Thursday, August 23, 2012

Moral Wrongs Part 2: The Secular Imperative

Yesterday's essay was stimulated primarily by the most contentious of all quasi-political topics: abortion. However, the overarching subject -- the proper subjects of legislation -- is far larger. Among the battlegrounds it dominates is one characterized by a two-sentence exchange:

Speaker 1: You can't legislate morality!
Speaker 2: You can hardly legislate anything else!

Ironically, both statements above are about equally true. What matters most is the definition of morality used to justify legislation.


Regular readers will already know that I'm a devout Catholic. Historically erudite readers will know that from about 400 AD to about 1800 AD, much of Europe was governed by states whose law codes were deeply and powerfully informed by Christian doctrine. Quite a number of persons use that aspect of history as a premise for asserting that if we Catholics had our druthers, we'd transform the United States into a Catholic theocracy, with a regime indirectly controlled by the Vatican. Indeed, accusations of that sort were frequent during the 1960 presidential campaign.

Solly, Cholly. We're smarter than that. There are other creeds whose allegiants aren't as smart as we are, but that's another subject altogether.

One of the things Catholics have learned from history is that you cannot use power without being used by power. During the era of Throne and Altar, ruling regimes exploited the backing of the Church specifically to quell resistance among their subjects. The threat of eternal damnation was often as effective a deterrent to resistance as the threat of being chopped in half with a broadsword. The Church, which feared to lose the special privileges that accrued to it from its political alliances, had no choice but to go along.

Indeed, the reciprocal manipulation of the Church by political power frequently determined clerical appointments and elevations in rank. Sometimes it extended all the way to the selection of a pope. Read the history of the Papacy at Avignon, and the Time of Three Popes, and form your own conclusions. That Christian clerics did their best to temper the behavior of the regimes they supported does not completely exonerate them for agreeing to such unholy alliances.

We're done with that, thanks. It didn't do the world a lot of good, and it's tarnished the image of the Church ever since. If you want a legitimate modern specimen of a creed that aspires to political hegemony, talk to the Muslims.


The acceptance of a religious creed is inherently a matter of individual conscience. It cannot be compelled. Equally so, the acceptance of a creed's ethos -- its behavioral code -- must be voluntary to be meaningful. (Just one more thing Muslims fail to understand. Well, they aren't terribly bright.) By implication, for a State to employ temporal power to enforce a religion's ethos is antithetical to the voluntary nature of religious belief. Quod erat demonstrandum.


  • American law doesn't attempt to compel religious affiliation of any sort;
  • American law doesn't attempt to punish atheism, blasphemy, idolatry, playing golf on Sunday, dishonoring one's parents, deceits that have no material consequence, adultery, or envy;
  • The laws against murder, theft, fraud, and perjury have nothing at all to do with the Ten Commandments.

If religious affiliation must be voluntary, it can be no other way. Only in a land where Throne and Altar are united in hegemony will you find such notions in the saddle. Nations derived from the Enlightenment don't qualify.


So why do we have laws against murder, theft, fraud, and perjury, if not because God Himself forbids them?

(You know, I never expected I'd have to explain this. Then again, I never expected to write an essay such as this one. It's a bit like supervising the reading of Fun With Dick And Jane. But recent events, and the tenor of recent email, have made it mandatory, if only to discourage the lamebrains that have recently attempted to monopolize my attention. And yes, before you ask, I'm feeling rather irritated this morning. No, the shoulder thing isn't the reason, though it certainly doesn't help.)

Simple: We have laws against those things because they involve objectively demonstrable harms to individuals: invasions of their rights to their lives, their liberty, and their property. Good laws address nothing but such harms, and prescribe unvarying punishments for them.

Secular government -- the only sort the United States can have, given the "no religious test" clause in the Constitution -- must be based entirely on objective matters. To contend, for example, that abortion must be outlawed because "God forbids it" simply doesn't fly. To contend that abortion must be outlawed because it constitutes the murder of an innocent child has some legs, though the matter will still be fought over long after I'm safely and cozily dead.

Consider a much less contentious subject, upon which American governments once attempted to impose law but on which they've grown passive in more recent decades: gambling. Yes, there are still laws against commercialized gambling (e.g., casinos) in most states. However, when it comes to "less organized" forms of gambling, whatever laws remain on the books that forbid them are no longer enforced. Why?

There are two reasons. First, to attempt to impose a law on a populace willing and able to resist that law effectively is self-defeating: it creates disrespect for law in general, and weakens the State's ability to enforce its other laws. Second, and arguably even more important, laws against gambling were holdovers of the era of Throne and Altar. Christian clerics in pre-Enlightenment Europe forbade gambling for pecuniary reasons; their inheritors in the New World dragged the precedent along with them.

The Western world is still unlearning the attitudes and legal missteps of that time. The Middle East, apart from Israel, has never unlearned them, which accounts for nearly all its self-imposed troubles.


There are many religious and quasi-religious creeds at large in the world; possibly more than ever before in history. Each one promulgates a code of right conduct and a catalog of moral wrongs. When individuals are free to choose among them according to the dictates of their consciences, no harm can issue from them -- assuming the religions don't exhort their allegiants to do harm to others, of course. But when one sect rises to political power, and thus becomes capable of marginalizing the others and of imposing itself on individuals by force, matters change, and not for the better.

Frank Herbert wrote in Dune that when Church and State ride in the same chariot, the individual is dramatically diminished -- to "something less than a man." We have ample evidence to this effect. May we never forget the lessons it has taught us.


Joseph said...

To put matters more succinctly: You cannot use the Ring!

furball said...


I'm sorry to be the devil's advocate here, but I'd like to gloss over your apology for the Catholic Church in this essay and zoom right in to your 3rd section:

"So why do we have laws against murder, theft, fraud, and perjury, if not because God Himself forbids them?
Simple: We have laws against those things because they involve objectively demonstrable harms to individuals: invasions of their rights to their lives, their liberty, and their property. Good laws address nothing but such harms, and prescribe unvarying punishments for them."

Via Ann Barnhardt, please watch this video (please cut and paste it, I'm unable to just give an easy link.):

I submit that those two girls have no concept of "demonstrable harms to individuals: invasions of their rights to their lives, their liberty, and their property."

Now, contrast those girls' "ignorance of right and wrong" with this quote:

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
-John Adams

I don't want to argue the relative merits of Catholicism or any other religious perspective. Contrary to what I've "sort of" thought for 30 or more years, there probably isn't an "objective" morality or a "diverse" meaning of justice.

Those girls are objective proof that if you don't "teach" a higher purpose - or at least smack your kids when they infringe on the rights of others - they may well go on to just TAKE.

I AGREE with you: "We have laws against those things because they involve objectively demonstrable harms to individuals. . ." But objectivity itself is NOT the default mental construct of people instructed since kindergarten to think fairness itself is a Universal Constant.

It is possible to raise children such as the ones in the video while proclaiming that we are not imposing our morality or values upon anyone.

It appears to me that morality and values **ARE** subjective and can be taught (or not.) And if we don't teach them, we'll get hyenas like these girls instead of functioning members of a society that protects and promulgates itself.

NOTE! : For 40 years, I've figured that anyone left to their own thoughts would discover the golden rule and the simple tenets of how to get along and find acceptance, honor, a mate and purpose in a society. I no longer know if that's true. But I KNOW that no one is left to their own thoughts anymore.

Whether those girls' attitudes are the result of their own ideas or they were taught them somehow doesn't really matter. They are anathema to a civil society.

Catholicism or God may not be required, but whatever Adams was referring to as, "a moral and religious people," certainly IS.

furball said...

I turned off my computer after posting that last comment because I knew Fran might not be awake yet, and besides, what's the point of arguing on a blog site where (probably) most readers have similar opinions?

But as I was waiting for Windows to close, I realized: I don't need to go downstairs for a snack. I don't need another gulp of wine. I don't need Fran to comment favorably on what I posted. I don't need to argue with Rachel Maddow or Bill Maher.


Banking fraud.
Illegal immigration.
Voter fraud.
Presidential usurpation of power.
Congressional overspending.
The Fed's inflationary policies while printing money for "Quantitative Easing."
Putting government unions in front of private investors in the bailouts of car companies or banks.

I don't need to argue with progressives or my congressman or Obama or my conscience or some "holier than thou" commentator from MSNBC.


And if Jon Corzine (MF Global) and Eric Holder (Fast and Furious) et. al. AREN'T GUILTY, then F*** you. What they did was wrong. All the editorials in newspapers and all the hemming and hawing of politicians doesn't change that.

Stealing and lying are WRONG! If this country can't enforce its laws to prevent that, then it deserves what it gets, I guess.

I shouldn't have to worry whether there are enough Frans or Greek guys or Col. Bunny-types out there who see the depredations I do. We're supposed to be a country, godammit.

If we're to the point that a significant number of our "citizens" don't believe in the rule of law, then we are not a NATION.

Sorry for the rant. I despair. I guess I *will* go pig out on wheat thins and peanut butter. And milk, of course.

Francis W. Porretto said...

It's time for you to get a blog of your own, Fur. That having been said...wheat thins and peanut butter with milk? Is there no applejack in the house?

Linda Fox said...

What many of those suspicious of Catholics in charge don't remember is that they didn't actively seek power, but were forced into it by the power vacuum after the Roman Empire dissolved.

furball said...

Fran, by applejack, are you referring to the cereal? I've never had it.

Somehow, though, "applejack" sounds like some sort of backwoods alcohol.

Trust me, after reading political blogs and websites all day long, then playing my silly baseball simulation and drinking cheap boxed burgundy for 3 or 4 hours, I do *not* need more alcohol, backwoods or otherwise.

As for a blog, I have nothing original to say. In REactive mode, I can read and consider Scott's monetary stuff and your musings. But in PROactive mode, I find myself getting all wishy-washy because I think flash mobs, reality tv and 24/7 progressivism and pandering - ala MSNBC - are bad and a sign that our culture has taken a wrong turn.

. . . but I can't bring myself to take up arms against it.

The leftist meme and propagandizing for statism of MSNBC is a recipe for disaster, not only for the explicit message it sends, but for the fact that it hides the need or "entertainment" of objective truth about issues.

I was told by the Army in 1969 that I had an IQ of 143, but I've screwed up enough to convince myself that IQ doesn't mean much in the real world.

I'll continue to read you, Mark, the Greek guy and others and count my blessings that you all have the guts and energy to continue learning and speaking.