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Monday, March 18, 2013

Legislating Morality

Being a lifelong fan of football, I have never had a problem with NFL instant replay. I’m in my early forties, so I can remember well the days before instant replay. Whatever the shortcomings of instant replay—and there were some significant ones in the early days—to me, the benefit of the official getting the call right always trumped any inconvenience that might result from a video review of a play.

Unsurprisingly, I find that most NFL fans approve of replay—especially when it is their team on the wrong end of a bad call. Don’t we all wish that there was an “instant replay” for life—a chance for an “official review” always to get things right?

Of course, “getting it right” means that there is a standard, much like the rules in the NFL, to which we all are (or should be) held. Despite notions to the contrary, as we argue and debate the issues of our day, ultimately each of us relies on such a standard, or some notion of right and wrong, or fair play, or rules, or morality, or whatever you want to call it.

What’s more, the very foundation of our government depends upon such a notion. In fact, the foundation of any good government, culture, society, or virtually any situation where human beings interact with one another rests upon what used to be called Natural Law.

Our Founding Fathers understood this well. However, the idea that liberty, good government, and just laws have their roots in Natural Law, or “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” did not begin with the founding of America. For millennia many philosophers, politicians, priests, and lay people alike knew the role that Natural Law should play in the “Governments [that] are instituted among men.”

Jim Powell, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and an expert in the history of liberty, credits the Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 B.C. to 43 B.C.) with expressing the “principles that became the bedrock of liberty in the modern world.” Cicero was the leading lawyer of his time, and Thomas Jefferson credits him not only with influencing the Declaration of Independence, but also with informing the American understanding of “the common sense” basis for the right of revolution.

“True law,” as Cicero called it, is the “one eternal and unchangeable law [that] will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is God, over us all, for he is the author of this law…”

“[The] Law of Nature” wrote English philosopher John Locke (who also profoundly influenced our Founders), “stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men’s actions must…be conformable to the Law of Nature, i.e. to the will of God…”

Sir William Blackstone, another renowned and favorite English jurist of our Founders, declared in his presuppositional basis for law that, “These laws laid down by God are the eternal immutable laws of good and evil…This law of nature dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this…”

C.S. Lewis concludes that, “Natural Law or Traditional Morality [whatever one chooses to call it]…is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.”

Throughout the early colonies, the incorporation of Natural (or “Divine”) Law was prevalent. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (the first constitution written in America), as well as similar documents in Rhode Island and New Haven, specifically mentioned that their civil law rested upon “the rule of the word of God,” or “all those perfect and most absolute laws of His.”

References to, not vague religious babble, but specific biblical texts, such as the Ten Commandments, can be found in the civil law of every original U.S. Colony. It is a fact of history that throughout our pre-Colonial, Colonial, Revolutionary period and beyond, America’s lawmakers and laws were steeped in Natural Law.

Thus we can conclude that from the beginning our government has been “legislating morality.” All law is rooted in morality. “Laws without morals are in vain,” said Ben Franklin. Not only that, but as I implied above, every debate we have is rooted in morality.

It is absurd and ignorant to lament conservative Christian efforts when it comes to abortion, marriage, and so on as some attempt to “legislate morality.” The other side is attempting the very same thing! In fact, the lamenter (whatever his political persuasion) has also taken a moral stand. Thus, he is like the bank robber who calls the police because his get-away car gets stolen.

What’s more, those who attack Natural Law (because an attack on a position that stems from Natural Law is an attack on Natural Law) do so with arguments that are derived from Natural Law. It is a self-defeating effort. They are attempting to saw off the limb upon which they are sitting.

As Lewis puts it, “The effort to refute [Natural Law] and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies,’ all consist of fragments from [Natural Law] itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to [Natural Law] and to it alone such validity as they possess.”

Sadly, recent examples of such nonsense come not from Democrats or their liberal friends in the media, but from self-described “Orthodox Christians” within the GOP. Michigan GOP representative Justin Amash recently complained that “We can't legislate morality and force everyone to agree with us.” It appears that Amash was trying to impress John Stossel and his gathering of a “thousand young libertarians.”

Stossel likes the fact that “Amash focuses on government spending.” In addition, conservative author Arthur Brooks implores republicans to focus on “improving the lives of vulnerable people” through the appropriate conservative policies instead of “imposing an alien ‘bourgeois’ morality on others.”

Libertarians and their like-minded friends want to focus on government spending or conservative fiscal policies, but they often fail to realize that one does not leave morality at the door when entering the realm of economics. If you want to make the moral arguments in favor of proper (“right and good”) economic policy (which, of course, are ultimately based in Natural Law), then you must accept the other moral conclusions (killing a child in the womb is wrong; marriage is only between a man and a woman) that go along with them.

In other words, it is folly to make moral arguments in favor of sound fiscal policy, all the while turning a blind eye toward killing children in the womb or the evils of homosexual behavior.

(See this column on American Thinker.)

Copyright 2013, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason

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