Canadian Politics from Canada's Centre

Thursday, June 22, 2006

On the imposition of morality

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(Cross-posted at BlueGrit)

One of the favourite tactics of the reactionary right is to charge their opponents with engaging in the very same behaviour in which they themselves are engaging.

For example, they will often say, "the left demands tolerance, but they are intolerant of our beliefs." But the thing is, being tolerant demands being intolerant of intolerance. A proper analogy is that the use of force is wrong, but one must oppose the use of force with the use of force. The charges fall flat on their face; if your "beliefs" are intolerant; if your "beliefs" hold that I should be a second-class citizen (or worse); if your "beliefs" are that others should be oppressed using the civil law, I have no duty as a tolerant individual to tolerate them. In fact, it is completely the opposite - to be morally consistent in my demand for tolerance, I have a duty to oppose intolerance, even if that requires being "intolerant". To say that one should tolerate intolerance is as morally bereft as the cries of the pacifist who demands that violence be met with passivity. There is nothing wrong with being intolerant of intolerance - racists, sexists, anti-semitists, and homophobes should be relegated to the fringes of society where they belong.

Another example is claiming, in defence against the charge that they are attempting to legislate morality, that their opponents are also trying to legislate morality by, say, changing the definition of marriage to include same sex couples. (Their counterparts a couple of generations ago fumed equally about changing the definition of marriage to allow divorce; their counterparts in the United States did so when the definition was changed to include interracial marriage.) But this flaim is absolutly faulty on its surface, and here's why:

The belief that the government should not impose morality, is not imposing morality, no more than refusing to tolerate intolerance is wrong. It is completely inconsistent to claim that a belief in the moral neutrality of government is itself a moral judgment, just as it is inconsistent to claim that atheism is a religion. As atheism is, by definition, the absence of religion, so to is the moral neutrality of government a committment to amorality.

This does not mean that the citizen of a country are amoral, or that the members of the government are amoral. What is means it that the government itself, as a body, will not make moral judgments.

Some will say that protecting people against murder or theft is a moral judgment. I could not disagree more - that is simply the government performing its duty, and its duty is the safety of its citizens. That is why it exists - not to enforce moral rules, but to protect people.

Remaining morally neutral on questions of conscience is the best way to ensure social harmony. This is why the government should not legislate against abortion, nor should it make moral decisions about sexuality, nor should it decide who can and cannot get married, nor should it criminalize those who choose to speak virulently against gay people, or even black people or Jews. The cultural left must concede that last point, because again, the government should not side with their point or view no more than it should side with the cultural right's.

So no, allowing gay people to get married along with straight people is not "imposing" morality; nor is allowing abortion; nor is allowing responsible drug use; nor is allowing any form of consensual sex (even if paid for). The government in all of the above cases is quite explicitly leaving the question of morality to its citizens to decide without its interference and meddling - and that is exactly the way it should be.

6 Comments:

At 3:54 PM, Canadian Politico Anonymous Michael McCullough said:

Remaining morally neutral on questions of conscience is the best way to ensure social harmony. This is why the government should not legislate against abortion, nor should it make moral decisions about sexuality, nor should it decide who can and cannot get married, nor should it criminalize those who choose to speak virulently against gay people, or even black people or Jews.

What about other questions of conscience? Murder? Having sex with children? Beating your wife?

With all due respect, you're tossing logic out the door and basically arguing that the government is entitled to regulate some matters of conscience but not others.

 
At 5:44 PM, Canadian Politico Blogger suchire said:

I agree with Michael. Government is technically about enforcing justice, in that it should protect property rights, prevent murder, and so on, but any legislation by the government is inherently involved with ethical questions. By allowing for abortion, for example, one must concede that it tacitly approves of the position that abortion harms no one. If abortion did harm someone, then it would not only be morally wrong, but the government's duty to prevent it, insofar as the government is there to protect people. One cannot decide the government's role without also deciding the ethical question.

 
At 5:59 PM, Canadian Politico Anonymous Anonymous said:

Oh come on, Mike!

The author of this article stated very clearly that the job of the government was to protect its citicens. Murder, child abuse, and spousal abuse are all very clearly harming another person. NONE of those you mentioned are 'questions of conscience', they are obvious abuse of another person.

Consensual sex between adults, consenting adults marrying, control of your own body (Birth control) DON'T harm anyone. If people had proper sex education and easy access to birth control and emergency contraception (like Plan B), it would even cut WAY down on abortions - Somehow the 'pro-life' folks never seem to realize that.

If that's your only argument, you make it really easy to explain where you're wrong.

Try again!

Ermine

 
At 1:14 AM, Canadian Politico Blogger lecentre said:

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 1:21 AM, Canadian Politico Blogger lecentre said:

I've often thought of this tactic too. I hear people engaging in it all the time to argue that Israel is evil and intolerant... when it actually has Arab ministers of parliament! What nonsense!

Now, I agree with Michael that government still needs to have ethical legislation, and I would say that that is in fact the most intellectually defendable argument here, which logic would lead to inevitably, assuming all the facts were presented.

We legislate against hate speech to protect lives. We legislate against murder, incest and the rest of that because these are fundamentally unsound practices if we want to assure our continued peaceful survival.

To anonymous: yes, unfortunately, these are not second nature, but things that are still debated as moral issues. Racists argue for the right to murder...

Note: the left is intolerant of many right-wing beliefs, and that is a problem. Try saying you like Bush in a college here, and watch as all the lefties jump you!

 
At 1:29 AM, Canadian Politico Blogger lecentre said:

"Some will say that protecting people against murder or theft is a moral judgment. I could not disagree more - that is simply the government performing its duty, and its duty is the safety of its citizens. That is why it exists - not to enforce moral rules, but to protect people."

What are they protecting people from then? Inevitably, protection is made on the basis of a moral/ethical judgement. We judge that murder is wrong, so we protect people from it. Skinheads would disagree that it's wrong...

You can call it "government's role" but fundamentally, all legislation/government (government's role being to legislate) is based on some kind of judgement. The environment? We've made it an ethical issue and so we're "protecting ourselves." Taxing the rich to feed the poor? Another ethical issue...

Political science is fundamentally about ethics, like it or not.

 

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