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Moral Agency in Legislation

Harrison Phipps
   Opinions Editor

Every law is a moral law. Even the smallest laws, such as those restricting people from littering or going over the speed limit are moral laws. They make an appeal to the wellbeing of the environment or people respectively. The implications of these laws are that they determine certain behaviors as being right or wrong.

One makes the judgment that it is better to not pollute our environment than to throw our trash in it, the other that it is better to drive at a controlled and predictable speed in order to be less hazardous to other drivers rather than to go as fast as one pleases wherever one pleases around whomever one pleases.

Laws that create even these meager restrictions are in place because of a distrust on the part of the individual to work for the common good of another. The reason that people would need to be told not to litter is because they would litter otherwise. Those who disregard these rules and do so anyways are punished.

Absolutely nothing stops someone from murdering, kidnapping, or stealing from another human being. Words written on paper and social practices do not actually bear any particular control on what can and cannot be done.

However, it remains that most people do not murder, kidnap, and steal frequently. Rather, they have a conscience, a way for them to distinguish between right and wrong; but, if everyone has a conscience, why do people continue to do bad things?

Unfortunately, not everyone’s conscience operates at full capacity; in other cases, it may be suppressed. Thus, for those who might fall into either of those camps, the codification of morality in the form of law is quite beneficial for being able to point to something and say, “You should know better.”

Morality, though, does not emerge from law, one person’s morals are not necessarily another’s for what could be a variety of reasons, and law is decided by and for a collective. It might sound strange, but humans are not the most moral of creatures. We do not always do what they ought. Any claim to subjective morality collapses on itself enabling us to see moral deficiencies in people.

For instance, Person X murders Person Y in cold blood. Person X should not have done that, but for Person X, it seemed as though it were the right thing to do at the time. To Person X, it was the moral thing to do. Looking from the outside, however, one can clearly say that murder is wrong and that, although Person X might have thought it was moral, they were mistaken.

Naturally, one might want to qualify the subjectivity argument and say that the individual can decide what is right and wrong for themselves insofar as it does not infringe on other liberties.

I’ll get into something controversial. I will point out that I have the capability to harm myself and to use my body to murder someone. If my liberty is what is ultimately valued, this too should be fair game.

Nonetheless, the position I take in regard to subjective morality is as follows: If I decide what is right and wrong by myself insofar as it does not infringe on other liberties, then depriving the capability of further action for myself or others is the ultimate restriction of liberties.

Law, being moral in nature, is supposed to reflect morality and enable, inhibit, and prohibit certain behaviors that are objectively immoral.

Laws, however, are made by morally faulty humans. If laws are made in such a way, then why are they reliable or even worthy of being obeyed? If humans can make moral mistakes, and laws are supposed to reflect morality, then it stands that humans can make mistakes in the creation of laws. What is legal is not necessarily moral, and I think most people can agree on that.

So, when it comes to the selection of our legislators, it seems appropriate that if there was to be a test about who is and is not qualified for office, it ought to be one of morals. This would not be any specific test to administer on paper, but would be something to be dug out through the history and actions of anyone wishing to run for office.

Now then, the same fault of those who make the laws are there in those who elect those who make the laws; however, more minds are typically better than fewer in determining these things. This is not an argument for socially-formed morality, but more of a socially-judged morality.

It is important to note that the moral degradation of a society does not start on a general basis, but moves incrementally.

For instance, it is not as if one day murder will spontaneously be considered tolerable by many people’s standards; rather, certain types of murder will begin to be seen as a grey area, and then justified, leaving room for further justification of other similar types. This concept can be applied in many areas of contemporary moral issues, making humans unreliable morally in a number of areas simultaneously.

If humans act immorally in one place, they may very well act immorally in others. This is why government scandals matter. By no means am I implying a sort of slippery slope that some would like to espouse; rather, it is simply a sign that they are an imperfect moral judge, and depending on the severity of what occurs, ought to stop making any sort of moral decisions for others.

Granted, one can tell from the beginning that no one is perfectly moral and that government scandals, therefore, do not matter. However, if that is true, one should have no problem with sending children to a childcare facility where none of the employees have ever had a background check.

With legislation being a moral endeavor, it seems dreadfully apparent that those who are involved in that process ought to be the most morally responsible, making decisions that reflect their ability to act as moral agents.

 

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