When Should We Legislate Morality?

Is it good to push what we consider “Biblical morals” into law?

The answer is often “no,” for two very important reasons:

Reason 1

When church and state are mixed, the church is corrupted by the state, and the state is corrupted by this new church.

Reason 2

“My small church disagrees with your mega-church.”

Koinodoxy is not orthodoxy; what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.

A Heuristic for Moral Legislation

It’s fine to legislate morality under the following set of conditions only:

  1. Without the law, things are (or would be) gravely harmful in terms of values near-universal to people.
  2. This harm is demonstrable (we can’t just declare the harm).
  3. The law would be demonstrably effective at fixing this problem (we can’t just assume the fix will work).
  4. The “costs” of the law and its byproducts would not outweigh its “benefits.”

It goes without saying that many Biblical proclamations would not qualify under the above conditions. Many come down to issues of discipline or scruple. Many are rooted in a bygone culture, like where braided hair was considered immodest. And many are explicitly meant only for the church.

This is why:

  • We don’t make laws against lying except under grave and demonstrable circumstances.
  • We don’t make laws against getting angry except under grave and demonstrable circumstances.
  • We don’t make laws against coveting, gossip, etc.

… even though the Bible clearly generally frowns upon lying, anger, coveting, and gossip.

Something in the world may irritate you or violate a tenet of moral propriety to which you hold. But if your first thought is, “There oughtta be a law!,” it may be a symptom of hasty prohibitionism.

Prohibitionism from Simple Thought

Many do not realize that “Is X morally wrong?” and “Should there be a law against X?” are two completely different questions.

Prohibitionism from Memetically Strong Fictions

In the heuristic above, you may have noticed that demonstrability is required at several stages. This is necessary to maintain a “sandbag wall” of careful criticism to defend ourselves against urban myths, “common sense” nonsense, and various other memetically strong fictions.

For example, did you know that in the late 19th century, American public schoolchildren — particularly in the culturally “drier” states — were taught that drinking alcohol could cause spontaneous combustion?

However ludicrous this was, memetic fiction can have a life of its own if left unchecked. Over-demonizing was one of the many factors that helped catalyze the later nationwide prohibition, which is now universally regarded as a complete disaster.

Prohibitionism from Tribal Pride

The attempt to inject religious prescriptions into state law without qualifying under the above conditions comes often from pride.

Consider pride in a hometown football team. If I love the Spearmen, I might put a “Go Spearmen!” banner in my window.

But as soon as I spraypaint “Go Spearmen!” on my neighbor’s house, I am a vandal, which is a certain brand of property thief.

spearmen

It doesn’t matter if I feel great pride in my Spearmen. I may say, “I feel that spraypainting my neighbor’s house would be standing up for my team, and expressing my support for the Spearmen.”

Unless I can demonstrate a grave harm in universal terms that would be fixed by my vandalism and that it would lack significant side-effects, my vandalism cannot be justified.

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About stanrock

Husband, father. Professional game developer, software engineer, & social product analyst. Armchair theology debugger. Fun theology exercises and games at http://StanRock.net

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