We Can Legislate Morality

Since my teenage years I have heard the argument that we cannot “legislate morality.” The phrase is used most often in reference to pornography and recreational drug use.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net.

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

There are three aspects to the proposition: (a) that it is illegitimate to use the force of law to coerce “consenting adults” into behaviors that “society” finds unacceptable; (b) that behavior is not shaped by what people see and read, and thus it is illogical to conclude that reading or viewing pornography will lead to immoral behavior; and (c) that the law is largely ineffective in this regard, because individuals who dissent from society’s opinions will find ways to indulge their “vices” regardless of what is mandated by law — that, for example, young people will just laugh off calls to “just say no” to drug use.

It is a perspective still very much in vogue on the talk shows and in op-ed columns when the issue of censorship or legalizing narcotics comes up — even though no one believes it anymore. What do I mean by “no one believes it anymore”? Exactly that. It is now conventional wisdom, on both the political Left and Right, that legislating morality works, that what the public sees and reads makes a difference in how they behave, whether or not the media talking heads and academic elites are willing to make the concession yet in public.

Sometimes an insight pops up in unexpected places. The verification for my contention that everyone agrees that it is both possible and wise to legislate morality surfaced in a New York Times story (September 10) about the campaign by Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to do something about the problem of obesity in his state. The article covers all the bases.

Huckabee was overweight himself just a few years ago. According to the Times story, he has lost more than 100 pounds over the past three years. He is now on a crusade to “encourage other Arkansans to follow his example.” He has written a book called Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork. The Times notes that Huckabee “has inspired a host of imitators, including Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, who shed 33 pounds, and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who promised in June to go on a diet. These and other Southern politicians say they are trying to set an example for their constituents.” Huckabee has gone so far as to propose “weighing schoolchildren and sending home report cards on their body mass index.”

Even though Huckabee insists he does not want to create a “nanny state” or a “grease police” in Arkansas, he is calling for “incentives like exercise breaks for state employees” and “expanded state insurance coverage to cover obesity treatment.” He is also advocating restricted “access to vending machines for high school students and replacing sugary sodas in them with juice and water.”

And what does all this have to do with censorship and legislating morality? Consider the following: The Times reporter notes that “Mr. Huckabee insists that a lifestyle revolution can happen, citing four behaviors that have been reshaped over the years by concerted government effort: littering, seat belt use, smoking and drunken driving.” Huckabee observes, “In each of those cases, in my lifetime, I have seen the needle move from one side to another. People used to throw entire sacks of trash out of their cars without thinking it was inappropriate.” He is right, isn’t he, about all four behaviors? We have seen a sea change in these matters, one brought on by a drum-beat of propaganda in the public airwaves.

We could also point to widespread ethnic and sexual stereotypes that were once reinforced by movies and popular entertainment, but which are now verboten in polite company, largely because they have become verboten in the movies and on television. Public attitudes and behaviors were transformed. Morality was “legislated,” even if in this case through a form of self-censorship generated by peer pressure in Hollywood.

Those of us who are middle-aged or older know the magnitude of what has taken place. Every room in public places once had prominently displayed, sometimes ornate, ashtrays. No more. I can remember coming home from my job as a waiter and bartender reeking of the stale smell of tobacco smoke which used to float around the ceiling lights like mist over a swamp. No more of that, either. Restaurants and bars are smoke-free these days.

Drunk driving? I can remember when men who drank would insist — in all seriousness — that they would be OK once they got behind the wheel of their car, even if they could hardly walk; indeed that they drove better when drunk because they were “more relaxed.” I’m not kidding. I used to hear that all the time. Nowadays even the worst of the boozers make sure they have a designated driver.

I can also remember in the 1960s coming across men who seemed normal in other ways, who would contend that blacks did not play hockey because the “game was too tough for them,” or that blacks were not good in long-distance races because they “lacked guts when things got tough.” Nowadays, comments like that would be over-the-top even for scriptwriters trying to characterize racists on Saturday Night Live. It would be considered too implausible to be funny to portray people saying such stupid things.

What are we to conclude? Why do so many people who say they oppose legislating morality when the issue is pornography and drugs proudly advocate it when the vices in question are smoking, racism, sexism and drunken driving? The answer seems clear to me: an individual’s attitude toward legislating morality is shaped by his or her perception of whether the vice in question is really all that deplorable; and by whether or not they harbor a degree of sympathy for those who indulge in the behavior.

For example, it is no coincidence that those who oppose legislating morality in regard to pornography tend to be in sympathy in general terms with the sexual revolution. These individuals may not think it is a good thing that coarse pornography is all over the Internet, but they are more concerned about the possibility that “puritanical” people will outlaw the “edgy,” sexually explicit books and movies that they consider acceptably erotic. The same is true about those who believe the time has come to legalize recreational drugs. I am not saying that they think heroin addiction a good thing. But they tend to look the other way when the question is the moderate use of cocaine and marijuana that is commonplace in their social circles. They don’t want their children’s, friends’ and neighbors’ lives ruined by drug convictions.

It is a phenomenon comparable to the debate over academic freedom. Those who are most ardent in defending the rights of professors with non-conformist radical views have in mind new-left Marxists, with whom they share a favorable disposition toward world federalism, secularism and socialism, as well as an animus against the heritage of the Christian West. They do not leap to the barricades to defend academics who challenge the politically correct consensus on matters of race and the equality of the sexes, to say nothing of those who think it appropriate for military recruiters to set up a table outside the student center.

Nor did they rally to defend the artistic freedom of the screenwriters who made Bill Clinton look bad in the recent ABC docudrama The Path to 9/11. The silence was deafening in the academic world when the champions of free speech in Congress threatened to take away the broadcast license of ABC over its decision to air the program.

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