August 27, 2015
“Words mean things.” This is a phrase that one of my teachers branded onto my brain. “Words mean things.” And yet today, words seem disposable, like so much of the “stuff” we use. We might prefer to toss a paper plate than to wash a dish. We might rather buy a new something, whatever that thing may be, than have the damaged one repaired. We live in a disposable culture.
The digital era contributes largely to such a culture. The sound-byte age permits and encourages the use of pithy, short statements on usually important, complex topics, and implies that such statements are definitive and final. Here is a recent, provocative one:
“You cannot legislate morality.”
You and I have both heard this statement so many times, that we likely nod our heads in agreement, silently saying, “Yeah, that’s right!” Well, it may sound right anyway.
But isn’t morality the distinction, individual or corporate, of right from wrong? A simple Google search of “morality definition” yielded the following five results:
- a particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.
- the extent to which an action is right or wrong.
- a doctrine or system of moral conduct
- moral conduct: virtue
- conformity to ideals of right human conduct
Isn’t saying, “You cannot legislate morality” the equivalent of saying, “you cannot legislate a system of moral conduct”? Or “You cannot legislate virtue”? Or “You cannot legislate the extent to which an action is right or wrong”?
If we cannot and do not legislate morality, then we are on the fast track to anarchy and barbarism.
“You cannot legislate morality” is true, in so far as one cannot compel another to virtue or goodness. The basic law of love, and prerequisite choice, demonstrates this principle well. Try this experiment: command someone to love you, and see how well that works for you! The results of this lab will be predictably disastrous. Thus, it is clear that virtue requires choice: to love or not to love. We can love God, for example, or not love Him. One can love one’s wife, or not. While the consequences of not loving may be tragic, love cannot be compelled. “You cannot legislate love, virtue, morality.”
However, “You cannot legislate morality” is false—and even perhaps sinister—if by it we mean that a society cannot define good and hold its citizens to account for acting contrary to that good. Better said, “We legislate against immorality.”
While one cannot compel another to do good (feed the hungry), one can hold another accountable, in society, not to do evil (don’t steal). Every human society has its definitions of good and bad, its standards of right and wrong. After all, we have speeding tickets, legal limitations on blood alcohol content, and life in prison for horrible crimes.
Somehow, we know that killing a person is bad. And we have laws against murder.
Somehow we know that stealing is bad.
Somehow we know that lying is bad.
And we have legislated against robbery and perjury both.
We legislate against immorality all the time, and have done so for centuries in the United States, and for millennia throughout the world.
It seems to me, the bumper sticker, “You cannot legislate morality” has come more into focus in recent times not on account of the reality of our civilization (we do, in fact, legislate right from wrong), but rather on account of questions of sexual behaviors specifically.
But sodomy, along with theft, perjury, murder, and incest, adultery, and fornication have long been considered immoral acts. To be sure, sexual immorality is far more embarrassing to prove or prosecute— and in most places, it is ignored. But our culture has long considered these all morally repugnant, contrary to the good of society.
Strangely or curiously, we seem to be in a time of moving away from “morality,” which judges behavior, to an age of “consent,” which simply allows agreeing partners of legal age to do whatever they want privately.
The larger question, which seems to be the proverbial elephant in the living room, is “From where do our definitions of good and evil come?” Is the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, from above? From outside ourselves? From God? If so, how could we presume to tinker with it?
If our definitions do not come from Above, Outside, from God, then where do they come from? And who decides? The majority? The wealthy and powerful? Take for example, the direction of obscenity laws. I believe it was a Supreme Court Justice who said once, “I know obscenity when I see it!” Obscenity’s measure is a moving target. Google “the Miller Test”. There you will see what we might call a “sliding scale” of morality. The current definition of obscenity is based on “the average person” and “contemporary community standards”. No wonder we say things like, “my grandmother would roll in her grave if she saw that!” The “average person” and the contemporary community standards” were far different then. Obscenity in 50 years may well make today’s porn “stars” blush. Sobering thought.
Since words mean something, perhaps it behooves us not to let careless words slip by. When someone says, “You can’t legislate morality,” if we cannot bring ourselves boldly to say, “But we do!” maybe, even if we must employ traditionally polite Charlestonian discourse, we could at least say, “Perhaps it isn’t really quite that simple.”
Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On Community in Mt Pleasant. He can be reached at fatherjohnparker at gmail.com.