Morality in politics

By Mike Tudoreanu

“You do not have a right to enforce your morality on other people.”


This is a statement often heard in conversations about any political issue that can be phrased in moral terms. One side will say that something is immoral, and the other side will claim that it doesn’t matter, that the government should not be in the business of enforcing morality.

Being on the left myself, I have seen this kind of argument employed many times against conservatives. I’ve also seen it used by libertarians against progressives. But one way or another, no matter who brings it up, it is a bad argument and usually a hypocritical one. We all need to stop using it.

The idea that government should be morally neutral is an old one. It holds that society can be compared with a complex game in which different people have different goals and follow different values, and the role of the state is to enforce the rules of the game. So the government should be like a referee in a game of football: it should not take sides or support any one player’s goals and values, but merely ensure that everyone follows the rules.

The problem with that vision is that the rules themselves are not morally neutral, so the state is not actually taking a neutral stance when it enforces them. Every government rule (i.e. every law) is based on some concept of right and wrong. Therefore every law is based on a certain view of morality.

We have laws against murder and rape because we believe that murder and rape are immoral. We have laws protecting free speech because we believe free speech is good (which is to say, moral). We have laws that guarantee free public schools for children and Medicare and Social Security for the elderly because we believe these things to be good and moral – because we believe that at least some people have a right to education, health care and a decent income, even if we can’t agree that all people do.

Even laws that don’t have obvious moral implications, like speed limits on the highway, are usually meant to protect people from some danger (like highway accidents). So they are still based on a moral vision – the idea that the government has a moral duty to protect people from certain dangers.

And what happens when you don’t agree with the government’s idea of morality? What happens if you go above the speed limit because you don’t think you need protection from danger? Or if you refuse to pay taxes because you don’t want your money spent to help other people? Or if you stab someone who slept with your wife or husband because you think you have a right to revenge?

The government comes in and punishes you in some way. That is how society works. Not just our society, but any society that has ever existed or could ever exist. There are certain rules, and if you break them you get punished. Different societies have different rules, but they all uphold their own specific rules for moral reasons.

This is why it makes no sense to argue that the government should not be enforcing morality. Enforcing morality is what the government does every time any person is arrested or fined for anything. Now, we can disagree about which particular moral rules are ones that the government should enforce. In fact, every time a person says, “You should not enforce your morality on other people,” what they really mean is, “Your moral rules are wrong, and should not be enforced; but my moral rules are correct, so they are the ones that should be enforced.”

Libertarians, for example, often say that the government should not force anyone to pay taxes to help other people, so they are opposed to state-funded education, health care or social security. They claim a government that provide these things, and raises taxes to pay for them, is too intrusive, imposing a “help-your-neighbor” morality on people who disagree with it and violating our rights to be left alone. But the moment you say that people have a right to be left alone, you are making a moral claim. You are saying that you want the government – and all people in society – to obey your view of morality (“leave-me-alone” morality), as opposed to any other possible moral code. So libertarians demand government-enforced morality just as much as progressives and conservatives do. They just have a different set of morals.

And by the way, the “leave-me-alone” morality, when it includes “don’t touch my property without my approval,” can lead to a government just as intrusive and violent as any other kind of morality. For example, a government that follows libertarian morality can kick you out of your home. That is exactly what has been happening with all the millions of foreclosed homes all around the United States. If people fall on hard times and cannot make their mortgage payments anymore, then their homes become the property of the bank. So, in the name of enforcing the bank’s right to private property, armed policemen can come to the house, evict the family living there and board up the doors and windows to make sure no one can go back in. Libertarians consider this to be moral.

In reality, there can be no such thing as a government that does not enforce some vision of morality, someone’s idea of right and wrong. To complain that you do not want morality enforced on you is hypocritical, because, assuming you want to live in society, you also wish to enforce some kind of moral rules on other people. The debate should never be framed in terms of whether or not we should enforce morality. Rather, the proper way to frame it is to ask which particular moral rules are correct and should therefore be enforced.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]