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Legislating Morality

My friend Lori wrote a post on NewsReal Blog about people who posted a stream of messages on Twitter about having had an abortion. (For those familiar with Twitter, they used the hashtag #IHadAnAbortion.) After making sure that the link was good I repeated her message about her new post to my own Twitter followers. One of my other friends on Twitter took vocal exception to the contents of (and the concepts she thinks are behind) Lori’s post. She raised some interestingquestions that I couldn’t answer in 140 characters. In fact, she raised more issues than I can reasonably address in a single post. This post is an attempt to address the ideas that you can’t legislate morality, and that individual freedom is an absolute.

The core of Lori’s post can be summed up in her (rather long) title and her opening paragraph:

Pro-Aborts Screech, “Stay Out Of My Uterus!” Unless They Want To Brag About Abortions On Twitter

Pro-abortionists love to give lip service to the “right” to privacy, especially when it concerns fancy wombs. Except for when they wish to take to Twitter and boast about their abortions publicly, apparently. This week, they did just that using the hashtag #ihadanabortion. The alleged reasoning behind such a campaign was to promote empowerment and to take the “stigma” out of, you know, the killing of unborn children. Because, wing nuts won the elections. And The Patriarchy ™. Or something. Never mind that elections themselves are, by definition, all about choice. Facts are hard.

The essence of the response by one of my Progressive friends was essentially contained in these tweets:

@Beregond you’re premise is based on the misconception that ALL people believe life starts at conception. Not “ALL” believe that

@Beregond The government has absolutely no right to interfer in my bedroom, my health choices or my religious choices. LIBERTY right?

@Beregond Or is “Liberty” only for those who believe the way the christian right believe? You can’t push a belief system on a mass of people

Ignoring the red herring about race for the moment, this post is not about when life begins. I’ll simply point out a bit of irony: It’s often the same people who claim that if there’s even a CHANCE that mankind is causing global warming/climate change that we MUST act who reject a similar argument about life. Surely if there’s even a CHANCE that an embryo is a human life we should try to save that life.

To turn to my main point, liberty and anarchy are not the same thing. Without a framework of laws, there is no reason my neighbor can’t open a window and shoot me when I come home from shopping at 4 am and start lugging groceries inside because I forgot to turn off the radio that was blasting Vivaldi and then slammed the car doors & woke his wife. (Actually I try to behave. Both of my neighbors are at least as well armed as I am, and are at least my equals in marksmanship.)

The writings of Sir William Blackstone were well known to the founders, since his Commentaries first appeared in 1765, with the first American edition in 1761.  It would be hard to improve on his eloquent summary on the few, but critical limitations on personal liberty:

The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature: being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endued him with the faculty of free-will. But every man, when he enters into society, gives up a part of his natural liberty, as the price of so valuable a purchase; and, in consideration of receiving the advantages of mutual commerce, obliges himself to conform to those laws, which the community has thought proper to establish. And this species of legal obedience and conformity is infinitely more desirable, than that wild and savage liberty which is sacrificed to obtain it. For no man, that considers a moment, would wish to retain the absolute and uncontroled power of doing whatever he pleases; the consequence of which is, that every other man would also have the same power; and then there would be no security to individuals in any of the enjoyments of life. Political therefore, or civil, liberty, which is that of a member of society, is no other than natural liberty so far restrained by human laws (and no farther) as is necessary and expedient for the general advantage of the publick. Hence we may collect that the law, which restrains a man from doing mischief to his fellow citizens, though it diminishes the natural, increases the civil liberty of mankind: but every wanton and causeless restraint of the will of the subject, whether practiced by a monarch, a nobility, or a popular assembly, is a degree of tyranny.

Laws are based on something. Generally they’re based on something that God told us. Oh, not always the Lord God of Hosts, who sent his son the Blue-Eyed Jesus to save us. Surviving copies of the Code of Hammurabi indicate that he was chosen by the gods to bring the law to his people. Maybe Hammurabi had a genuine religious experience. Maybe Moses was given stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. And maybe Gluck the Cave Boy was told by his mother “Put down that club THIS INSTANT! You KNOW nobody is allowed to kill and eat their baby brother except on High Holy Days!” The important thing about laws is that they implement morality.

What’s that you say? You can’t legislate morality? You’re splitting hairs. It’s true that you can’t pass a law that controls what a person feels or thinks inside themselves. On the other hand, you CAN legislate moral behavior. And that’s what the law is. Some king, priest, dictator or legislator codified moral behavior. What you think or feel inside is out of reach. What you do outwardly is what the law can touch. Someone who has dissident thoughts in a dictatorship is not bothered for having those thoughts. It is when they in some way act on those thoughts (even if the act is just giving voice to those thoughts) that he gets into trouble.

If there is no moral foundation for a system of laws, then the law is reduced to “These are the rules. They’re the rules because I say so, and I control all of the guys with guns.” We can ask those who survived Pol PotStalin, or Mao how that worked out. (Hitler’s Nazism was not state atheism; it was filled with the occult. Anyone who watches Leni Riefenstahl‘s “Triumph of the Willand doesn’t see religion is willfully blind.)

So the law is either codification of morality or it is thuggery. The real argument is about which moral code will be implemented by the law. To claim to reject a moral underpinning for the law is either a wish to live in a place where the law is whatever one guy says it is today, or else it is a disingenuous attempt to substitute your own moral code for the one that has already been codified.

Originally posted at Beregond’s Bar.

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