I’ve taken a position in previous posts about how I think “morality” should not be used as the basis for laws, and after thinking about this a bit more I think some clarifying might be in order.
First, it might be useful to explore the concept of “morality.” Google’s dictionary defines morality as
“Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior; a particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.”
I don’t want to give impression that laws should be divorced from morality. I think it’s a given that we all have a sense of right and wrong. Even little babies develop a sense of fairness very early on, and fairness is a corollary to right and wrong. So of course development of laws must be firmly grounded in “right and wrong,” but when I think of “morality,” it’s more than just an innate sense of what’s right or wrong. In the Google definition above, the last part of that definition is pertinent; note that it says “especially one held by a specified person or society.” That means that it’s contextual; morality is defined (at least in part) by that person or society. If it’s contextual, then in a different context, a different “system of values and principles of conduct” would be in place. So it’s conceivable that two different people, groups or societies could hold the exact opposite views (or actions) to be moral. To say it differently the same action could be moral (or even “required”) for one person or group, and would be immoral (and even “prohibited”) for another.
And indeed that’s exactly what we see. For some people giving money to someone who has done nothing to earn it is considered immoral, while for others it’s immoral not to do so, if the recipient is in need. Of course it’s not the giving of money that is moral or immoral, it’s the reason behind it (and we’re back to context). The author, philosopher and cognitive linguist George Lakoff has written several books that have helped me form my thinking around this; most notable “Moral Politics” where he argues that the metaphors we use to help understand society (and our place in it) impact our sense of morality. I’ve written about him and his views of how our particular morality shapes our politics, so I won’t go into that again here.
So it’s this second sense of morality, that it’s context-driven, that makes me nervous when it comes to the creation of law. Laws, by their very definition have to apply to everyone within the region encompassed by that governing body. But if each person has their own individual morality, and those morals are the foundation of laws, then how do you create a set of laws that apply to everyone? It can’t be as simple as majority rule; as I’ve argued before, the Bill of Rights expressly protects an individual’s rights against the majority (as represented by Government). I’ve also pointed out that a sheep and two wolves deciding on what’s for dinner may be democratic, but it’s not a good way to run a society. Alternately, allowing whoever’s in power to decide isn’t much better; in the South, Jim Crow laws were used for generations by the local politicians as a way to control the African American segment of their populace; in retrospect we wonder how that ever was allowed to happen.
Of course there’s another question about whether there is such a thing as Morality (with a capital “M”) that would apply to everyone, and that’s a corollary to the question of whether there’s objective Truth. Although that’s for another post (and in fact I have written about it earlier), I do believe there is such a thing as a Universal Morality; a behavioral code that applies (or at least OUGHT to apply) to everyone, but it’s a slippery thing to define.
What most people mean when they talk about morality being the base for our laws is closer to Judge Roy Moore’s view of the world. And that scares me.