Monday, June 20, 2011

Morality in Policymaking Revisited

Last week, I wrote a post regarding the role that a politician's faith should play in his or her work as a policy maker. That post basically said that while a person's morality, which includes his or her faith, is not something an individual can keep out of their work, a politician should not attempt to impose his or her morality on society. A comment then asked, and I'm paraphrasing here, that isn't it our morality that says that murder is wrong?

In response, I must say that my prior post wasn't a complete analysis, but I'll do a more complete analysis in response. First, I know that it would be correct to state that an individual's moral viewpoint probably effects, and probably should effect, all of their policy viewpoints. Those of us who supported health care reform didn't just do it for economic reasons, but because we believe it is a moral imperative that all Americans should have access to quality health care. However, there are a set of issues that are clearly morality first issues, where economics arguments on both sides tend to come behind the "I just feel this way" sort of issue. The two biggest morality first issues of the day are pretty clearly gay rights and abortion.

I think there are two clear questions to ask: First, does taking the policy of one side in an argument hurt the other side? Gay marriage fits well into this question. Not allowing gay marriage clearly hurts gay men and women, as it prevents them from taking advantage of the privileges our federal and state governments provide to married individuals. The damage to individuals who are against gay marriage is extremely specious and vague.

I would argue that abortion works similarly: legal abortion doesn't harm people who don't choose to have abortions, while prohibiting abortions would harm individuals with unwanted pregnancies. But let's just humor the argument that conservatives will clearly make in response to this, that children who may have been born if not for the abortions themselves are a harmed population. Then you're left with the second question: how split is society on the issue? Before the government prohibits something that is clearly a morals first issue, there should be a clear supermajority of the country who thinks one view is correct. Clearly this is not perfect, as the supermajority has often been wrong on issues like race, women's rights, and sexual orientation. When you think about the government waiting so long on those issues, though, those were also issues where the legislature completely forgot to ask the first question. Who did the civil rights act actually harm, aside from people who were unreasonably bigoted? Who did giving the women the right to vote harm? Who would gay marriage harm? If these two simple questions were asked and honestly answered on these morals first types of issues, we'd end up with a more just society.


  1. The problem with people bringing up something like murder is that "murder is bad" is not a morals issue, but an ethics issue. While they are similar and sometimes intertwined, I see significant differences.

    Ethics are absolute. Killing another in cold blood is wrong, stealing another's property is wrong. You don't hear about Ethical relativism, but you hear about moral relativism. Thats because ethics are dictated by society but morals by your upbringing. There may be people out there whose moral code believes in cannibalism. Does that mean their morals should be forced onto others when in office? Heck no.

    I am probably preaching to the choir though and I agree with a lot of this.

  2. That's a good point BRoss. Maybe what we could say are that the things that nearly everyone in a society believes similarly about are "ethics," while "morals" are the things that we generally allow people to come to their own decisions about. For example, nearly all of society believes that murder and theft are bad, therefore they are matters of our societal ethics. But we have very different views on gay rights and abortion, and those are then moral issues. As such, laws enforcing the ethics of a society are something that should be viewed as much less restrictive than laws that try to enforce the morals of one group.

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