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Authority and Morality

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This post is part of a continuing discussion between yours truly and Dory of Wittenberg Gate. Thus far, our dialogue has not been so much a debate as it has been a sorting out of ideas and the semantics used to describe them. And it has been a most enlightening experience that has caused me to re-think a few things. Here is the history of it thus far, in chronological order:

Ethics and Morals

Dory prudently questioned the practicality of using a standard of unchanging, unalterable truths of conscience to determine what should or should not be civil law. It would create rationalizations for tyranny, “All any tyrant would have to say is that this or that standard is an unalterable truth of conscience and that would be that. By what concrete standard could anyone object?” And it begs several questions that cannot be answered objectively such as, “How does one determine if something is an unalterable truth of conscience? Is it by doing a survey of current thinking or by looking at cultural trends historically? Do we have experts who can decide these things? And then, who sets the standard by which these things are judged?”

This gave me cause to reflect upon my previous assertions and ideas about recognizing the distinction between transient social conventions (ethics) and the unchanging, unalterable truths of conscience (morals) for the purpose of determining whether or not civil government should intervene in matters of morality. And now I must question the necessity of making that determination at all in a free society because while I still believe that there are unchanging, unalterable truths of conscience, I now understand that they are not revealed to all of us in the same manner and form.

The Trouble with “Harm”

Understanding the fundamental difference between the prosecution of crime and the judgment of sin might seem as simple as making the distinction between consensual acts and behaviors that do not directly encroach upon the civil and human rights of others from acts that cause direct harm to others, but the concept of “harm” is too broad and subjective to be pragmatically applied. Dory provided a most astute example of why “harm” is unworkable, “I can cause harm to others in many legal ways. I could set up a business that competes with an existing business and never say a word about my competitor and yet still reduce his profits.”

Indeed, you could bake your noodle for close to an eternity — mine’s been roasting in a metaphorical oven for quite some time now, but thanks to Dory, it will not be as overcooked as it could have been — contemplating the semantic implementation of the concept of “harm,” when it has no universal definition. I will stop doing that now, just like I ceased to use the expression “victimless crime” some time ago (note to self to re-word The Question).

The problem with the “harm” approach was in my attempt to define the philosophical concept of sin for the purpose of separating it from the civil definition of crime when the weakness of my mortal flesh makes me unfit to judge what is and is not sin (sometimes my pride makes it difficult for me to live by the Scriptures in Matthew 7:1-5). The limitation of humanity requires that the extra layer of complexity — attempting to define sin — be stripped away so that crime can be defined as those acts and behaviors that encroach upon the civil and human rights of others.

What Authority?

Of course there will be numerous objections to that frighteningly simple and unambiguous definition of crime and the severe limits it places upon the government’s authority over the actions and behaviors of the people. However, the American government was not intended to be an authority over the actions and behaviors of the people, but rather the keeper, protector and defender of the rights of the people. Because we hold the truth “that all men are created equal,” to be self-evident, no man has authority over another. We are obliged to protect and defend the rights of our fellow man and that is not possible when we presume to have authority over his free will.

The standard we have for the purpose of securing, guaranteeing, protecting and defending our civil and human rights is a fittingly brief — and brilliant — document that strikes the balance between a government that is big enough to protect the rights of the people while limiting its authority so as to not infringe upon them itself. It is our Constitution, the source of our government’s ethics, which outlines government’s obligations to the people, not its authority over them.

Since the duty of government is to secure, guarantee, protect and defend our civil and human rights, the government cannot (should not) have authority over our morals. Morality is conscience and conscience originates from within each of us as an essential part of our God-given free will. Therefore, the government has no authority to prosecute people for certain actions and behaviors that might be sinful but do not encroach upon the civil and human rights of others.

But Who Will Lead Us?

The very first of our Bill of Rights is quite clear about where we are to look for moral authority and guidance even though it doesn’t actually get specific. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” secures and guarantees our right to choose our own moral authorities and, by that measure, places the onus upon us, the people, to exercise our free will as the arbiters of our own consciences. Our government’s purpose — protecting and defending our civil and human rights — is man-centered and man is not fit to be the source of authority for standards of morality.

The vast majority of Americans find their moral authority in God’s own revelation in Scripture and on the surface it might seem logical and fair to use that standard in the application of civil legislation. However — besides the obvious First Amendment issues and the fact that not all Americans are Christian — Christians are a diverse group made up of many different denominations and sects (Roman Catholics, Protestants, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Unitarians, Methodists, Christian Scientists, Adventists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) whose interpretations of the Word of God are greatly varied and sometimes even contradict one another. This subjectiveness makes the Biblical standard impractical for the purpose of civil law but that does not mean that Americans cannot/do not look to God and His Word in matters of morality or that churches cannot/should not impose Biblical standards upon society, only that the state has no place enforcing such standards with civil laws and punishments.

How Can We Be a Moral People Without Civil Deterrents to Sin?

My question has always been, how can we be a moral people when we employ civil “deterrents” to sin as if the conscience God gave us consists of nothing but our fear of the punishments an Earthly authority might impose upon our mortal flesh? How can we be truly free when our right to look to a Higher Power for inspiration to live a moral life is supplanted by secular laws that are intended to hinder our God-given free will? How can we call ourselves moral when we attempt to ban temptation with civil laws rather than finding the spiritual strength to truly resist it?

Well-intentioned but oppressive and reactionary secular laws are usually supported by the ridiculous notion that simply outlawing/banning something will make it go away and/or keep people from doing it. And no matter how many times history and pragmatism demonstrate that this approach is ineffective, impractical and unrealistic, the proponents of it can only deduce from those immemorial lessons that the prescribed consequences were not sufficiently harsh to act as an effective disincentive.

When we implement civil legislation as if conscience/morality is comprised of nothing more than a fear of civil punishment in this life and on this Earth, we divert our source of moral authority and guidance toward a man-centered power and away from God and His Word. When we submit our free will to man-made forces that can only intimidate our mortal flesh, it is to the detriment of our immortal souls because those forces do not inspire us to genuine repent, but rather pressure us to merely express insincere repentance for the purpose of avoiding Earthly punishment.

People living in a free society must be equipped with the fortitude and restraint to cope with the unavoidable temptations of their liberty. Attempting to limit temptation by placing limits on liberty only undermines our discipline because it defers personal responsibility to the same degree that it curtails freedom — without ever actually affecting the pervasiveness of Earthly temptations of the flesh. For this reason, we must be courageous and refuse to succumb to the lure of submitting our free will to the state for the purpose of subverting sin.

If the only thing keeping us from sinning is fear of civil punishment then we are not a truly moral people, we are merely controlled by our fear of authority (and sometimes, especially when we are young, we might even be motivated to sin for the sake of rebellion against the man-made rules that we resent being imposed upon our free will). When we allow our moral choices to be made for us by a man-centered authority, we are absolved of any real spiritual responsibility for our free will because we cease to be possessed of free will, having some time ago turned it over to our civil government in the hope that a man-made, temporal institution could provide us with salvation and deliverance from sin.

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About Margaret Romao Toigo

  • sydney

    Wow, that was a pretty good read Margaret. Some of the discussion helped me to understand a little more about my own relationship with Christianity. I’ll be commenting on the whole series of articles exchanged between you and Dory, as I read them all together.

    What is impressive about your reasoning is that it allows that the both of us have vastly different interpretations of the same religion without one of us being un-Christian. Of course, I always new this to be true, intuitively, but I’ve never heard a Christian say that our own sense of morality should be informed by our own understanding of Christianity, rather than enforced by someone else’s interpretation of Christianity.

    Along these same lines, I appreciate your explanation of how government should not have the authority to set up civil laws preventing sin. Indeed this strips us of our free will and does nothing to foster ethical reasoning. Rather they should only have the right to set civil laws that protect others from harm. Again, this seems like obvious stuff when you read it, but I haven’t heard it put to me that way before.

    However I do agree, to some extent, with Dory’s suggestion that there will always be ambiguities when trying to determine real “harm”. This is inevitable (and you may have conceded this point). However, Dory uses this as an excuse for imposing a Christian dogma as a means of resolving these ambiguities (as if it wouldn’t just give rise to more…we’ve already established that Christians differ in their interpretations of Christian dogma).
    Moreover, Dory continually refers to God’s word as a “transcendent authority”. She is seemingly incapable of seeing that what she calls a “transcendent authority” is “oppressive man-made bullshit” to the next guy. What gives Christians the right to decide what is a transcendent authority and what isn’t? Clearly, Dory is proposing here a full merger between church and state. Of course, she says it isn’t because she says everyone would be happy and people of varying religions would still be able to practice. Really…this is weak stuff.

    So how do we solve these ambiguities surrounding the definition of “harm”? Well I think we have been trying to do it by showing our reasoning; clear ethical reasoning that is free of religious dogma. There will still be debate, and some people will inevitably disagree but at least we have the ability to counter with further reasoning, and in the end we hope that we convince others. Years down the road, our opinions might change on the matter and we can redefine what harm entails in that specific context. But at least we aren’t tide to an unalterable, permanent law that provides no justification other than it came from a “transcendent authority”.

    Lastly, I think Dory’s writing revealed her to be really afraid of the prospect of a world with out Christianity. She seems preoccupied with this notion that evil is spreading in the world, and that it could be a better place if we just let Christianity to take hold. It’s a really simplistic view in my opinion and its one that smacks of narrow perspective. She really doesn’t think much of people who aren’t Christian, does she? Does she think man is inherently evil? She needs to start looking at the world in a more realistic and sometimes, positive light. One of the tactics I disliked in my Christian upbringing was this use of fear to underscore the importance of Christianity. It’s really self-righteous in nature.

  • I did concede that the definition of “harm” is too broad and subjective to be of any use in determining what is and is not crime.

    In a free society, crime should be defined narrowly and objectively as those actions and behaviors that encroach upon the civil and human rights of others.

    Of course that definition of crime is so narrow and plainly objective as to be too minimalist for most peoples’ comfort. And therein lies the basis of so-called “culture wars,” in which the state really should not be involved but is due to the ambitions and tactics of politicians who benefit when church and state are confused with one another. But what can you do about that without violating the First Amendment rights of said politicians and their supporters?

    I don’t think that this is a case of people being afraid of the prospect of a world without Christianity, but rather an America in which Christianity has no greater political clout than any other religion/church.

    There are quite a few Christians out there who feel oppressed by Christianity’s court-ordered demotion from its former lofty status to that of being considered merely equal to every other church/religious faith in the eyes of the state (especially the idea of being on equal footing with atheists).

    This is a quite natural manifestation of human nature. We need to feel in control of our world and our destiny. If we are optimistic, we believe that man is inherently good and we have faith in his conscience and our own. The optimistic among us realize that our civilization is in its ascendency and rely on our faith to see us through times of doubt.

    Pessimists tend to believe that man is inherently evil and that he needs a stick held over his head to make him behave. Such people practically embrace the notion that our civilization is in decline and that authoritarianism is the only way to save it, which is indicative of a crisis of faith that is causing them to look to the state, rather than to God, for salvation.

  • sydney

    Agreed, but I think there is something to the fact that this country was founded on Christian principles, as was all of the western world, and now that it’s changing people are becoming nervous. Or at least the Christian fundamentalists seem to be.

  • The prospect of eventually realizing the promise of true freedom in which we all must take full responsibility for our free will is frightening to most people, not just those few fundamentalists who are doing all the loud complaining about society’s so-called “decline.”

    Our Christian principles have not really changed (how could they have?), we’ve just recognized that we have more liberty today than we did in the past — and that’s what’s making the fundamentalists nervous.

    Sure, they put it in terms of our society and culture losing its moral center (or similar words to that effect), but its really about their own crisis of faith more than anything.

    Government is made up of mortal humans who are elected by other mortal humans, therefore government changes and evolves and so do society’s rules, especially in a progressive culture such as ours.

    But God is great and everlasting, so why look to government for moral leadership at all if your faith in God is strong enough to inspire you to resist the temptation that comes along with living in a free society?

    What did they expect would be the eventual result of violating the first (and maybe even the second) of God’s 10 Holy Commandments by looking to the Earthly institution of human government for deliverance?