WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT’S ROLE IN PROMOTING MORALS?
The recent public discourse regarding a particular brand of entertainment coming to our city has renewed the ageless debate about government’s role in the lives of its citizens, and its duty to legislate for and uphold the law. This has not been the first time I have been challenged to reflect on my role as a Council member with respect such matters, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The last issue of significance that polarized community opinions was the question of whether or not to allow slot machines into our community, which for some, was a moral issue.
In my reading, I came across an excellent essay on government’s role in promoting morals, the contents of which I’ve paraphrased and summarized below. It expresses very well what I believe, and what I also believe ought to be regarded, by the public, as government’s appropriate role in questions of moral duty. To view Marcus Cole's entire essay, I have left a referring link at the end.
In his essay on this topic, Marcus Cole cites a noted professor of law, who provides two distinct moralities of law: the “morality of duty” and the “morality of aspiration”. The morality of duty consists of the basic proscriptions—against murder or theft, for example—required by any governmental authority; that lower standard of morality and behavior by which a much greater part of society agrees it ought to be judged, measured, and even constrained. These are the rules that all must be expected to obey.
The morality of aspiration, however, is a different matter altogether. It comprises the rules associated with promoting virtue, or moral principles to which humans ought and hope to aspire; the higher standard of morality to which both churches and individuals hope to conform.
Morality of duty is not frequently what is at issue; disagreements usually center on the morality of aspiration. The real question is not whether the government has a role in prescribing morals, but which type of morality the government should prescribe, and it is this question that Cole’s essay addresses so well.
Should the government legislate virtue? Where did this inclination originate? The idea that government is a proper source of moral guidance is, in fact, a relatively young idea in human history. Throughout most of the history of Western Civilization, questions of morality were administered by institutions (Church) wholly separate from, and in competition with, the institutions that administered law (State). They existed as co-equal sovereigns.
This state of affairs changed when a particular King of England felt his personal choices were being constrained by the Church. He decided to imprison and execute a queen so that he could marry another, more “worthy” of the throne. Ever since that point in time, the state has assumed traditional functions of the church, relating to marriage, education, and other moral pronouncements.
Cole asks a number of pointed questions: Why should government be expected to provide moral guidance? Is it something better than the individual? Is it “practiced” by those higher or more virtuous? Does it respond to popular, obviously flawed concepts of virtue? Even if it does, are its operatives sufficiently skilled to regulate such a delicate area of human affairs?
Furthermore, even if legislation actually reflected the will of the majority, why should one expect fifty-one percent of the electorate to be particularly “moral?” The simple and familiar examples of the duly elected Chancellor of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s and Jim Crow legislation throughout the South during much of the twentieth century, should disabuse one of the notion that majorities are always “moral majorities.”
For Christians, morality, virtue, and salvation require freedom. Law, and government enforcement of it, is coercive, and legitimately so. Although we can compel compliance with the law through physical violence, we cannot compel salvation, virtue, or genuine morality through such means.
As a Christian, I believe that we cannot, through government’s monopoly on the legitimized use of physical violence, compel the ultimate choice between good and evil, between salvation and damnation. This is the very choice for which our Creator gave us free will. To be Christian ultimately means to believe in freedom: freedom of conscience as well as of action, freedom to choose or reject sin or salvation, so long as our actions do not injure others or deprive them of their equal freedom. A famous British jurist once said: “My right to swing my fist ends where the other person’s nose begins.”
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is applicable to all Canadians in all situations. Sections 1 and 2, in particular, have application in this matter:
1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.
This is not to say that government does not do certain things well. It does. It is great at collecting taxes. It is relatively good at providing everyday needs like water, sewer, transportation, and policing criminal harms – the “morality of duty”. Asking government to compete with freedom when it comes to aspirations and virtue, however, is asking it to aspire to heights beyond its reach. So, if one really cares about morality, why would one let government anywhere near it?