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.
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.