Thursday, May 14, 2009

Your laws, my life

Few things raise more hackles than a debate over morality. Religion is often (wrongly) attributed as the sole source of ethical determination. Ideas of right and wrong vary from culture to culture, nation to nation, and person to person, and philosophers over the centuries have parsed the finer points of ethics until it seems no more need be said. But the debate rages. The latest target is criminalizing teenagers for “sexting,” sending nude pictures of themselves via cell phone to attract attention. The issue here is a misplaced desire to keep our children innocent when in fact they are not; a permissive society and lax parenting assures that. Now government seeks to punish the young for being human.

A reading of John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty provides a utilitarian basis for an individual morality from which we could all learn: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Laws of the state have no place in regulating personal conduct unless and until it is a harm to others, not for a person’s own good, “because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise or even right.” He speaks out forcefully against legislation of private acts and its “encroachment” on the individual.

It has often been said that morality cannot be legislated; Mills says it should not be. Society may legislation behavior, outlawing certain actions the majority has deemed inappropriate or unsavory, but that behavior will simply be driven underground, adding a layer of deceit and subterfuge to an act that on its face is often no more than disagreeable to a vocal minority. Punishment will not change inward inclinations, only outward actions, and it will create disgruntled citizens more inclined to ignore the strictures of law when next it conflicts with their desires.

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Punish non-support of dependents, not gambling; outlaw slavery and physical assault, not prostitution; prohibit theft and violence of any kind against others, not personal drug or alcohol use.

All of us can recall a school day experience – or even worse, a day at the office – when the whole class was punished for the misbehavior of one or two individuals: loss of recess or playtime, extra homework, a pop quiz. How much more egregious is it to punish large segments of society for the lapses of a few? Because John Doe gambles away his salary and does not feed his family is no reason to keep John Q. Public from the gaming tables. Address the problem where it lies; do not lump all individuals into the category of miscreant because of otherwise benign behavior mishandled by a few.

Mills notes that “Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interest and its feelings of class superiority,” not from any actual notion of right and wrong. Laws designed to “protect” women, to regulate the actions of minorities, to keep the unpropertied from having a say in governance – all these reflect a morality imposed by the “tyranny of the majority.” Mills uses as the basis for his morality the measure of utility, the “permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” I echo his sentiment. Remove prejudice, passion, and the tenuous hold of custom from the imposition of laws on society. “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs.” We will all be the better – and more moral – for it.

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