Thursday, August 27, 2009

Legislating morality

Every law ever passed legislated someone's morality and imposed it on everyone. The fact that I can no longer legally smoke a cigar after a good meal in a steakhouse represents the imposition of someone's morality on me — in this case the view that I have no right to subject restaurant employees to the potential ill health effects of "second hand" smoke. (Since there are other ways to accomplish that goal, it is probably an effort to make smoking so inconvenient that those who indulge will quit.) It would be difficult to find any law — from parking ordinances to environmental regulations to appropriations for mass transit or for flowers on the White House lawn — that isn't the imposition of a moral value. The question is never whether morality is going to be legislated, but what morality, and whose morality, and when government should simply restrain itself and respect individual choices.

Jonah Goldberg finds it "refreshing" that the President has chosen to make the argument for health care reform with a moral argument: it is a "core moral and ethical obligation that we look out for one another ... that I am my brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper." Goldberg in "Obama and Faith" on legislating morality:
.... Of all the silly arguments that have been passed off as deeply profound in American politics, the notion that politicians can’t “impose” their personal morality on others tops the list.

We have abortion politics in general, and former New York governor Mario Cuomo in particular, to thank for that. In 1984, Cuomo gave his famous address at Notre Dame in which he laid out the notion that a politician can be “personally opposed” to abortion but should refuse to translate that conviction into public policy. As political rhetoric, the speech was compelling. As a serious philosophical, theological, or moral argument, it was a mess. For instance, Cuomo found inspiration in the Catholic Church’s relative silence on American slavery as justification for keeping religion out of the abortion debate. Never mind that abolition was the most religious of political movements.

“It is a mark of contemporary liberalism’s commitment to abortion,” Ramesh Ponnuru writes in The Party of Death, “that one of its leading lights should have been willing to support temporizing on slavery in order to defend it.” ....

In 2004, another Catholic Democrat captured the inherent contradictions of Cuomo-ism nicely in a presidential debate. John Kerry insisted that his faith was “why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this Earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.”

But he also said that, when it came to abortion, “What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn’t share that article of faith.”

The statements cannot be reconciled. By Kerry’s own admission, he seeks to legislate his articles of faith on people on nearly every issue under the sun — except abortion. Suddenly, on that issue alone, he is an adamantine secularist. ....

Politics has always been a contest of values, and religion remains the chief source of those values. Our political discourse has long been cheapened by the canard that only conservatives try to use the state to impose a religiously informed moral vision, while liberals are guided by science, reason, and logic, as well as some secular conception of decency and compassion. No party has a monopoly on such resources, and it’s about time we all recognized that.
And, of course, "some secular conception of decency and compassion" is also a moral value.

Obama and Faith by Jonah Goldberg on National Review Online

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