Christian Conviction, the Law, and Real Virtue

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Pseudo-Polymath has unintentionally helped me see a distinction I had missed before about the relation between Christian conviction and a justification for laws encouraging or restricting certain actions. He gives a reason for not requiring charity or even building into law encouragements for charity. I had originally thought that reason also worked against laws restricting gay marriage. Now I'm not so sure. [Note: the formulation that made me think of it was in this more recent post, but it got me thinking enough to go back and write this post with specific reference to the earlier one that I linked above.]

He makes the following claims:

Law and a societies morals/ethics are intertwined. One cannot put laws in place which are too far out of step with society. And at the same time, law can influence and help mold the morals of a society so situation is not as simple as it first appeared.

It would be of interest for Christians to try to support or advocate laws and practices by our government which could enhance the moral tenor and in truth Christianity in our nation.

In other posts of his and mine, I've disagreed with some of the specifics of how he works it out (e.g. I have no problem with civil unions as long as the government doesn't step in a religion's way of declaring which unions are morally legitimate, though I expect the "as long as" clause will never happen. because too many people want the government to recognize marriage). Still, I agree with these claims in general. Every law has either a mere procedural justification or a genuinely moral one. People come from differing moral perspectives, and Christianity provides the moral perspective for many people, including me. Seeking laws that reflect that moral perspective is perfectly fine, just as it's perfectly fine for someone to seek laws reflecting a different moral perspective. Some moral perpectives say that abortion is killing a non-person and therefore always ok. Some say that any relationship between consenting adults is equally good and therefore gay marriage should be promoted on the same level as heterosexual marriage. Some moral perspectives say that war is only ok if it's immediately self-defensive. Some say that capital punishment is always wrong. Some say that people have an absolute moral right to equal health care with those who can afford the best doctors. I agree with none of those moral perspectives, but I insist that anyone from such a perspective has the right to seek legislation reflecting their moral views. I just want to say that I should be recognized as doing the same thing when I approach which laws might be good from my own moral perspective.

So I agree on those general principles. My first thought upon reading the next part, though, was that he had undermined some of his own views:

If one writes a law making Charity required, then we don't teach Charity motivated by love or any Christian virtue, but instead motivated by fear of consequence. In fact, one might argue this doesn't teach real charity at all. If we write laws rewarding charitable acts, we run the risk of charitable acts motivated by tax incentives and causing the charitable causes themselves to prostitute themselves in order to entice a bigger slice of the "pie" consisting of those seeking the rewards for their charitable acts.

I read that and was nodding in agreement. I then wondered why this doesn't also apply to laws that force conformity with other moral principles but that force people to do it for the wrong reason. Forcing marriage to remain between a man and a woman seems to be just like the forcing of charity. But then I realized that there's another distinction between these two cases. One is prescriptive, and the other is proscriptive. One of encouraging an act that is moral if done for the right reason but not moral (and perhaps even immoral) if done for the wrong reason. The other is prohibiting an action that is immoral no matter the reason it's done, and it's forcing people not to do it or doing it criminally. Not doing it in this case may not be for the right reasons, but it's not as if there's some action that's being encouraged but in the wrong way. It's just discouraging an action, and even the wrong reason for not doing something wrong prevents the wrong, and that's good. In other words, the Pseudo-Polymath view may well be that it's worthless to use Christian conviction as a basis for prescriptive laws, but it's perfectly fine to seek to do so with proscriptive laws (assuming enough people with the moral viewpoint that agrees with such laws is strong enough to win the argument in the legislature). So my objection doesn't seem to hold.

There's one other issue worth considering. There may be a justification for seeking to encoruage actions that are good even if done for the wrong reasons (i.e. for whatever incentive encouraged it). Sometimes a law isn't simply for the reason that doing that action is right. Sometimes it's because that action is in the person's best interests. Sometimes it's because that action is in the best interests of society. True libertarians don't like either justification for a law, because they hold the right to liberty as an absolute, and nothing can interfere with it but someone else's right to life, liberty, and property. Using my tax money for something I don't support that doesn't threaten those three things is thus stealing. Using it to encourage people to use hybrid vehicles, then, is stealing. I disagree. It's in my interest to encourage people to use those vehicles, because it will preserve our resources and leave my children in a better world than would otherwise be the case. This kind of paternalism is perfectly fine. Forcing people to wear helmets on motorcycles also has a justification even if people do it for the wrong reasons. They still get protected, which is the point. I think an absolute ban on selling or smoking tobacco products could arise from the same sort of justification, and many who like this general line of thought might resist that, so what this will look like will have to depend on other factors when you get down to the details. I haven't thought about what that would look like at this point.

Is the same true if we have programs that genuinely help the perpetually poor to rise out of their circumstances? Paternalistic welfare was supposed to do that (though there are problems with how it's been implemented). President Clinton worked with Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott to get that stuff through, and I think it has helped to some degree. It may not achieve the goal it was intended for. Traditional welfare initially did not, due to creating dependence, lowering initiative to move off the welfare rolls, and in the case of the expansion of welfare to blacks in the 1960s even stopped a specific portion of the progress that had been taking place up to that point among the poorest blacks. Paternalistic welfare has problems to overcome, but if it does have the intended effect, then won't that create a better environment for all in America? I've long contended that policies good for black Americans are necessarily good for white Americans, simply because anything good for black Americans will help race relations in general and encourage real exchange and cultural bonding among all races. That's such a good effect that we should seek policies that benefit blacks. Of course, I don't think all of what's been intended to help them is indeed helping them at this point but rather is holding them back. Still, I think welfare can be justified on these grounds, if it takes a certain form. It's seeking the best interests of those involved (and less obviously but still importantly everyone else). Even if the people doing this have the worst attitudes about it (e.g. in the current programs, people forced to show progress in moving into the workforce are doing so kicking and screaming, according to one of my continuing education students who works in the office of job reeducation under the welfare program).

I could go on. I've been thinking a lot about different principles for justifying laws because I've been teaching about both the moral and legal issues surrounding such issues as anti-pornography laws, university rules against hate speech, and welfare programs. Maybe the results of this will produce something else, but I'll just stop there. I've made my initial point, that Pseudo-Polymath's argument against encouraging charity is consistent with wanting to prohibit gay marriage, provided he makes the distinction I made. I've ended up making another point, that this general perspective also doesn't conflict with all laws that require or encourage people to do things for the wrong reasons, but it needs to have some justification other than mere moralism. Paternalism will do it.

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Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Christian Conviction, the Law, and Real Virtue.

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Here's a post about the comment you left, I'm still chewing on what you wrote about proscriptive vs prescriptive laws and the implications advice for Christian legislation. Read More

I hadn't thought to generalize my thoughts on Christian charity and government. It's an ineresting idea. So I chew on what we have both said on this a little more. Read More


The ban on tobacco might very well run into the same problem of being out of step with societies mores as with liquor during prohibition. That's sort of what I meant by laws not being able to force society too far.

Nice post. I hadn't thought things through that way before. I mean, making a law promoting charity seems intuitively ridiculous to me, and one prohibiting gay marriage does not -- but I couldn't put my finger on the qualitative difference. I think you've done so.

At the same time, it's important to see that the other arguments against what is often called legislating morality are directed primarily against the laws that restrict behavior and not against the ones that encourage behavior.

As I said in the post, a law promoting charity is not necessarily a bad thing, if the value of people doing such deeds even from bad motives is worth having it encouraged. For instance, tax breaks for those who purchase environmentally sound vehicles have social utility even if they don't encourage people to do it for the right reasons. You might say exactly the same thing about social programs that basically amount to a requirement for those who pay taxes to pay for charity (e.g. welfare).

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