Wednesday, May 29, 2013

You Can't Legislate Morality?


"You can't legislate morality."

In the sense this cliche is usually intended, it is utterly false. The only thing you can -- I better say should -- legislate is morality. You can legislate morality in this sense, in the only sense that matters: you can institute laws that encourage a certain morality (via rewards), and discourage certain immorality (via punishments).

Laws against child abuse are legislating morality; they are saying, "Child abuse is wrong and immoral, and destructive to children, and our nation." Every law is a statement of what a people considers right and wrong, moral and immoral. Or else, we have no basis for any law whatsoever. Morality, it turns out, is the only thing you can legislate.

What you can't, or at least shouldn't, legislate is all the things outside right/wrong and moral/immoral.

You shouldn't pass a law which dictates that men must eat peanut butter every day. You shouldn't pass a law that punishes men for serving large cups of soda (sorry Mayor Bloomberg). You shouldn't pass a law that says everyone must wear blue on Tuesday. You should not pass a law which condemns, with a 5 year prison sentence, wearing white after labor day. You should not (even though I hate to type it) institute a law which requires every restaurant serve sweet tea, Southern Style, or else face a $1000.00 fine. You should not pass such laws because these are issues not of morality/immorality, but rather taste and personal preference and geographical whim. When it comes to our nation's laws, we should indeed demand freedom. Freedom for individual taste; what we can never demand is freedom for individual morality. There's no such such as individual morality, "What's right for you is right for you." Morality, by definition, stands above every individual.

Morality is above and beyond individuals, time, and place. Taste, on the other hand, is tied to time and place and space. Morality concerns the eternal truths which hover above our world; it is the moral map once for all given to man no matter when a man lives, and no matter where a man may happen to be on the geographical map. Morality never changes no matter the time; taste does, all the time. Morality is not tied to any place; taste is a dot on the map, and varies from dot to dot, and town to town.

I grew up in the South; there, we drink sweet tea, and hardly anything else. I love sweet tea, and consider it truly the nectar of the gods. Imagine my surprise when I landed in St. Louis and discovered many restaurants serve not sweet tea. I was startled; I was confused. I had every right to love sweet tea; what I did not have any right to was a demand that everyone else love sweet tea. It turns out many people don't; I can't understand them -- but, and this is the really important thing, I also can't condemn them. They are not immoral for drinking tea sans sugar. You can't legislate taste.

Now, if I went into a restaurant and ordered sweet tea, and was rebuffed, and then I decided I would express my dismay by stealing 100.00 from the cash register, I'd probably be arrested. If I told the arresting officer, "This is no different from my disdain for unsweetened tea! How dare you arrest me. It is my personal choice to steal..." well, this argument wouldn't get me very far. Why not? It turns out, you can legislate morality.

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