Debating Morality

| June 28, 2005 | 1 Reply

Robbie, the Devil’s Advocate has declared an open commenting season on a thought he had last week. Actually, he’s not quite done that. He’s asked that bloggers who are inclined to comment on his thread instead turn their comments into a blog post.

And so I shall.

Writing on the released autopsy report, Robbie said this:

Was the decision to let her die (or to kill her, if it suits your temperament) the right one? According to this report, yes it was. Was the decision the moral one? This is the sticking point, for there is no debating morality. Morality, for better or worse, is one of those issues left to the discretion of the individual.

Yes, America as a society has “moral norms” in which we operate, reviewed and ruled on by our judiciary; if you wish to look at it that way, our collective morality was upheld.

I believe I understand what Robbie was trying to say, though I do want to correct one detail. The report does not say whether or not letting Terri Schaivo die was the right decision. As with so many moral decisions, science can only report on facts. That’s what this report did – it told us that some facts held by one side (like she could have recovered fully) was not true and that some facts on the other side (like that her brain was a liquified mass of goo) was also not true. The report can suggest that our opinions might be wrong, because the facts on which we based them were wrong, but nothing more.

But the topic here is morality and I think that Robbie’s overthinking the matter. Morality is subjective to be sure, but laws based on morality are not. We may debate morality, as a philisophical matter, but, like he said in a roundabout way, the likelihood that you’re going to change anyoe’s mind is pretty small. So in that sense, debating morality is a vain pursuit.

On the other hand, having a public debate over morality is very valuable. There’s a hidden gem in our democratic system that involves morality and it seems hidden so plainly that sometimes we miss it entirely. Laws come from someone’s moral beliefs – maybe yours, maybe mine, and maybe someone else’s. Within the guidelines of our Constitution, we decide how we want to live based on a moral code that we develop by discussion and debate and, ultimately, voting.

In that sense, it’s very valuable to debate morality. Otherwise our laws are going to have a decided lack of morals, which would be just as bad as having laws based on only one set of morals. Of late, our laws have been of the former kind.

But the Founders threw a twist into things when they wrote the Contitution. They basically forbad Congress from impressing a national morality and allowed states and local governments to do that themselves. That way, they reasoned, people in a relatively small area would be able ot define the morals under which they could all live – or they could go to someplace where the morals matched theirs. That’s been a system that’s served us pretty well – right up until the Lawrence decision from the Supreme Court that said that people in a state could not pass any law they wished, no matter how many people wanted it.

That is imposing morality – but it’s doing so in a very undemocratic way. It allows an unelected few to impose their morality on a wide group of people and it gives those people absolutely no recourse. There’s no debate involved there – no give and take, no compromise. It’s simply an edict from on high that stymies demcoracy and ensures recrimination. That’s what we’ve seen happen in the years since Roe v. Wade where the lack of a meaningful debate has caused the positions to ossify.

Robbie says that there’s no debating morality. I say that debating morality is not only possible, but it’s necessary to have a vibrant, and ultimately fair, democracy.

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