I had an interesting twitter conversation yesterday about law and morality. It went like this after I replied to Sir Scott @realscottposton and then continued between me, Milo @MiloBurns837 and Mark Hamblett @ttelbmah57:
Scott: You can not legislate MORLITY…
Milo: Actually laws are determined by cultural morals. You can’t change morals through legislation. That would be attempting to change culture.
Mark: Laws have nothing to do with morality. They may coincide at times, but that is coincidence and nothing more. Morality is for ur soul.
Mark: I could point out many immoral laws
Milo: Perhaps you could point out where laws come from, if not from the mores and values of the society that produced them.
Mark: Moral laws, prohibition liquor marijuana prostitution in my youth all stores and gas stations closed on Sunday Laws r meant to order society
Milo: All those laws came into being because of the beliefs of the majority of society at the time. Yes, order society to conform to culture.
Mark: Milo do u need any law to know what is morally right? Moral laws come from puritanical past. They r laws where holier than thou people
Milo: No, morality changes faster than laws. New laws are made to meet new culture. Diferent cultures have different morality and so dif laws
Mark: We will just have to agree to disagree with me knowing u r wrong.
Milo: And I know you are wrong but two wrongs don’t make a right but three rights make a left.
(Mark posted a like to the last one. Thanks.)
The problem with Twitter is that it is impossible to convey an idea in 140 characters, even conversationally. But the question remains: Where do laws come from and what differentiates moral laws from immoral laws? And, back to the original statement about legislating morality.
All of this is my opinion and, generally, applies to democratic societies. In dictatorial forms of government laws ARE established prior to culture.
First, culture develops whenever a group of people agree on the major similarities of their lives. As other people join the group, certain standards of conduct are established which the group, as a whole, finds acceptable. Morality within the culture is synonymous with standards of conduct. As the group grows, those standards of conduct are developed into laws. Therefore, it is my contention that laws are simply a culture’s attempt to maintain itself.
I think here I should talk a little about morality. I think there are many people who believe that morality is a fixed value that cannot be changed. Prime current examples are the attempts to vilify our heros of the past because the were involved in the owning of slaves. While slavery is immoral by our current standards, it was not by many earlier standards. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong, (at least by today’s standards) but those who were living at the time thought it was perfectly moral. Likewise, people of those times would find our current styles of dress, or undress, exceedingly immoral, yet we, for the most part, find it perfectly moral. A more extreme example was the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Obviously immoral by today’s standards, but perfectly acceptable by their standards. The tendency today to judge other cultures and history by our current morality standards is to place ourselves as superior beings. Not just more learned beings, but divine beings endowed with final judgement. This arrogant view is not dissimilar with early Western religions that sought to judge and convert people to their way of thinking through any means, including violence (and is still an aspect of one current religion today).
However, cultures change but in an organized government laws are often behind the times when it comes to the accepted morality of the culture. Hence the assertion that laws come from a puritanical past, which they do. Those laws were not attempting to legislate morality, they were reflecting the morality at the time they were made. At least the morality of the majority of people who elected the officials that made the laws. But morals change and so, eventually, do laws. And it is often not an easy transition because while the majority seeks to change the law, a minority will attempt to keep the status quo and resist that change. An example would be the Civil Rights Laws of the ‘60s which met violent resistance but the majority eventually won out. A current example is the LBGT laws that are being enacted and are meeting some resistance from religious groups which consider them morally wrong but which some consider a moral imperative.
However, there are often attempts to legislate morality by a minority, such as late term abortion which polls show are opposed by a majority of the public. But then that brings up the whole mess of whether polls are accurate and/or manipulated to meet an agenda by the Main Stream Media. That’s a topic for another blog.
So, to try and wrap this up, people come together and decide what they believe to be moral and then that is reflected in the laws they enact. But as a culture matures the lines between current laws and current morality will become blurred or inconsistent. But to counter the original statement that you can’t legislate morality I say legislation is based on attempts to maintain morality even if that morality is behind the curve of the current morality (with a caveat that there are exceptions).