Morality and the law

“Woe to those who make unjust laws … What will you do on the day of reckoning … To whom will you run for help?” – Isaiah

Ever so often we are lectured about not “forcing” an opinion/morality or another person or the wider society. This charge usually surfaces when Christians state their position (which usually goes against the grain) on a particular topic, say, same-sex marriage; and how they think the issue should be played in the wider society.

This charge is self-refuting because it requires, dare I say, “forces” us, not to ask others to live by a particular moral point of view. However, this charge is itself a moral point of view that someone else believes in and is asking us to live by.

So in effect they’re “forcing” their morality on you when they say you shouldn’t force your morality on them or the wider society. Things tend to get messy when man sets himself up as the ultimate moral standard. Any position can be easily challenged by a phrase that is so fond to adolescents everywhere: “Says, who?”†

If you were to walk into their house, pull the fridge door, eat some food, then walk out with their TV set, they would probably throw a fit and ask that you respect property and stealing is wrong. They will not be the least bit amused if you respond: “Stealing maybe wrong for you but it isn’t to me. How dare you try to ‘force your antiquated morality’ on me? Intolerant bigot!”

It’s funny how objective morality magically appears when those who preach subjective morality feel wronged in some way. I doubt they would object if society “forced its morality” that stealing is wrong on the offending party.

The fact of the matter is that we all have a moral point of view and a particular view will be “forced”, if by “forced” we mean played out in the wider society. People who trot out the “don’t force your morality” line usually do so when their moral position is the one that is not being played out.

Their position is not sanctioned by law or discouraged by less forceful measures like societal disapproval. Rather than put forward reasonable arguments they throw around this phrase.

The real issue here is linked to another wrong-headed phrase, “You can’t legislate morality”. The fact is, you cannot legislate anything but morality. Every law takes a moral position, for better or worse on a particular issue. I add “for worse” because everything that is legal is not right.

These people confuse the fact that all immoral behaviour should not be illegal (for common sense and practical purposes) and stretch it to mean that we cannot legislate any moral point of view. The real question that should be in play is: For the type of behaviour we want to prohibit by law, which moral position do we want the law to reflect; and why?

— Adrian Sobers

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