Kerry's Legislation of Morality

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This post at prosthesis led me to think about an interesting irony in John Kerry's version of the opposition to legislating morality. Wink's distinction between morality and civil values amounts, as far as I can tell, to treating morality as if it's mere religious values (see the many posts on this in the last couple weeks). The prosthesis account of morality is that it's love and caring. The reason not to legislate morality, then, is not that morality can't be agreed on by all parties. It's that it's no longer morality if it's forced. I think this is one of the things people mean when they say we can't legislate morality (as opposed to saying we shouldn't, which is what Wink has been bv saying).

The irony comes in when we take a close look at the things Kerry spends a lot of time complaining about with Bush. Under the prosthesis account of what morality is, legislating morality would require legislating love and caring for people rather than just legislating actions. You can't do that. When Kerry says Bush wants to legislate morality on abortion, maybe he means something more like what Wink means, that religious values shouldn't be forced on those who don't hold them. Some things he says suggest that. [I don't think it works with abortion, of course, because there are philosophical arguments for a pro-life position, which means it's not just a religious value, and Wink has said that on his account opposition to abortion can count as a civil value because abortion causes harm, and avoiding harm is a civil value. So Kerry's justification for being pro-choice doesn't hold up here.]

The prosthesis argument is that justice can be enforced, yet love cannot. We can try to have a more fair society, but we can't force ethics. Yet Kerry spends a lot of time talking about how George Bush has failed to do things that prosthesis' account of morality would consider legislating morality. Kerry says Bush's faith doesn't lead to works, by which he means that Bush's policies aren't loving enough to demonstrate his Christian faith, and they cater to the selfish and greedy rather than moving people to do what's right. I don't happen to think that such an analysis is fair to Bush, especially because he does favor legislation that encourages moral behavior, but conservatives have typically been against laws that try to get people to do acts normally resulting from love, leaving it to individuals to do such things, and Bush is pretty much on the same page with that for the most part. John Kerry seems to be urging Bush to legislate morality in exactly this sense while at the same time complaining that Bush wants to legislate morality in the other sense. That's not an inconsistency, but it's an interesting irony.

Since the argument that Bush legislates morality in the first sense is unfair, as I explained above, that leaves us with Bush not legislating morality in either sense (though he favors legislation that encourages morality as part of what he calls compassionate conservatism) and Kerry legislating morality in the second sense. That means, of the two, Kerry is the one who wants to legislate morality in one sense while campaigning against the other sense of legislating morality, and Bush does neither of those things. It really surprises me that I haven't seen anyone talking about this, because it's the sort of thing that I would expect people to see as an inconsistency or a flip-flop, even if it isn't. I think there's some reason not to legislate morality in either of those senses, even if it's obvious that in some sense any law is legislating morality, so I think Kerry happens to be the only one of the two who any legitimate opposition to legislating morality would count against.

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Law vs Ethics from Psuedo-Polymath on October 31, 2004 10:59 PM

I've caught wind of two posts (here and here and here) about ethics and morality, and I'm going to throw my 2 cents into the fray. Read More

An Encouraged Read. from Honzo, knowing that I know that I do not know anything worthwhile. on November 1, 2004 2:14 AM

I would recomend everyone going over and giving a good read-over to Jeremy and Wink's posts over at Parableman. One is for Bush, the other is for Kerry. Kerry's Legislation of Morality Single Issue Voter Why I'm not voting for... Read More


I don't see how a legislator whose ethics is based on his faith is supposed to legislate? Why must he give a separate "secular" justification for his ruling? Doesn't the democratic process, by forcing compromise, achieve the required result?

(Shameless plug: see trackback for my argument).

And I'm sorry about doing it twice, the trackback "ping" had error messages.

"Yet Kerry spends a lot of time talking about how George Bush has failed to do things that prosthesis' account of morality would consider legislating morality."

Huh? I'm sorry, Jeremy, but I'm finding many of your arguments (this one in particular) rather obtuse. I hope you aren't offended, but I'm honestly having a very hard time understanding. From what I see you writing, Kerry is either criticizing Bush's moral intent, or criticizing that there is a positive outcome to Bush's supposed faith-based high ground. But how does this criticism equate to legislation? There's no law that Kerry is trying to pass . . . are you using hyperbole? Perhaps more specifics are needed.

I can't say I'm going back and thinking carefully about everything I wrote, but one of the things I was trying to say is that Kerry tends more in the direction of enforcing action that many people think should be done only because it comes from a certain attitude. Liberal programs for the disadvantaged are exactly that. It forces people to support with tax dollars charities that they might not support as private citizens. That's legislating morality, according to the second sense I was talking about. He complains that Bush doesn't do enough of that and frames it in terms of faith not backed up by works.

OK, I think I see what you're saying a little better. However, I think the same argument could be given by allowing faith-based organizations the ability to control some of the government dollars, such as was done by Bush last year. Or was it earlier this year? I can't recall. Yes, I'm speaking in generalities, but as this entire argument is in general terms I hope you'll allow me that. ;)

Still, the liberal programs for the disadvantaged that you mention could be viewed as civil issues, when using Wink's definitions.

I do think the prosthesis arguments are fundamentally flawed, but I'll refrain from treading further as I need a mental break and have not had anything real to eat all day and am starving! :)

That's why many conservatives oppose funding faith-based programs with tax dollars. People who make this argument are generally conservative. I do think there's some difference. Bush wants to allow funding for charities that are already going on, with such programs ideally doing most of the work so government programs can be cut back. That means the work being done isn't being done by some government employee who might not care but by the people who cared enough to start the program on their own without government funding. So I think if you had to choose between the two Bush's way comes out less bad according to the argument that this sort of legislating morality is bad.

I didn't say I really fully endorse the argument anyway. There are other grounds for expecting me to pay for someone else's food. You might think of it as a debt I own to the nation for the protection I get from the military, and so on.

Wink's account is very different. I wasn't talking about that with my second type of legislating morality. His was the first way. You're right that these could be viewed as civil on the first definition of legislating morality. I though I'd said as much in the post.

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