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Of Rights and Morality November 3, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Politics.
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56 comments

Election week!  For those of you getting into the groove of how Valence is working you’ve seen that we’ve been posting usually on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.  The trouble this week is that whatever I write is guaranteed to be old news come Tuesday night as it is certain to be swamped by election news.

So, instead of fighting it, I’ll embrace the election again this week.  However, I’m going to keep this post a bit short and just expand briefly on one of the ideas that seemed to draw a distinct divide in the comments section on the previous post concerning Prop 8.  Namely, the question of: How should our morality inform the way we vote?  Or, should we legislate our conscience?

Prop 8 seems to be a unique case for discussing morality and politics because it draws in such sharp contrast a religious opinion vs the state constitution on marriage.  I doubt we as voters often have the opportunity to so directly affect the rights of our fellow citizens.

I think much of the divide that has occurred in discussing Prop 8 stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of these civil rights and as such I’d like to widen the discussion to include rights in general (especially since Prop 8 will have been decided by the time most of us get around to commenting).

First a couple of quotes:

“It seems to me that the governing principle, especially in a plural community, cannot be moral rightness because the substance of what’s “morally right” is not shared by everyone in the community; and politics is about sharing the world with others – living together. In that case, what is “politically right” must use a different measure than one particular sense of morality.” -Antony (Comment #16, Calling out The Call)

“The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.” –Thomas Jefferson: Note in Destutt de Tracy, “Political Economy,” 1816. ME 14:465

(By the way, I don’t mean to flatter Antony by quoting him in the same breath as Jefferson.  I just think the ideas work well together.)

Here is how I understand rights and I’m certainly open to correction or expansion if I’m being too simplistic.  Rights at their simplest are protections against the infringement of each of our pursuits of life, liberty and happiness.  As long as our actions are not causing suffering or themselves limiting others’ “pursuit” than our actions are ideally protected.

Our constitution, however imperfectly formed or poorly executed in the past, has been built around the value that above all personal moral concerns there are rights that are inalienable and should be equitably distributed.  Our country is beautiful because we as a secular pluralistic society have chosen to value each others’ rights over our own conscience.

This act is radical in its implications because it essentially limits how far our personal sense of morality can affect change.  By drafting constitutions we’ve fenced in our individual power to let any one perspective of morality determine the laws we all must abide by.

Now, because of this value for rights our society has chosen to protect some actions that are distasteful and disgusting.  An example brought up in the comments is the free speech protection afforded to white supremacist groups.  I personally find these groups repugnant but I can’t argue that we should lower our collective value for free speech in order to silence them.

An interesting turn that has occurred in discussing Prop 8 is that some of those who feel that homosexuality is immoral assert that they would be betraying their personal sense of right and wrong (or even betraying God) by protecting gay rights.  I personally think this is a bit unfair because it adds far more weight to the issue on a personal level than necessary.  Let me explain.

My advocacy for the free speech rights of the KKK does not in any way mean that I condone their behavior.  All it means is that I value equal rights being extended to all of our citizens above and beyond what my conscience tells me about how wrong they are.  At the foundation of this argument is an admittedly selfish premise:

I value my rights.  If we weaken our commitment to the personal liberty of a few of our citizens we weaken the foundation of rights for all.

Extending the example, if I opposed free speech rights for the KKK then I really wouldn’t have much ground to stand on if someone else asserted that Valence needs to be censored because it incites doubt and offends their personal moral bearings.  It’s not too hard to insert whatever right is most important to each of us here.

By protecting the rights of the least or most eccentric or even the morally worst among us we protect all of our rights.

One last word on Prop 8.  Prop 8 is revoking a current right to marriage afforded to the gay community in order to define marriage by Judeo-Christian principles.  A no vote on Prop 8 does not indicate you condone homosexual behavior but instead a no vote on Prop 8 simply indicates that you value your personal rights enough to want to protect all of our rights.

That’s it for this week!  I hope everyone has a great election day.

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