Legislating morality: despite liberal protestations, we all do it

You may or may not have followed the whole Tim Farron ‘gay sin’ witchunt. You can read my comment on it here, and an addendum to that comment here. The whole episode threw liberals, in particular Liberal Democrats, into a bit of a spin.

On the one hand, modern bien pensants insist that homosexuality must be affirmed and lauded in every respect, both action and inclination, to the point that it has become heresy against contemporary orthodoxy to demur even in the most minor way. On the other hand, liberalism has classically defended the Voltairist principle of defending the right to disagree, especially of those who hold what might be described as ‘minority views’. What do a modern so-called liberal party do then when faced, not just with a member but a leader, who is circumspect about endorsing every aspect of the modern homosexual agenda whilst at the same time insisting he is liberal and will defend minority rights?

It seems Liberal Democrats divided into two broad camps on the issue. There were those who defended liberalism as understood by Tim Farron. That is, a liberalism that says I believe things, you believe other things, and we are both entitled to our respective beliefs. Each of us are entitled to particular human rights and our right to disagree is underpinned by them. The emphasis on this view thus lands on the defence of common rights.

Others land more on secularist principles. They were OK with Farron holding opposing views to them in principle but followed up with the huge caveat of ‘so long as it doesn’t interfere with his politics’. In other words, he can think what he wants in his head but it mustn’t have any outworking in practice. In effect, this means Farron is only permitted to believe things so long as he doesn’t really believe them. What we believe in our heads inevitably has an outworking in our actions (and politics) no matter how neutral we believe we are. The only beliefs that have no bearing on our politics are the sorts of beliefs we don’t really believe at all.

The latter camp want to argue that it is not the place of politics to legislate morality. They want to argue that the answer is to create a neutral space in which all beliefs and views can co-exist. They want to insist such neutrality is afforded only by secularism (usually, an Atheistic humanist inspired secularism).

This secularist view is replete with problems. For one, it claims the form of secularism espoused is neutral when it is no such thing. It denies the expression of faith in public life but has no problem with non-religious or even anti-faith motivations affecting decision-making. Note, for example, expressions of Atheism and/or Humanism are never disallowed in the public square. It also has no problem allowing decisions to be informed by its own secularist presumptions whilst insisting those who determine truths in light of their religious convictions cannot allow them to affect any course of action. It is rank hypocrisy.

It is also intrinsically patronising. It promises religious views are permissible ‘in private’ but not ‘in public’. It ‘permits’ your views so long as you don’t really believe them. If I truly believe that the Bible, and thus the God I worship, calls me to implement a compassionate system of support for the needy, how can I believe that with all my heart and yet not allow that to affect my actions? If I campaign for it, it is inevitably as a result of believing it is the right thing to do, which is similarly drawn from the moral imperative demanded by my religious beliefs. If I don’t campaign for it, I am doing so in spite of what I deeply believe to be the right thing to do. How can a deep-seated belief in that which is right (or wrong) not be affected?

The issue here is that the secularist liberal believes their own secularist liberal moral view somehow doesn’t do exactly the same thing. Unless we want to argue all secularist liberals are amoral [1], it follows that they have some system of morality (however it is derived). Yet, secularist liberal morality is acceptably implemented in law and religiously derived morality is pushed out. Is this not a tad unfair and illiberal?

The argument usually turns towards the claim that we can’t legislate morality and should not impose any one of our moralities on anyone else. It descends into a moral relativism. The fundamental problem with this is that the law is itself moral. Why do we make tax evasion (or is it avoidance?) illegal? Don’t tell me that’s not a moral decision. Why do we determine murder to be wrong? Let’s not pretend murder is somehow morally neutral. Appeals to human rights don’t help because we are forced to ask what makes them a right at all? We inevitably speak in moral terms when such things are transgressed. We say ‘it is wrong’ or ‘unacceptable’. We can’t appeal to the law itself because we insist these human rights are universal. Other countries that don’t bind themselves to it legally we still denounce in moral terms.

Indeed, isn’t that the basis of the hoo-ha with Tim Farron in the first place? He dared to promote a moral view that did not accord with secular humanistic liberalism and they were outraged at the immorality of it! If we aren’t to impose our morality on others, why on earth is it immoral of Farron to demur over the issue of gay sex (if, indeed, he does at all – he has never quite said)?

I was reminded of some comments from Peter Hitchens back in 2002 (you can read the full article here). He comments, in respect to the coming out of Alan Duncan as gay and the affirmation of it by senior Conservative politicians thus:

Unlike many commentators, I do care what Mr Duncan does in private. I don’t seek to make it illegal but I think it is morally wrong and I suspect that it has skewed his political judgment on other issues, too, such as drugs. Until now I would have kept this view private but he has deliberately made it a public issue.

And by doing so he has ceased to be a Conservative. As a private homosexual, he needed and deserved the tolerance of those, like me, who think his choice is wrong but believe he had the right to make it. By asking for open acceptance of his choice as normal, he has joined the dangerous campaign against marriage and family life which has already done so much damage.

If Mr Duncan’s private life is publicly acceptable, then the entire moral system which underpins our civilisation is up for revision. For that system is based on the idea that heterosexual marriage is the ideal and right form of sexual partnership.

If there is no morality, or we cannot legislate for morality, what exactly can we say is wrong with this view? Yet Hitchens was pilloried for daring to voice it. Whatever we may or may not think about that view, aside from the moral question about homosexuality itself, how does Hitchens differ here from secularist liberalism? He thinks Duncan can be privately gay but that his gayness should not be expressed in public. If it is at all inappropriate for him to suggest gayness be a private affair but not publicly expressed, why is that unreasonable in respect to homosexuality but apparently legitimate when it concerns Christianity, Islam or Hinduism?

The reality is that we do legislate for morality. Adam Ford helpfully outlines this point in a short comic strip here. It’s not that people don’t want morality legislated, it’s that they want their morality legislated. The question isn’t whether we should legislate morality. Of course we should; nobody goes out of their way to make immoral law. The question is on what basis of morality we legislate?

For most liberals, the appeal will be to human rights. That is, whatever does or does not impinge upon another’s basic freedoms and civil liberties. The question that follows is this: on what basis are those human rights determined? For secularist liberals, they begin with secular values and insist on legislating in line with them. For Christian liberals, they insist on drawing human rights from their Christian perspective. The problem with the former is they cannot ground them in anything objective and thus the very concept of rights inherent to man, or Jeffersonian ‘self evident… unalienable rights’ if you prefer, are neither self-evident nor unalienable. The Christian grounds human rights in the imago dei and, recognising the doctrine of original sin, note they cannot be removed based on sinful behaviour, they become self-evident and unalienable (see here for more fully formed thoughts on how this plays out).

The law is inherently moral. Anybody who has ever looked at the legal system of Saudi Arabia and said ‘that’s wrong’ or laws of the past and determined they ‘must be changed’ accepts this point. Secularist liberals often want to have their cake and eat it on this point. On the one hand, don’t legislate your morality. On the other hand, don’t offend against mine. At the same time, don’t bring your religion into politics. And yet, I’ll happily bring my secularist principles into the public square.

The Christian liberal grounds your rights and theirs in an objective principle; that of all human beings being made in God’s image. This means all people are worthy of basic rights and – as Tim Farron dared to suggest – all of us are equally sinners thus rights are not revoked by sin. This is a great leveller and is an excellent reason to permit religious views in the public square. Not only because human rights demand religious freedom but, without it, there are no objective grounds for human rights in which case liberalism is nothing short of dead.

[1] A suggestion Atheists throw up in (I suspect) faux-outrage whenever the moral argument for God is explained. It tends to be an emotional bid to deny they are amoral – a point on which the moral argument agrees with them. The moral argument stands because Atheists are, indeed, themselves moral.

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