Yes, Folks, We All Would Legislate Morality (Psst, Even You Libertarians)

Really, I must be a glutton for punishment. Over the past couple of weeks, I wrote two articles on libertarianism and made the point that for a law to be just, it must have a basis in morality. These commentaries evoked quite a response, ranging from lauding me as brilliant to lambasting me for not having two brain cells to rub together. And the negative responses were most notable. For daring to mention morality and law in the same breath, some implied I was like the Taliban, one respondent called me a "neoconservative," and a blogger said I was a socialist (yes, really, yours truly!). Pretty funny, that, when talking about a man who proposed the Defense against Tyranny Amendment.

Now, to review the morality/law nexus in brief, I previously wrote (I recommend reading the first two pieces, here and here, for background):

... a law states that there is something you must or must not do, ostensibly because the action is a moral imperative, is morally wrong, or is a corollary thereof [emphasis added]. If this is not the case, with what credibility do you legislate in the given area?  After all, why prohibit something if it doesn't prevent some wrong? Why force citizens to do something if it doesn't effect some good?

In response, libertarians e-mailed me and said that they didn't impose morality, but rather prohibited "force," protected "property rights," or prevented "harm." But unless one objects to governmental use of force to apprehend a murderer or citizens' exercise of self-defense, moral distinctions must be made. Moreover, we couldn't credibly prohibit force, protect property rights, or prevent harm in the first place unless unjustly using the first, violating the second, or causing the third wasn't "wrong." Ergo, morality.

Another argument I heard was that not all law reflects morality; the example given was law mandating that we drive on the right side of the road. Yet this is where the "corollary thereof" part comes in. Without such a law, more people will be harmed in accidents, and we believe it's "wrong" to allow people to get harmed.   

To be fair, a couple of libertarians (one of whom is running for office) wrote me and stated that their informed ideological brethren understand that law must have a moral basis, such as the "non-aggression principle." Yet while I realize many different conceptions of libertarianism exist, absent an authoritative "Church of Libertarianism" to establish official dogma, I have no choice but to draw my conclusions from libertarians' consensus pronouncements. After all, there are textbook/dictionary definitions of liberalism that sound pretty good, too, yet they describe no liberals I've ever met. I live in the real world; if you seek a denizen of textbook dream-world, I suggest you visit your local college campus.  

And if you look at these pronouncements, something becomes clear: The problem here isn't just one of libertarians, but of moderns themselves. It is a deep problem that concerns not just the nature of man's law. It concerns the nature of morality itself.

And certainly, someone is confused. Some respondents said it was me, and one quoted Ayn Rand, writing, "A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality." But think about what this implies. Hint: The idea isn't merely that it's not moral to impose morality, but that it isn't morality if it's imposed.

So let's start an analysis of the nature of morality.  I ask you: Who or what determines what we call "morality"? I addressed this in "The Nature of Right and Wrong," writing:

[There are only two possibilities:] [e]ither man does or something outside man does.  The idea that man determines right and wrong is known as "moral relativism"; this means that morals are relative to the time, place and people. The idea that right and wrong are determined by something outside of man is known as "Absolute Truth."

And, of course, the latter implies God. After all, if we're saying that "Truth" is something existing apart from man, that it is inerrant, and that we must abide by it -- which means it's above man -- what are we actually describing? But, now, what are the implications of relativism? I continued:

... [Moral relativism] states that morality is determined by man; what is rarely recognized, though, is that if this is so then there is no right and wrong, objectively speaking. Think about it: If 90 percent of humanity said it preferred chocolate ice cream over vanilla, it wouldn't mean that chocolate was "right" and vanilla "wrong." Nor would it mean that chocolate was better in any objective sense -- it would simply mean that people happened to like chocolate better.  It's illogical to say otherwise. But would it be any more logical to say that murder was wrong for no other reason than the fact that 90 percent of all people preferred that others not kill in a way that we call unjust? Of course not. But if the idea that murder is wrong is simply a function of man's collective preference, it then falls into the exact same realm as the collective preference for a type of ice cream: the realm of taste.

Now, the Founding Fathers, men much admired in libertarian circles, understood this well. They realized that if man is the measure of what is called "morality," then morality is merely opinion and based on nothing but air. This is why George Washington stated, "Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." It is why James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution, said in 1785, "Religion is the basis and Foundation of government." And it is why the framers emphasized that men's rights are "endowed by their Creator," as it is this -- and only this -- that could make them "unalienable." A person has a right to life not because some government somewhere thinks it's cool, because that same government might cool on the idea ten years hence. Rather, it can be a right only because there is that eternal, unchanging moral injunction, "Thou shalt do no murder." (Note: "killing" isn't necessarily murder and can be justifiable in self-defense or during the prosecution of a just war based on "The Principle of Double Effect.") So the truth is that the founders would have been confused by only one thing in my block-quoted explanation and asked, "What is ice cream?"

Thus, to whatever extent and in whatever way the founders were libertarians, they were not libertines. The truth is that today's average secular libertarian has as much in common with those "classical liberals" (the actual political-science description of the founders) as modern liberals do. In fact, how many degrees of separation are there between most moderns and the founders? Probably about 24 -- the number of the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence who held seminary degrees. 

If you libertarians feel unloved, I'll emphasize that you didn't invent relativism; it is the characteristic philosophical mistake of our time, with a poll sometime back showing that even 62 percent of so-called "Christians" don't believe in Absolute Truth.

The latter fact is ironic, too, since relativism is joined at the hip with secularism. And this is why the Sultans of Secularism, from Richard Dawkins to Ayn Rand (yes, Atlas shrugged and Rand slipped), do their dance of self-deceit. They don't want to come to terms with the implications of their atheism, with the meaninglessness of it, that its corollary of moral relativism negates any and all ideas about what is a right life, a right law, a right government, or a right right. For it would all be taste. Yet neither will they accept God's existence and dominion. So in an effort to lend the atheistic worldview meaning and construct a moral foundation within it, they wiggle and jiggle, twist to and fro, jump through hoops and over hurdles, doing intellectual contortions extreme enough to create a sideshow between their ears. All this because they insist upon trying to create the tree without the roots. And this has been done many times -- but it is always an artificial tree.

And it begets a superficial life. It is thus not surprising that Objectivist Ayn Rand once said, "Nothing existential gave me any great pleasure. And progressively, as my idea developed, I had more and more a sense of loneliness." No doubt. The reality is that Jeffrey Dahmer, when he was a brutal serial killer, had a better understanding of philosophy than tree-without-roots secularists such as Rand. For when he was a teen, he stated to his parents, "If there's no God, why can't I just make up my own rules?" Now that is Objectivism in action.

As for lawmaking in action, to recognize that true leaves cannot exist without the roots isn't to advocate descent into nanny-state nightmares; it is just to express an obvious truth. And it's one that people obviously are rationalizing away. But why do they do so? Pride is a factor, of course, as are attachments to long-held ideology. Another factor, however, is that many people believe that if they acknowledge the morality/law link, it will open the door for the legislation of an excessive number of values. And while I understand their fear, they have it exactly backwards. Insofar as our government does legislate -- which should be a rare occurrence -- it must impose morals, not just "values" (which can be positive or negative). For it is only when government imposes morals residing within its legitimate domain that laws are just; when it imposes merely values, they may be unjust. But how can we ensure that it will be the former? Well, we must first be in touch with moral reality. Only then will we understand when and what the government should be legislating. But there is little hope that society at large will understand something if a social-pressure gag order is placed on discussion of it. This is why I emphasize understanding every aspect of this matter: the nexus between morality and just law; the immorality of excessive law; and, first and foremost, understanding what morality actually is. Because to deny reality for fear that it could be twisted is itself a twisting of reality -- and the consequences are likely just as severe.

And doesn't history bear this out? Note that there were relatively few laws in far more Christian, "Bible-thumping," morality-aware early America. Yet as our society departs from discussion of morality and the concept itself -- even replacing the term with "values" -- laws proliferate. It's no surprise, either. How can we expect those unschooled in morality (liberals, for instance) to understand the immorality of excessive lawmaking?

So people who want Rand can have her. I'll side with George, James, and the rest of those Taliban, neocon socialists of dead-white-male fame.

Contact Selwyn Duke 
If you experience technical problems, please write to