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Moral beings and the law

By Steve Farrell
web posted October 30, 2006

Silent No More, Part 2

I am always puzzled by the query, "Why do you Christians insist on legislating morality?" I suspect those who ask it are equally perplexed by my terse response: "That's what men do, Christians and non-Christians alike. We are all moral beings."

Let me explain what I mean by first emphasizing why we have laws and governments in the first place. Celebrated 17th Century English political philosopher John Locke's noted:

The great and chief end … of men's uniting … under government, is the preservation of their property. To which in the state of nature there are many things wanting. First, [the establishment of] settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong … (1)

This is the ABC's of law: Governments instituted to protect property (broadly defined in the 1600's to include besides land and possessions: life, limb, conscience, and family), by consent (fulfilling the moral requirement of ‘legitimacy'), under a set of laws that reflect a commonly held standard of right and wrong, or in other words, a common standard of morality.

This is no less true if the lawmaker defends socialism (the morality of "the ends justify the means"), utilitarianism (the morality of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number"), pure democracy (the morality of "the voice of the majority is the voice of God") or any other system or personnel crusade that calls itself right or just or merciful or fair or better or best. All such standards, ideals, and comparisons are moral comparisons, and as such are about legislating morality whether their advocates admit it or not.

The connection between morality and law gets even more basic when we dig deeper and ask, "Why it is that men care about life, liberty, conscience, and family in the first place? – the animals, fowls, fish, and insects don't."

A simple response from American founder James Madison is: the beasts, birds, bees, and fish constitute "the irrational creation;" man, "the rational," or what he calls "moral persons" and "moral beings." (2)

Which takes us back to square one. So what is a moral being? A nearly universal definition from 1888 answers: "Man is a moral being, that is, he has a sense of right and wrong." (3)

Likewise, Webster's 1828 Dictionary defined "rational" as "endowed with reason," and then defined "reason," as "a faculty of the mind by which it distinguishes truth from falsehood, and good from evil, and which enables the possessor to deduce inferences from facts or from propositions."

"Conscience," another word typically brought into such founding era discussions was defined by that same Webster's Dictionary as:

Internal or self-knowledge, or judgment of right and wrong; or the faculty, power or principle within us, which decides on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of our own actions and affections, and instantly approves or condemns them. Conscience is called by some writers the ‘moral sense,' and considered as an original faculty of our nature.

The ability to discern between right and wrong, good and evil, fact and error, endowed from our Maker with these things at birth – this is rational man, a moral being.

Yet a moral being is more than this. Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1832 classic, Democracy in America, observed that "Although man has many points of resemblance with the brute creation one characteristic is peculiar to himself – he improves: they are incapable of improvement." (4)

De Tocqueville was reflecting on the Christian belief in the perfectibility of man, which he noted was "one of the principle notions the intellect can conceive," a notion that found its greatest field of play in The United States, where liberty and class mobility put no stops on mankind's upward reach. (5)

Or to put it a different way, men are called by the Lord through his prophets to strive for perfection, but are also prompted, believer and non-believer alike, by "a sense" – the moral sense – planted within every person at birth to do something positive, something stretching, something splendid with themselves.

All fine and good; but whether men choose to so respond is quite another matter – for moral beings also have free will. Jefferson taught: "Almighty God hath created the mind free." (6) And in our day President Ronald Reagan seconded: "[T]he Almighty … gave us free will, the power under God to choose our own destiny." (7)  

In a world filled with opposites (such as good and evil) that beckon us, reason and free will ensure that man's destiny is either: good or evil, prosperous or poor, free or slavish.

"Men are free to choose," says one volume of early American scripture, but not free to escape consequences that can range from "[L]iberty and eternal life" on the one hand to "captivity and death" on the other. (8) No trivial distinction.

In sometimes subtle, sometimes flagrant exhibitions we witness the same in our neighbors, associates, friends, and adversaries. C.S. Lewis warned, "[R]emember, the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which … you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare." (9)

It is mostly in response to the nightmares of this world, that is, men and women whose devilish choices wreak private and public injury that victims, neighbors, and responsible observers feel a sense of alarm, moral outrage, and duty – and consequently turn to law and government for relief, protection, fair play, and justice.

This, we all do, and have always done, by one approach or another, appealing to one set of laws or another, in defense of one system of morality or another; for we are – every one of us – moral beings endowed by a Common Father with a higher sense that calls us to live a little bit better, a little bit higher, a little bit more civilized than the beast and his brutish law of the jungle. ESR

Footnotes:

1. Locke, John. Second Treatise on Political Government, chapter 9.
2. Madison, James. The Federalist Papers, Number 54. See also, Writing of James Madison, Volume IV, 1835, Sovereignty. 
3. "Contributor, Volume IX," March 1888, No. 5.
4. De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Volume 2, Chapter 8.
5. Ibid.
6. Jefferson, Thomas. Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume II, Appendix, No. III, "An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom," 1786.
7. "The Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States," "Public Papers of Ronald Reagan," March 6, 1984.
8. 2 Nephi 2:27, The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. Salt Lake City, Utah, first published in 1830.
9. Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory, New York, Macmillan, 1949, pgs. 14-15.

Other related essays:

  • Rights, wrongs, and the law by Steve Farrell (October 16, 2006)
    Steve Farrell opens the first of a three part series by debating the notion that you can't legislate morality. Au contraire, responds Farrell, that's the entire point of legislation

 

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