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During the 2004 Presidential Debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry

During the 2004 Presidential Debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry campaign a young female college student asked John Kerry about abortion and his political position on this issue. Kerry responded first by asserting that he is a Roman Catholic and that he did not endorse or feel good about the practice; but he added that he also believed that “articles of faith”, by which I presume he meant a religious belief about the moral status of abortion, are not matters of legislation or law (a position I fundamentally agree with). Kerry’s response seems to assume that morality, or at least morality based on religion, should not be a part of law; however, it also appears to me that it is difficult to imagine where law would derive its power if not from some kind of (religious?) moral basis. I have been trying to see how Kerry’s comment is intelligible in light of the dilemma of how laws would have any kind of power, or that there would be any justification for their authority, without some kind of moral...

The question "What is the basis of morality?" is obviously an extremely difficult one, and it can sometimes seem as if there are as many answers to that question as there are philosophers who have thought about it. Or maybe more. But I take it that the questioner's central worry is whether there is any real possibility that law might not "derive its power...from some kind of (religious?) moral basis". And that is quite a different matter.

There are, I think, two important things to say about this. First, it's not at all clear that religion is capable of providing the kind of basis for morality that is sought. This is often regarded as one of the central points of Plato's great dialogue Euthyphro. There, Socrates poses the question, whether what is good is good because the Gods will it, or whether the Gods will what is good because it is good. And his point is that neither answer is very happy. If what is "good" is good only because the Gods will it, then even torturing babies for fun would be good if the Gods had happened to will it, and what they will, on this view, is not constrained by any prior moral facts. So what is good ends up being kind of arbitrary, and the view of radical Islamists, say, that blowing up the World Trade Center was good becomes perfectly comprehensible. It's just a view about what the Gods will. But if the Gods will what is good because it is good, and presumably because they recognize its goodness, then what is good is independent of what the Gods will, and religion provides no basis for morality. You might find out what is good by finding out what the Gods will, but there might just as well be other ways, too, since what is good comes first, and what the Gods will comes second.

Now, as the questioner rightly notes, it needn't really be religion that provides a basis for morality. And what is at issue here needn't even be what the basis for morality is, in some fundamental sense. The worry might be, more fundamentally, that people's moral views are thoroughly tied up with their relatively individual points of view---their religious beliefs, in some very broad sense---and it is hard to see how law can get by wholly independently of morality. This question, I take it, could also be put this way: How can questions about political justice be independent of questions about morality? And if we think the latter is tied up with religion and the like, doesn't political justice too become tied up with religion and the like? Well, I can't answer that question. What I can say is that it is, in many ways, the question that has animated "liberal" political theory since John Locke---and here "liberal" just means: fundamentally concerned with individual freedom (which is what Liberals too are fundamentally concerned with, whatever you may hear from O'Reilly and the like). It is very explicitly the central concern of John Rawls's second great book, Political Liberalism. So if you really want to come to grips with that question, you might start with Locke's Two Treatises on Civil Government and Letter on Toleration, continue with Rousseau's Social Contract, and then have a look at Rawls's Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism.

The question "What is the basis of morality?" is obviously an extremely difficult one, and it can sometimes seem as if there are as many answers to that question as there are philosophers who have thought about it. Or maybe more. But I take it that the questioner's central worry is whether there is any real possibility that law might not "derive its power...from some kind of (religious?) moral basis". And that is quite a different matter. There are, I think, two important things to say about this. First, it's not at all clear that religion is capable of providing the kind of basis for morality that is sought. This is often regarded as one of the central points of Plato's great dialogue Euthyphro . There, Socrates poses the question, whether what is good is good because the Gods will it, or whether the Gods will what is good because it is good. And his point is that neither answer is very happy. If what is "good" is good only because the Gods will it, then even torturing babies for fun would be...

Should freedom of speech be absolute or should there be restrictions on

Should freedom of speech be absolute or should there be restrictions on publishing material that is offensive to religious sensitivities, particularly if publication serves no particular public interest?

As well as the important question of principle (which I shall largely leave to others), there are ipmortant practical questions here: Exactly which religious sensitivities should be given legal standing? What counts as offense? How should it be determined whether publication serves a particular public interest? Perhaps more importantly, by whom should it be determined?

And why limit it to speech? To borrow from a recent column in the Boston Globe by Jeff Jacoby (with whose overall point I do not actually agree), should the eating of beef be banned on the ground that it is offensive to Hindus? Should women be forced to "cover up" on the ground that the display of female flesh is offensive to many extreme traditionalists? Quite apart from the question of principle, this does not seem a road down which one really wants to travel.

For that matter, why limit it to religious sensibilities? There's a lot that offends me, some for religious reasons, some not. Why privilege the former?

None of that is to say that anyone should publish material that offends religious sensibilities, or needlessly offends for any other reason. It's simply to say that it's not a good idea to have laws that prohibit the publication of such material.

As well as the important question of principle (which I shall largely leave to others), there are ipmortant practical questions here: Exactly which religious sensitivities should be given legal standing? What counts as offense? How should it be determined whether publication serves a particular public interest? Perhaps more importantly, by whom should it be determined? And why limit it to speech? To borrow from a recent column in the Boston Globe by Jeff Jacoby (with whose overall point I do not actually agree), should the eating of beef be banned on the ground that it is offensive to Hindus? Should women be forced to "cover up" on the ground that the display of female flesh is offensive to many extreme traditionalists? Quite apart from the question of principle, this does not seem a road down which one really wants to travel. For that matter, why limit it to religious sensibilities? There's a lot that offends me, some for religious reasons, some not. Why privilege the former? None of...

I am a police officer and I have a dilemma. Everyday I see people destroyed from

I am a police officer and I have a dilemma. Everyday I see people destroyed from the effects of alcohol abuse. I have seen innocent people killed by people under the influence of alcohol. In some instances it was two drunks arguing and one killed another or once a drunk husband shot and killed his wife in front of their children. Then there are the drunk drivers who indiscriminately kill I’ve seen several of those. Now I can say that I have definitely never seen someone killed by another person under the influence of marihuana. I have never seen anyone killed by a driver under the influence of marihuana. I have never seen a person die because they smoked themselves to death, but I have seen quite a few people drink themselves to death. Then I look at the potential medical value of marihuana and when I combine all these things I am beginning to feel that morally I am falling off of a cliff. One-day history may judge me to be a 21st century Nazi. If I deliberately do not make arrests for violations of...

Well, you're in a tough position. (And I agree with you: I see no reason marijuana should be outlawed when alcohol and tobacco are not.) But I don't think you're likely to be compared to the Nazis. So you should let yourself off a bit. Still, as I said, you are in a tough position. I take it that deliberately not busting people for pot could get you in a fair bit of trouble, even fired.

Obviously, if you felt sufficiently strongly about this issue, you might find yourself with little choice but to quit being a cop. That'd be a tough choice to make, I'm sure. So I wonder if there are alternatives.

To what extent is it possible for you to speak out on this issue, given your profession? The issue of mandatory sentencing is a very important one here. Could you speak out on that issue?

Well, you're in a tough position. (And I agree with you: I see no reason marijuana should be outlawed when alcohol and tobacco are not.) But I don't think you're likely to be compared to the Nazis. So you should let yourself off a bit. Still, as I said, you are in a tough position. I take it that deliberately not busting people for pot could get you in a fair bit of trouble, even fired. Obviously, if you felt sufficiently strongly about this issue, you might find yourself with little choice but to quit being a cop. That'd be a tough choice to make, I'm sure. So I wonder if there are alternatives. To what extent is it possible for you to speak out on this issue, given your profession? The issue of mandatory sentencing is a very important one here. Could you speak out on that issue?

In Question 325 (is there a difference between justice and law), Peter Lipton

Law
In Question 325 (is there a difference between justice and law), Peter Lipton said that a law can be unjust. Reading it, I couldn't move past that question, because if a law is unjust, shouldn't it arguably lose its status as law? I mean it might be a law technically, written down on paper as law, but surely it can only have bad consequences if people follow it and understand it to be law - like the laws regarding Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany. Is this a valid point at all?

I'm inclined to think, yes, that if a law is unjust it should lose its status as a law, but it doesn't immediately follow that one has no obligation to follow that law. In the case of profoundly unjust laws, such as those regarding Jews in Nazi Germany, presumably it would, at least, be permissible not to follow the law. But there are many other laws that might be regarded as unjust that are far less oppressive. One might suppose one had an obligation to follow such laws out of a kind of respect for the law. What one ought to do instead might be to attempt to get the law changed. Of course, in some cases, publicly and openly refusing to follow the law might be a way of drawing attention to its injustice: That's civil disobedience, in its simplest form.

I'm inclined to think, yes, that if a law is unjust it should lose its status as a law, but it doesn't immediately follow that one has no obligation to follow that law. In the case of profoundly unjust laws, such as those regarding Jews in Nazi Germany, presumably it would, at least, be permissible not to follow the law. But there are many other laws that might be regarded as unjust that are far less oppressive. One might suppose one had an obligation to follow such laws out of a kind of respect for the law. What one ought to do instead might be to attempt to get the law changed. Of course, in some cases, publicly and openly refusing to follow the law might be a way of drawing attention to its injustice: That's civil disobedience, in its simplest form.