Morality and democracy
An interesting development occurs through socialisation, the creation of norms. These norms, which develop naturally through the power dynamics of a group, are quick to merge with identity and soon enough become tell-tale markings of belonging. In-group and out-group dynamics soon form and those who do not possess the same norms are branded as different, and even possibly become despised. Norms take the shape of absolutes and any out-group behaviour condemned as immoral.
The social function of belonging is well studied and understood, and the friction of in-group out-group dynamics are quite manageable on both a social and individual level given an availability of access to varying social groups. On the other hand, a lack of access to different social groups and identities creates moral friction resulting in great psychological strain on the individual level which has greater potential to devolve into confrontational violence on the social scale.
The paradox of morality, a naturally arising concept, appears when applied in the context of governance. Where moral persuasions are translated into legal implications, and where those in the out-group stop becoming the others and start becoming the unlawful.
From a liberal standpoint the mix of morality and law presents an automatic breach on “the rights of man” the “inalienable truth” of individuals and their right to self-determination. Democracy, it seems will have that right be a conditional one. As a form of representational governance, democratically enforced laws will always reflect the moral standings of the majority, or to be more accurate the majority of elected leaders (something worth noting as representational governance doesn’t always produce the intended representation).
As such, moral equality cannot and will never be achieved, and those in the minority will always need to adhere to the moral perceptions of the majority and suffer heavily by its hands. There’s no shortage of this in contemporary politics, be it sexual and reproductive health or LGBTQ rights. Even in foreign policy the question to impose or manipulate the self-governance of others to preserve self-interest is questionable at best.
It’s important to note the importance of morality in identity. Moral beliefs remain, for many the cornerstone of who they are, be it through religion or socialised nature. This creates an immense need for the verification of moral preference through institutionalisation. Removing any such institutional validity becomes a threat to ones, or a groups, identity, an existential threat at that.
Governance though is not concerned with identity, unless of course we’re talking about citizenship. However, in a purely legal and transactional sense the interaction between state and individual should not consist of any moral heft beyond that necessary to ensure social cohesion.
For those with morality at the centre of their identity, it’s morality in and of itself that provides this social cohesion and any change to it translates into the collapse of society. Any shift away from moral law is an acceptance of hedonism and anarchy, an argument not uncommon with those who are devoutly religious or conservative. Marriage as the cornerstone of the nation and society is an argument well overstated that has severely hindered, until modern history, gay rights. Even adoption remains questionable in certain parts of the world on moral grounds with laws limiting the possibility of it.
Of course morality is a necessity within socialised groups, which ultimately is what we humans represent. However how much of it is necessary for the preservation of said society and how much of it is “fluff”, that is, legal requirements resulting from democratically imposed perceptions of morality remains something to be debated.
If we were to critically assess what limits we should place on our personal freedoms, the easiest answer would be at any action that limits the freedom of others, freedom being defined as the right to un-hinderingly pursue social, emotional, economic, and physical needs. From this criminal law becomes a direct necessity. Murder, for example, presents a large hindrance to social cohesion, not only does it rob an individual of their life but it robs other of their emotional and social bonds and possibly economic and physical needs (depending on the type of relationship). Similar can be said of rape, theft, extortion, harassment, or any crimes that undermine ones needs.
However, many acts which fall under criminal law, and other laws, fail at this simple test. Recreational drug use, polygamy, nudism, sex work and several others pose no threat to the “social cohesion” of a state while banning them does hinder the personal freedoms that a state has set out to protect.
Here the claim is made that governance has the moral obligation to intervene on behalf of the individual to protect them from possible self-damage, and to protect the sensibilities of those who may not adhere to similar outlooks and see faults in per-se, the presence of nude bodies around children. This in essence is the paradox of moral governance.
With all this, governance continues to be stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to moral choices.
One can argue that the role of a government is to ensure that the “needs” of its citizens are met and that many personal freedoms constitute “wants” more than needs. If that argument is to be made, then governments will need to be selective in referencing personal freedoms in their constitutions and laws. This rational has of course given rise to modes of governance that accommodate the wants of others, nudist colonies for example, or the allowance of polygamy under religious exception.
On the other hand if a government is involving itself with the concept of freedom and natural rights then its role needs to shift away from the democratic process of moral governance. The legislative branch in most modern systems of governance remains largely influenced by the process of representational governance, arguably, a valid system when it comes to issues of politics. But it leaves citizens with only the ability to repeal laws which stand in the way of personal freedoms. And seeing how, historically, elective reformation in governance remains an oddity, the road to repealing laws remains arduous at every point, be it the abolition of slavery, woman’s suffrage, or gay rights.
If governments do indeed want to represent natural rights, then the role of legislature needs to become one separate from social moral perception. And the legal remit of the government will need to be bound by morality needed to sustain social cohesion.
On the issue of a government’s moral role to intervene to pre-empt self-damaging behaviour, the argument would be made that the role of governance must be to educate individuals on potential harm that arise as a result of participating in certain activities. This might seem like a farfetched idea, a government allowing its citizens to, for example, consume hard drugs and simply taking a side-line role of cautioning against damage that could result as of their use, but the truth is governments already play this role with gambling, alcohol, and tobacco.
The convoluted concoction of morality and democracy leaves much to ponder. Ultimately the jewel of liberal democracy has and will always be built on the notion of individual liberty. A theme, that’s truth has been contested since the establishment of the first modern representative government in America. At the same time, morality will never disappear from a social context and will continue to serve an important social function in creating human connection.
Irrespective of how a government moves to incorporate morals in governance, be it based on the balance of needs and wants, or a purist interpretation of natural right, the objective of governments must remain to maintain the diversity of moral interpretations as well as the social divisions that result from these differences. If a government fails in doing so it will inevitable create an environment rife with alienation leading to group polarization and a significant possibility for an increase in internal violence and the dystrophy of social cohesion, ironically the very result fear mongered by those advocating moral absolutes.
Originally published at jadesthinkpad.com on August 21, 2016.
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