless we admit there is a universal moral law, then anything else we use to try and define right and wrong or to order society will lead to lawlessness. Fortunately, people throughout the ages have managed to deduce our Natural Rights because they can deduce Natural Law:
“A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.”
–Thomas Jefferson, Rights of British America, 1774
“It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”
–Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia Query 19, 1781
But for those who do not like my use of Jefferson, or think I am using him because he is the only founder who supports my position, let me quote a pagan who knew nothing of the Bible or the political ideas of our founding fathers. And notice how this man seemed to agree with Jefferson, and with everyone else throughout history both before and after him:
“True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions…It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and at all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst punishment.”
– Marcus Tullius Cicero
So, to those who think we all have the authority to set our own ideas of what it right and what is wrong, and to those who argue that this is why we cannot ‘legislate morality,’ I ask this question:
Unless morality is universal and eternal, and unless our laws are made to conform to that universal, eternal moral law, how will you ever hope to create a just and self-governing society? Or do you think the ‘just’ society is a society where everyone is forced to conform to your idea of what is just?