Notes From Babel

Morals Legislation and Moral Relativism

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Eugene Volokh writes:

“It follows, I think, that we have concluded, and rightly so, that mere immorality can’t justify illegality. There has to be something else that supports the judgment. Before someone is deprived his liberty, we need to have some good reason.”

At some point, I will write on this at greater length, but I honestly do not understand this position.  Certainly, we should be very discriminating about whether and which of our closely held moral beliefs ought to be expressed through law, as the potential for mischief is admittedly great.  But certainly immorality is a good reason to prohibit certain acts.  Many folks point to some of our embarrassments in the past about supposedly “moral” views about race and gender.  But I don’t think there are any arguments that hold up that we might someday be just as embarrassed at our contemporary moral views about polygamous marriage, incest, animal cruelty, obscenity, etc. as we do about our former moral views about race and gender.

Instead, I think our society is unfortunately starting to buckle under the weight of relativism and is becoming uncertain about the rightness and importance of our own moral code.  Interestingly, one moral value that has not diminished in our minds is the protection of animals and the criminality of animal abusers.   There is no serious suggestion that anyone has a “liberty” interest in torturing Fido and Mittens.  At some level, most of us still do believe in natural rights, and that “liberty” does not simply mean anything within one’s physical power.  Yet, I suspect animal cruelty laws are in the least danger of the relativism movement.  This strikes me as odd.  Do even relativists draw the line somewhere?  Or is this just a reflection of political reality about the unlikelihood of successfully attacking animal cruelty laws?

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Written by Tim Kowal

December 15, 2010 at 10:57 pm

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