You Can’t Not Legislate Morality

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“You can’t legislate morality!” No, you can’t not legislate morality. Not even a little bit.

I got thinking about this when Alan Shlemon’s 2012 article, “Should Christians Impose Their Moral Standards on Society?” came up on Twitter yesterday. He said it this way:

It’s perfectly acceptable to legislate morality. When you think about it, morals are the only thing you can legislate. For example, we have laws against stealing for one reason: it’s immoral to take someone’s property. So, we take that moral rule and establish it in law.

The same is true for laws against murder. The reason they exist is because we think it’s immoral to kill an innocent human being. So, we take that moral rule and make it against the law to break it. By legislating that rule, we are legislating morality.

In fact, it’s the moral rule that legitimizes the law’s power to limit freedom. Without a moral grounding, laws would be unjust. They would be the raw use of power to get what someone wants, not to do what’s right. That’s called tyranny.

This reminds me of the theological problem of evil, stated in the form, “Does God have a morally sufficient reason to allow evil?” There are strong analogues between the evil addressed in this question and the governmental sanctions involved in legislation. If I break a law, then the law permits someone more powerful than me to take my money, my property, my freedom, my relationships. In some countries and in some times, the law has permitted the authorities to take away my physical health. Sometimes it sanctions lawbreakers being put to death.

All of that is the world of evil, in microcosm. Yet we consider it good. We disagree over details: this law or that law, this punishment or that. Still, no one but anarchists would deny that the government should have the power to enforce laws by punishing wrongdoers.

Maybe that word didn’t catch your eye; it should have. It speaks of “wrong”—a morally inflected word if ever there was one. And how is “wrong” defined? In ethical theory that can be tough, but in this case it’s easy: it’s wrong to break the law. Still that doesn’t remove it from the realm of morality, for as Alan Shlemon pointed out, if government imposes sanctions without moral justification, then it’s acting tyrannically.

And so every law implies a moral calculus: “It’s more wrong for you to commit premeditated murder than it is for the state to deny your freedom for the rest of your life.” Apart from that moral reckoning there could be no justice.

So far I’ve only been speaking of laws with punishments for law-breakers. The same goes for taxes, which the government can justly exact from us only if the money is put to good use. It goes for other restrictions as well: environmental standards, OSHA standards (occupational safety and health, for non-US readers), restaurant health requirements, building codes, licensing requirements, and so on: every one of these is a restriction on personal property and or freedom. Without sufficient moral reason, these too would be tyranny.

We accept these things from our governments to the extent that we think that they are right and just, or else to the extent that we are forced to accept them against our will.

So there is either moral agreement or there is subjection to power. These are the two choices. We can legislate morally, which is to say that we can legislate according to morality, which is (further) to say that we can legislate what we think is morality; which ends up at we can legislate morality.

There isn’t anything else we could legislate but that. Not unless you believe every act of government is an act of tyranny, which I do not, and I doubt you do either.

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57 Responses to “ You Can’t Not Legislate Morality ”

  1. The reason for having laws is to maintain order in society. That’s all. We need a safe, orderly society in order to promote prosperity. Beyond that, everyone should have freedom of conscience. Let people follow whichever gods they want, as long as they don’t harm others, as long as they cooperate in the common effort to build prosperity.

    When Christians try to legislate their own morality, they’re impinging on other people’s freedom of conscience. That’s the real tyranny. Get the government off our backs! Keep your spying out of my private home! Defend freedom! (You’d think Republicans would appreciate these sentiments, but they’ve betrayed their own small-government principles.)

    It’s actually impossible to legislate morality, because morality isn’t a matter of actions – it’s a matter of conscience. God doesn’t just want you to go through the motions of virtue, but He wants real virtue in your heart. The only thing a government law can do is make people go through the motions. It’s pure hypocrisy.

    Personally, I think this is the No. 1 reason why atheism is surging today. If Christians would respect freedom of conscience and stop trying to post policemen in people’s bedrooms, then the atheists would quiet down.

  2. When Christians try to legislate their own morality, they’re impinging on other people’s freedom of conscience. That’s the real tyranny.

    And when atheists try to legislate their own morality they are not impinging on other people’s freedom of conscience?

    Everyone in society has the right to lobby for laws that try to legislate what they believe to be moral – irrespective of their beliefs. To try to single out Christians betrays a bias.

    The slave trade in the British Empire might have survived another hundred years without Christians trying to legislate their own morality.

  3. We can all live together in harmony if we just focus on the practical things that everyone agrees about. My Hindu neighbor doesn’t hate me for grilling hamburgers, and my Muslim neighbor doesn’t hate me for eating bacon. When his car gets stuck in the ditch, we all go out and help pull it free. When his boy wants English lessons, I let him come right over.

    It’s not “atheist morality” to focus on practical things. It’s plain old tolerance and common sense.

  4. We can all live together in harmony if we just focus on the practical things that everyone agrees about.

    No, we can’t. Because the things people disagree about are not trivial, nor do they go away if we just don’t think about them.

    I think abortion is murder. I think when a surgeon half delivers a baby and then snaps or snips its spinal cord to kill it, that this is deplorable and should be opposed. I think someone who thinks ‘No, we should legalize this. In fact, we should consider legalizing out and out infanticide’ is not someone who merely has a different point of view. They are, in fact, quite monstrous. But I should keep my mouth shut, because you disagree?

    What you apparently mean is to focus on the practical things that you agree about – and when it comes to thinks you disagree about, to keep our mouths shut and let you have your way in silence.

    “Atheist morality” has in the recent past been enforced with a boot on the neck and a gun to the head. The ‘tolerance and common sense’ the most prominent representatives of atheism currently offer ranges from opposing a Christian being named to head the NIH because he’s not sufficiently materialist to annual mocking and goading of religious people.

    Get your own house in order, John Moore.

  5. John, you say “it’s actually impossible to legislate morality, because morality is not a matter of actions, it’s a matter of conscience.” No, it’s a matter of actions, conscience, and language. That is, every law is a statement of a moral belief. Laws imposing life sentences for murder are moral statements recognizing that to deny a man his freedom is awful, but murder is even more so.

    And again, if there is no moral justification behind, say, employment law, then the government is imposing an unjustified burden on employers and employees. This is not causing morality, perhaps, but it is endorsing and institutionalizing it.

  6. @John Moore:

    We can all live together in harmony if we just focus on the practical things that everyone agrees about.

    But I do not agree with you that we can live in harmony if we just focus on the practical things that everyone agrees about.

  7. There might be some confusion here about what it could mean to legislate morality, because yes, there is a sense in which morality cannot be legislated: the law cannot require a good conscience, and it require excellent motives. That’s what you seem to have taken it to mean in your first comment here, John, and you’re right, that’s impossible.

    It’s also not the sense that’s ever been in debate. What’s debated is whether we can enact laws that express a morally relevant view. That’s what I’m referring to in the OP, and saying that it’s impossible not to do.

    There’s a fine little rhetorical trick in there, though. When laws that have to do with morality (usually sexual, now) are proposed, it’s easy to say, “You can’t legislate morality!” and to get people nodding their heads in agreement, because they know the law cannot enforce a good conscience or good motives. Once they’re nodding their heads that way, it’s easy for them to forget that you can place moral principles into law, and that we do it with every law we write.

    It’s manipulative, but it works. We live in a political world, and for some people, dishonest communication is fine, just as long as it works.

    Now John, I want you and others to know that the previous two paragraphs were parenthetical and not directed toward you in any way. I’m not saying you’ve done that at all. I do think, though, that you’ve gotten two senses of legislating morality mixed up. There’s one sense of it that’s impossible to do, and one that it’s impossible not to do.

  8. Given the fact that there is a lot of disagreement about morals, though, it seems most practical to try to limit the law’s reach to the minimum necessary for a stable, functioning society. I’m libertarian-ish in that way. (That is to say, I’m not a Libertarian, but things would have to go a long way in the Libertarian direction from where they are now before I thought they’d gone too far.)

    Crude –

    the most prominent representatives of atheism currently offer… annual mocking and goading of religious people

    ‘Blasphemy Day’ is a response to ‘religious people’ insisting – to the point of death – that everyone respect their religion as much as they do. It seems justified to me.

  9. John Moore, there is much to disagree with in your comments. But ignoring your naive idealism about what it would take to live in harmony and your uncharitable generalisations about Christians wanting to post policemen at bedroom doors, I wonder if you can expand on your comment about morality not being a matter of actions?

  10. Ray,

    I find it distressing that you come to a specifically Christian blog and then post a link reporting the actions of an Islamist group to show how the mocking and goading of ‘religion’ seems justified to you.

    I will take a wild swing and declare that not a single Christian who comments on this blog would agree with the actions of the group but somehow, it seems, we still have to defend Christians beliefs because of the actions done in the name of a ‘religion’ we don’t hold to.

    Again and again, when the evils of atheistic governments or groups are enumerated, you deflect these as insubstantial to your form of atheism but are unwilling to provide the same ‘courtesy’ by consistently linking all religions as interchangeable and equivalent.

    John,

    What criteria do you use to determine whether harm is done? What constitutes harm? Is is physical, emotional, financial, spiritual or some combination of any and all of the above?

    And why is it only harm done to others? For example, if I commit suicide, have I only done harm to myself or have I not also harmed my wife, my children and the other members of my family?

  11. Concerning Ray’s mention of the Islamist group here, see The Strangely Simple World of Internet Atheism, where I wrote,

    In fact it’s even simpler than that, for in this fine specimen of Internet Atheism, all of religion is depicted as one unified thing. The chart lumps Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and Buddhism all together in one undifferentiated lot. Never mind that classical Buddhism is atheistic, and the other religions mentioned have vastly different beliefs and social structures. Religion is religion is religion, seems to be the message, and why make it any more complicated than that?

    It is a strangely simple world where Islamist radicals are judged to be the same sort of thing as evangelical Christians.

  12. toddes – I linked to it because it was the most recent example I knew of, that’s all. Christians persecute – or prosecute – blasphemy, too.

    http://freethinker.co.uk/2013/06/12/russia-embraces-religious-intolerance-with-draconian-blasphemy-and-anti-gay-laws/

    http://news.yahoo.com/gay-pride-rally-georgia-derailed-125900788.html

    http://www.npr.org/2013/01/04/168546876/old-greek-blasphemy-laws-stir-up-modern-drama

    And, of course, ‘Crackergate’. I’m sorry, death threats will draw a response.

    Again and again, when the evils of atheistic governments or groups are enumerated, you deflect these as insubstantial to your form of atheism but are unwilling to provide the same ‘courtesy’ by consistently linking all religions as interchangeable and equivalent.

    Did you see the Youtube video I linked to, where even in the text summary I wrote: “I don’t want to offend Muslims who don’t issue death threats, and I apologize to them, but I don’t care what fanatics think.”? The video’s only four minutes long, you might give it a whirl.

  13. Ray,

    In the first link, it is the Russian government not the church. Nice non-partisan site and headline there. Obviously no bias in the reporting.

    In the second, leaders of the Orthodox Church in the country of Georgia protested against a gay pride parade. Missing the persecution for blasphemy here.

    In the third, two examples of arrests based on a old blasphemy law: one of which has been dismissed. The article indicates that the Greek Church denies any connection to this.

    And how is Crackergate (really?) persecution for blasphemy? Myers (and Cook) are hardly innocent in the matter but even if death threats were received (we’ve discussed before the ease of spoofing) who in all this acted in an official manner for the Catholic Church? Donahue? o, Christians sinned which is not unusual but hardly persecution or prosecution.

    You’re stretching to find connection where none exist.

  14. Still curious whether Ray believes in science. It is a relevant question.

    Well, no, I’m not really curious, I know he does, so I’ll proceed to the next point.

    Ray, given that you believe in science, which I think means believing in it as a reliable source of knowledge, what would science say about the examples you listed? It would say they are:

    1. Chosen non-randomly
    2. An extremely small sample
    3. And therefore non-representative
    4. And therefore completely uninformative regarding the reality of Christianity.

    You could use them, yes, to say “Christians persecute – or prosecute – blasphemy” (bearing in mind that toddes noted that these aren’t necessarily Christians speaking in #1 and #3). But what should we infer from that? There’s enough information there to infer that at least a few Christians somewhere, out of the billions on the planet, persecute or prosecute blasphemy.

    Which is to say, this tells us absolutely nothing about Christianity overall. Nothing.

    Now, if you think it does tell us something about Christianity, then you have to deny your belief in science’s methodologies.

    Which will it be?

  15. Taking morality out of the law really destroys the law. Law is there to enforce what is moral. Totally agree on this one.

  16. @Ray Ingles:

    Given the fact that there is a lot of disagreement about morals, though, it seems most practical to try to limit the law’s reach to the minimum necessary for a stable, functioning society. I’m libertarian-ish in that way.

    The claim that the law should limit itself to a practical “minimum necessary for a stable, functioning society” is itself controversial, not to say anything about what this mythical “necessary minimum” is.

    To see how these are words are empty consider for example, the SSM case. It clearly is not in “the minimum necessary for a stable, functioning society” as witnessed by Human history and yet, I am willing to bet that you yourself are not willing to let the matter drop and the status quo be maintained. And if you try to argue that it is indeed in the “minimum necessary”, then you are just conceding the point I made in the first paragraph, and your suggestion is empty and devoid of interest.

    ‘Blasphemy Day’ is a response to ‘religious people’ insisting – to the point of death – that everyone respect their religion as much as they do. It seems justified to me.

    What a load of crock.

  17. @Tom Gilson:

    I think what Ray is saying is that we Christians should arm ourselves (*), and in some cases even take preemptive action, against atheists. After all by Ray’s logic we can judge them the descendants of Stalin, Pol Pot and other merry members of the Atheist International Maphia. This should guarantee “the minimum necessary for a stable, functioning society”; for Christians at any rate.

    (*) I am not an American, so its gun culture is completely foreign to me. Although I do confess that when I grow up I want to be like John Wayne. And then again, it is the John Wayne of “The Quiet Man”.

  18. Tom – It is a strangely simple world where Islamist radicals are judged to be the same sort of thing as evangelical Christians.

    Quite. It is little different to lumping communists and fascists together with the vast majority of moderate political views and saying all political views are evil.

  19. Getting back to the question of legislating morality, this is the crux of conflict between conservative Christians and most other citizens. Ben said #16: “Taking morality out of the law really destroys the law. Law is there to enforce what is moral.” But a lot of people totally disagree.

    I think morality only applies to individuals. The country isn’t a person; the country has no soul; the country won’t go to heaven or hell. The country is just an agreement among people who want to live together peacefully for the common good. Therefore, what the country says has no moral force. Laws should only serve to keep the peace and help people organize their efforts.

    Maybe you think the country should help people get into heaven, but that’s impossible. The country’s job is just to keep the economy on an even keel so we can get on with our business. Again, I think Republicans should agree with this idea, but they’ve been hijacked by the religious right, and that’s why the Republican party is doomed right now.

  20. If morality only applies to citizens, can there be an immoral law? An immoral government?

    Or consider this question: which is more moral: to permit or not to permit gay couples to unite in a union the law would call marriage?

  21. Or in case that’s too controversial, which would be more moral: a law that mandated the death penalty for mass terrorism inflicted on a city, or a law that mandated the death penalty for stealing apples?

  22. ‘Blasphemy Day’ is a response to ‘religious people’ insisting – to the point of death – that everyone respect their religion as much as they do. It seems justified to me.

    I happen to live in Ireland, a country that recently brought in blasphemy laws as mentioned in one of your links. What you say is not true – at least not in an Irish context. Ireland is rapidly becoming a godless society, and this law was neither welcomed by those without religion and at least some in the religious community – both officially and at grass-root level.

    Any atheists I’ve spoken to are clear as to what the goal of blasphemy day is – rubbishing any claims religion makes about occupying a special place in Irish society. While some of this is good natured and possibly valid insofar as the majority don’t want a return to the quazi-theocracy we had going here, some is also tasteless and doesn’t seem to be about much other than mockery.

  23. ‘Blasphemy Day’ is a response to ‘religious people’ insisting – to the point of death –

    No, it’s not, for the reasons people have already said. This is the dishonest cover Cult of Gnu atheists dive under when they’re justly accused of behaving rotten every chance they get. In fact, one secularist seemed to understand as much.

    When we defended the right of a Danish newspaper to publish cartoons deploring the violence of Muslim suicide bombers, we were supporting freedom of the press. The right to publish dissenting critiques of religion should be accepted as basic to freedom of expression. But for CFI itself to sponsor the lampooning of Christianity by encouraging anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, or any other anti-religious cartoons goes beyond the bounds of civilized discourse in pluralistic society. It is not dissimilar to the anti-semitic cartoons of the Nazi era. Yet there are some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention. In doing so they have dishonored the basic ethical principles of what the Center for Inquiry has resolutely stood for until now: the toleration of opposing viewpoints.

    It’s bigotry, plain and simple. Whimpering and trying to get on the cross – ironically enough – doesn’t justify the atheists on this one. The idea of atheists being all about common sense and *snrrk* tolerance is demonstrably false, and will remain so as long as they allow themselves to be represented by the Cult of Gnu leadership.

  24. John (you may have missed this given that I responded to Ray in the first part),

    What criteria do you use to determine whether harm is done? What constitutes harm? Is it physical, emotional, financial, spiritual or some combination of any and all of the above?

    And why is it only harm done to others? For example, if I commit suicide, have I only done harm to myself or have I not also harmed my wife, my children and the other members of my family?

  25. Tom Gilson –

    You could use them, yes, to say “Christians persecute – or prosecute – blasphemy”

    Which is exactly what I did. I did not say ‘all Christians persecute – or prosecute – blasphemy’.

    Which is to say, this tells us absolutely nothing about Christianity overall. Nothing.

    Nor did I said that ‘Christianity persecutes – or prosecutes – blasphemy’. I’ve specifically pointed out that not even all Muslims issue death threats. To reiterate – I never said all Christians persecute blasphemy. What I claimed – and by your own words, established – is that some do. (Heck, even some Buddhists do.)

    Pointing out examples of persecution by Christians doesn’t establish that all Christians persecute (and the same goes for other religions). In precisely the same way that the fact that some atheists have been genocidal dictators doesn’t prove that all atheists must be. (Say, did G. Rodrigues pick Stalin and Pol Pot at random?)

    Nor do persecutors need to be officially sanctioned by the heads of a church to be a serious problem. If people are throwing rocks at me, it doesn’t matter a whole lot if those rocks have been officially blessed by a monk or an imam or a priest or not. That said:

    toddes – The difference between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church is in a bit of dispute these days. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the new blasphemy laws and the new laws banning gay ‘propaganda’ were passed so close together.

  26. Right, you did not say all Christians prosecute/persecute. The unqualified assertion, “Christians prosecute/persecute…” remains, however, highly misleading without some sense of proportion. It would be like saying, “Republicans support larger government,” just because you found two or three examples.

    All you’ve done with this has been to play rhetorical games to score points.

    The topic of the discussion was, “You can’t not legislate morality.” The topic of whether Christians persecute is hereby ended. I will enforce that with deletions.

    Here’s why. Ray, you have a gift for throwing discussions off on tangents by making assertions like this one: wildly wrong, slightly off topic, needing correction, and then creating side conversations of their own in which you keep defending yourself with ever finer points of irrelevant dispute. No more.

  27. G. Rodrigues –

    The claim that the law should limit itself to a practical “minimum necessary for a stable, functioning society” is itself controversial, not to say anything about what this mythical “necessary minimum” is.

    When did I claim it was universally accepted, or that everyone would automatically agree on the ‘necessary minimum’?

    It’s a principle to aim for. Real-life law and morality are complex, like real-life engineering. With computing, you want something simple to use, flexible, and powerful. Engineers agree on that. But you have to balance computing power, energy consumption, ease of development, ease of use, security, developer time and hardware, etc. Look at how Google, Apple, Microsoft, Palm, Nokia, and others have hit different balances in making the same thing – a simple, flexible, powerful smart-phone.

    Similarly, there will of course be disputes over what’s really the minimum necessary restrictions on liberty, what the proper balance is. That doesn’t invalidate the principle in the slightest.

    To see how these are words are empty consider for example, the SSM case. It clearly is not in “the minimum necessary for a stable, functioning society” as witnessed by Human history and yet, I am willing to bet that you yourself are not willing to let the matter drop and the status quo be maintained.

    You’d only get a half-point. I don’t want ‘same-sex marriage’ particularly. I’m for a radical simplification – get government out of the marriage business altogether. From a legal standpoint, make all unions civil unions. There would be a constellation of rights and responsibilities appropriate to varying situations – one of them being the legal framework of heterosexual marriage pretty much as it stands today (with one exception, see below).

    Churches would still perform marriages, of course. They would likely have a different view from the legal one – exactly the way the Catholic Church has a different view of legally-divorced couples today. But people whose religions allowed same-sex marriages would be allowed to solemnize such unions. (Religious liberty ftw!)

    The main thing I’d do would be to apply a very conservative principle – that duties and responsibilities and benefits should be tied to people actually doing a job rather than just a class of people who might do that job. Parental rights and responsibilities and benefits would apply to people actually raising children – birthed, adopted, fostered, etc. – not just any union that might, one day, potentially, raise children.

  28. Laws that punish crimes after the fact typically have limited utility in encouraging moral behaviour. You may have experienced this firsthand if you have ever contacted the police about someone you thought might commit a crime. There’s often not much that can be done in advance.

    This seems to accommodate an important fact: people tend to organise their lives in a manner that suits themselves. Unless society has the ambition to control the behaviour of people who are not (yet) committing crimes, it has only a few tools to prevent people from harming each other. And I expect that, given the choice, most people would prefer not to live under the absolute control of bureaucrats, even though control may reduce crime. That would make society into a sort of prison.

    So surely there must be a balance? You say that “you can’t not legislate morality” — but isn’t it prudent to legislate to the minimum extent possible, to mitigate the worst abuses of people on each other?

    @Tom#21:

    Or consider this question: which is more moral: to permit or not to permit gay couples to unite in a union the law would call marriage?

    What about heterosexuals? Should they be permitted to marry? (Does the question sound absurd?)

    Or to put it another way: say that some people marry, and you feel that this behaviour is immoral. Why should that not be the end of the issue? I mean, you have your perspective, they have theirs. They’re not hurting you. What is the need of a law that enforces some people’s moral views on others? And how far does this extend — to every facet of life?

  29. urbanus, I agree with your first point. On your answer to me @21, the purpose of the question was to elicit any answer at all. Either John agrees that one is more moral than the other (in which case he finally recognizes that morality applies to something other than individuals) or he denies it, in which case he takes an unlikely position.

  30. You ask @21: “If morality only applied to citizens, can there be an immoral law? An immoral government?”

    There can certainly be bad laws, but I wouldn’t call them immoral.

    It depends on the basis of your morality. You think morality comes from God, so when you talk about legislating morality, it sounds like you want a theocracy, more or less.

    I think morality (goodness) relates to our material prosperity or well-being. I think the government should try to help (a little) with building prosperity. The government should not try to interpret holy scriptures.

    The great thing about my stance is that it allows you to be Christian and follow all your beliefs freely. Hindus and Muslims and everyone else too, as long as you don’t harm others.

    Yes, “harm” is hard to define and delimit. As Ray Ingles said @29: “It’s a principle to aim for. Real-life law and morality are complex, like real-life engineering. … there will of course be disputes over what’s really the minimum necessary restrictions on liberty, what the proper balance is. That doesn’t invalidate the principle in the slightest.”

  31. @John#32:

    I think morality (goodness) relates to our material prosperity or well-being.

    What’s the difference between “good” and “good for me”? If you’re making an argument based on pure pragmatics, then your usage of the term “good” in the context of a discussion on morality differs from the meaning that most others would take.

    I think morality (goodness) relates to our material prosperity or well-being. I think the government should try to help (a little) with building prosperity. The government should not try to interpret holy scriptures.

    That’s a good ideal and I agree with it. But what happens when that doesn’t happen?

    Let’s not take Tom’s example of homosexual marriage (too controversial). Take the example of interracial marriage — something that was a legal issue up until last century, and which continues to be a source of bigotry and intolerance up to this day. When governments pass laws based on community prejudices and bigotry, interfering in people’s personal lives where it’s not actually necessary, isn’t that a sort of social evil? Shouldn’t people of good conscience resist that?

    We may prefer that issues of personal morality be kept out of the law, but sometimes the issue is forced upon us.

  32. John @ 1:

    “The reason for having laws is to maintain order in society. That’s all. We need a safe, orderly society in order to promote prosperity. Beyond that, everyone should have freedom of conscience. Let people follow whichever gods they want, as long as they don’t harm others, as long as they cooperate in the common effort to build prosperity.

    When Christians try to legislate their own morality, they’re impinging on other people’s freedom of conscience. That’s the real tyranny. Get the government off our backs! Keep your spying out of my private home! Defend freedom! (You’d think Republicans would appreciate these sentiments, but they’ve betrayed their own small-government principles.)”

    Two points here. First of all, you seem to be advocating that government be run along essentially utilitarian lines — and utilitarianism is, of course, a moral theory. Secondly, you say that people “should” have freedom of conscience — how does that statement make sense, without some kind of moral force behind the word “should”? You’re still advocating that government be run according to your own favoured moral theory.

  33. Yes, I have my favorite theory. And I think everyone actually agrees with me. Christians are in favor of material prosperity too! Everyone can agree that our physical well-being is important.

    Where we disagree is on spiritual things. But that’s OK because we can keep material prosperity separate from the spiritual. We can work together on practical physical things, and we can do our spiritual practices separately in our homes and churches.

    It’s only a problem if one group tries to impose their spiritual views on another. That’s not good! It’s not good for community cooperation. It disrupts our common efforts to build prosperity.

    Of course there are complex issues, and real life is not so simple. For example, I don’t really grill hamburgers in my yard, even though I have the right to do so, because I know it annoys my Hindu neighbor (our houses are right next to each other). We all have to be flexible and considerate of other people’s special preferences. But only to a certain extent.

  34. I have a spiritual view, John, that includes the value of letting other know the great and eternal goodness of Jesus Christ. You have a view that says I should not do that. That is a spiritual view: it is based in your particular take on spiritual reality. You would impose your view on me. But you say you don’t believe in that. How do you reconcile that?

  35. On the contrary, I think it’s fine for you to let others know the “great and eternal goodness of Jesus Christ.” Please go right ahead. Hey, I’m participating in this forum, aren’t I?

    Letting people know things is great, but jamming it forcefully down their throats is not OK.

  36. That is, clearly you’re forcing your spiritual views on all believers, requiring us to keep our views private, in church or home, against our convictions.

  37. John,

    It’s only a problem if one group tries to impose their spiritual views on another.

    Tries? You’re trying to do this here. What should a society striving for community cooperation do with you in order to prevent this disruption from fulfilling our common efforts to build prosperity?

  38. In addition to homes and churches, you can also proclaim Christ’s gospel on the street corner, and in the media. I don’t mind. As long as it’s your personal view, as one human being to another. You just shouldn’t recruit a policeman to keep your crowd together.

    Yes, if you recruit a policeman, I’ll get my own policeman to oppose yours. We do need to fight to protect our freedoms. That’s fair.

    But why do you want to fight about this? Why aren’t you satisfied with the freedom of speech we have in this great country?

  39. Yes, a congressman of course. You’ll probably also need some Supreme Court justices, though.

    But again, I don’t understand why you don’t support the status quo, where Christians have full freedom of speech. Why do you want to fight?

  40. Why do you also fight the status quo? A: Because we both believe in the truth we are fighting for. Is it wrong to do that? Not at all. Some fights are worth getting into, even if they are not physical fights. Agree?

  41. It’s just that you agree with me about practical things, like the economy. We can work together to create jobs, restore public infrastructure and all that. But instead of working on these practical things, many government leaders focus on abortion and homosexual marriage. There’s no need for this impasse.

    I’m not even saying you should change your beliefs; just change your legislative agenda to something more practical so you can get some actual laws passed.

  42. But instead of working on these practical things, many government leaders focus on abortion and homosexual marriage. There’s no need for this impasse.

    I can give you a long list of practical reasons for outlawing abortion and for limiting the definition of marriage. I won’t do that though. Tom has written about both on this blog. We have an impasse, now what?

  43. Right now it’s clear that the Republicans don’t have enough support to ban abortion or gay marriage. Go ahead and campaign on these issues and try to get a Senate majority. But for now, what are you going to do? Just keep banging your head against the wall? Why not do something more constructive? … while waiting for the next election.

  44. John, we are doing more constructive things. We’re explaining how people can have life in Christ. We’re supporting families in a huge way in our churches. I was with a group last night talking about how to help feed the homeless near here, more effectively than what several members of that group, including my wife, did it last week. We’re running crisis pregnancy centers.

    I’m just not sure what it is you think we’re ramming down people’s throats. Is it our beliefs about social issues? Our beliefs about moral issues? John, we’re using the same democratic process you are. What’s “ramming” about that? Whatever it is, you’re doing exactly the same thing when you stand for your contrary position, which is why I’ve said you’re ramming you’re views down my throat in response. But actually I don’t believe that’s so, unless you’re using illegitimate means to do it.

    Just what is it we’re doing that’s (a) wrong in your eyes and (b) substantially different than the way anyone else tries to advance policy?

    Or is it just that you don’t like the policy we’re advancing the same way anyone else tries to advance policy?

  45. @Ray Ingles:

    When did I claim it was universally accepted, or that everyone would automatically agree on the ‘necessary minimum’?

    It’s a principle to aim for.

    And my point was not whether it was “universally accepted”, but rather because it is not, by *your logic*, it is *NOT* a principle to aim for. The logic at work is flawed as I showed and your principle *is* invalidated, dubious misguided engineering analogies notwithstanding, because nothing you have said addressed my point.

    The main thing I’d do would be to apply a very conservative principle – that duties and responsibilities and benefits should be tied to people actually doing a job rather than just a class of people who might do that job. Parental rights and responsibilities and benefits would apply to people actually raising children – birthed, adopted, fostered, etc. – not just any union that might, one day, potentially, raise children.

    And my point was that whether we should apply “a very conservative principle” is itself in dispute and you surely have not argued for it. Christians in general *will* dispute it, because human beings are integrated wholes; you can no more separate the material, moral and spiritual ends of a man than you can dismember his body, and have a proper human being. And this so-called principle, is definitely *NOT* “very conservative”, but actually a typical off-shoot of liberal views on how to organize society, which, more often than I would like, are imposed top-down, sometimes in fairly undemocratic ways.

  46. @John Moore:

    It’s just that you agree with me about practical things, like the economy. We can work together to create jobs, restore public infrastructure and all that. But instead of working on these practical things, many government leaders focus on abortion and homosexual marriage. There’s no need for this impasse.

    This is predicated on the very naive view (in your case; in others, it is a deliberate manipulative rhetorical sleight of hand) that the “practical” side can be neatly separated from the “spiritual” side. This is simply false. To quote from someone else chiming in a completely different topic in a different blog (see here )

    More generally, civic life as a whole and laws in particular have to be molded to be in conformity with the ends that society and the government see as the ends for its human beings. Because humans are integrated, the ends for civic government must be made and maintained as compatible with the spiritual end of man, which requires constant reflection back and forth between the two to keep them working together.

    The other extremely naive view is the idea that once we set aside the “controversial” moral issues, we will all get along fine and agree on the practical side of things. On what planet are you living?

  47. John @ 35:

    There are several problems with the argument you have presented. One is that, as G. Rodrigues has already pointed out, the idea that it’s desirable or even possible to separate out “spiritual” things from “practical” ones is quite a controversial one. Another is the fact that people disagree a lot even of “practical” issues. For example, you’d presumably say that the government ought to try and stop people getting murdered. But what counts as “murder”? And how do you define “people”? Would euthanasia be murder? Abortion? Infanticide (h/t Peter Singer)? It’s all very well saying “Keep spiritual matters out of the government”, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in practice, the law is going to have to come down on one side of these debates or the other. Expecting people to try and ignore their entire worldview when deciding which side to support is ridiculous, and, insofar as it always seems to be religious worldviews which we’re meant to ignore, arbitrary and inconsistent. Even worse is the old “Yes, you’re free to believe that X is murder, but you should just shut up and not do anything to stop it.” People who try using that argument should really listen to themselves more.

  48. G. Rodrigues –

    The logic at work is flawed as I showed

    No, you didn’t. What you wrote was the SSM case… clearly is not in “the minimum necessary for a stable, functioning society” as witnessed by Human history. Of course, the idea that wives weren’t chattel and could, for example, be raped by their husbands wasn’t supported by much of anything in human history – certainly no legal codes – up until last century. Same with slavery for a long time, as pointed out before.

    What I think you wanted to say was something about the definition of a ‘stable, functioning society’. Lots of room for disagreement there on what counts as ‘stable’ and ‘functioning’. Feel free to do so. But I’ll probably bring up more dubious misguided engineering analogies.

    …you can no more separate the material, moral and spiritual ends of a man than you can dismember his body, and have a proper human being.

    On the other hand, Christians generally (though not universally) agree today that you can’t force someone to be Christian, nor even force someone to lead a Christian life. That being the case – and the whole ‘render unto Caesar’ thing – it is possible to have legal regime (which governs the material and (to an extent) the moral) separate from the spiritual regime.

  49. @Ray Ingles:

    No, you didn’t.

    Yes, I did, and quite frankly have no patience for your sophistry and obvious difficulty in following even the most elementary argument.

  50. G. Rodrigues – I see you’ve been taking Tom’s words to heart on being persuasive.

    Look, if you phrased anything in the form of a syllogism there, I missed it. If you don’t have the patience to explain it, I guess I’ll just have to reconcile myself to my ignorance… but insults aren’t going to advance your case much. Rather the opposite, really.

  51. “The slave trade in the British Empire might have survived another hundred years without Christians trying to legislate their own morality.”

    Fact is, the slave trade is alive and well and never died. Fact is it was and has been in practice since before the biblical spoof of Cain and Abel. Morality is taught with the Ten Commandments, but in practice long before then.

    While I see the point of the statement made, it is foolish for the writer, myself, or anyone to say that everyone has to think one way and one way only. Even an atheist believes in “Free Will.” I firmly believe inclusion is the key to get where we all want to be.

    Exactly what the Religious Right aka “The Republicans” fail to understand and stopped understanding by putting forth candidates who consistently want to deny one’s right to choose on moral issues such as abortion and their changing the definition of entitlements to include contracts with the government such as Social Security. Pitting one group of beliefs against another only brings anger on both sides and nothing is accomplished except mass migration that is presently the case in the Republican Party.

    Dr. Ben Carson has said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “we don’t need to be nasty when disagreeing with others and have a calm discourse of issues.” Does anyone believe that our Founding Fathers all agreed on every issue before them? They had one thing in common which we don’t have today, a common enemy. This fact is still in use today in military boot camps. Commonality binds opposing forces. Only thing is this “Common Enemy” as Pogo said, “…is us aka “The Federal Government.”

    I was uplifted reading Dr. Carson’s book “America the Beautiful” and enjoyed his insight in basically cherry picking the good points of all economic systems to make one that is better. This approach should also be used, I believe, to either re-make a party, or make a new party.

    So, all sides can sit here and complain against this, that, and whatever, or we can start to do something constructive and either reshape the Republican Party, or form a third viable party with people like Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, etc., as long as these “leaders” are inclusive of other philosophies and clearly define what the collective mission is.

  52. Metazip:

    “Fact is, the slave trade is alive and well and never died.”

    Read what he wrote again: the slave trade *in the British Empire*. The fact that other parts of the world not ruled by the British continued trading in slaves is irrelevant to the point.

    “Even an atheist believes in “Free Will.””

    Actually there are quite a few who think it’s just an illusion.

    “putting forth candidates who consistently want to deny one’s right to choose on moral issues such as abortion”

    Yeah, disgraceful! Incidentally, I’m pretty teed off at all these parties who consistently want to try and stamp on my right to choose whether or not blacks, gays and Jews count as people. I mean, sure, you can think that it’s murder to kill those types, but please, don’t try and impose your own opinion on people who disagree with you.

    (And this shouldn’t need saying, but since this is the internet after all: the above was sarcasm, not a serious statement.)

    ” was uplifted reading Dr. Carson’s book “America the Beautiful” and enjoyed his insight in basically cherry picking the good points of all economic systems to make one that is better. This approach should also be used, I believe, to either re-make a party, or make a new party.”

    The problem with that view is that it’s platitudinous and unhelpful in any practical sense. Given that what “the good points” of economic or political systems are *is precisely what is at issue in these kinds of disagreements*, you’ll find that, whilst people are fine with signing up to a cherry-pick-the-best approach as a general idea, any chance of consensus will evaporate once you try and decide which ideas you should choose to incorporate.