During a recent online discussion I engaged in about the Tea Party, one commenter chimed in with the following: “Libertarians and conservatives have different ideologies. Conservatives believe in legislating and promoting traditional values, whereas libertarians believe in unabated individual freedom.” To this, his friend replied by saying that one cannot be a conservative or libertarian unless he or she doesn’t believe in “legislating morality.”
Both seemed to agree that conservatives want to legislate morality, which is both a common attack by liberals and, in some ways, a position embraced by conservatives (especially those who promote “family values”). But what does “legislating morality” truly mean? How should conservatives respond?
First, it is important to remember that most laws already legislate morality. A law against theft is based on the commonly accepted moral principle that stealing is wrong, just like laws against murder are based on the idea that taking someone’s innocent life is wrong. Even Democrats try to legislate morality: increasing taxes on the wealthy to make the tax code more “fair,” voting to raise the minimum wage to promote “justice,” and trying to mandate equal pay are all forms of legislating morality.
The second way to respond is to ask which issues opponents of “legislating morality” are actually talking about. Here are three of the most common possibilities:
Essentially, the abortion argument comes down to one belief: when do you believe a fetus becomes a human? Pro-life individuals almost all agree that life begins at conception. If you believe that life begins at conception then it’s clear that abortion is the same as taking a life. Murder is generally accepted as an immoral act; conservatives aren’t legislating morality by wanting to outlaw abortions any more than we all legislate morality by wanting to outlaw homicide.
If you are pro-choice, it is probably because you don’t believe a fetus is a human until birth (or at the very least you are pro-choice up to the point where you believe the fetus becomes a human life). Therefore, it is not immoral in the pro-choice mindset to have an abortion at, say, 6 weeks, because the fetus at that point is not a human life, but a piece of tissue or something similar. Therefore, viewing abortion as immoral, moral, or amoral is usually predicated on whether or when a fetus becomes a human life.
2. Gay marriage
To say that gay marriage is an issue of morality is to then assert that homosexuality is a moral issue in line with abortion or the use of drugs. Many conservatives do see homosexual marriage as an issue of morality; allowing legal recognition of gay marriage is seen as promoting the immoral act and situation of same-gender relationships. While I don’t view my opposition this way, that is a reasonable conclusion. However, if liberals attack conservatives for seeing gay marriage as immoral, they then seem to agree marriage is an issue of morality and that as liberals they believe it is immoral to deny benefits reserved for married couples to homosexual couples (thereby legislating their own morality).
This issue is really a critique used by libertarians against Republicans, but both of the major parties are fairly well aligned on drug policy. Even the White House has said that “The Administration steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana and other drugs because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.” Moving past marijuana, however, we see a general agreement on drug policy.
According to Thomas.loc.gov, there have been over 50,000 pieces of legislation introduced since 1973 on drug policy, with about 30,000 bills introduced by Democrats and roughly 20,000 by Republicans. Of these, a little over 2,000 of them became law, including the Psychotropic Substances Act (1978), sponsored by Senator Culver (D-IA), the Anabolic Steroid Act of 2004 (to expand the definition of steroids) sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 sponsored by Representative Thomas Foley (D-WA).
Of course, Republicans have sponsored plenty of drug policy bills as well, but it is clear that regulating drugs is by no means a Republican-only position. To attack Republicans for “legislating morality” by wanting to regulate harmful narcotics is a bit silly, since even the most hard-core liberals don’t want to legalize hard drugs like meth or cocaine.
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When confronted with the “legislating morality” attack, we must ask ourselves what it means. Does it mean that, because we believe that life begins at conception and that therefore abortion is like murder, that we are legislating morality? Or is it because Republicans, like Democrats, don’t want methamphetamines or crack cocaine in our communities? Legislating morality should really be removed as a criticism, since almost all laws are legislating morality.