On what basis should lawmakers make laws?

This is inspired by a side exchange in the Pit, where I made a comment to the effect of "But if I were a lawmaker, I’d pass laws forbiding immoral actions, rather than say “that’s immoral, but it’s between you and your God, not for me to judge.”

Needless to say, this comment was not well recieved.

But I’m having a hard time seeing why it is worse for a lawmaker to make judgements based on morality or religious views rather than on what’s best for big business or what’s best for the lawmaker or what’s more popular with the consitituents, or any of the other reasons why lawmakers make the laws they do.

And so I turn to you, on what basis should lawmakers make laws?

US lawmakers should make laws in accordance with the U.S. Constitution. I don’t recall anywhere that states the government has a duty, obligation, nor right to decide what is immoral.

Passing laws just to help big business is just as wrong as passing laws to legislate morality. I don’t know if you are arguing that because they do something wrong in favoring business that they should do something else that is wrong and favor the views of some religious group as well. Two wrongs rarely equal a right.
Passing laws based on “what’s more popular with the constituents” should be the basic role of lawmakers in a representative government, with the courts evaluating these laws and making sure that they do not exceed what is allowed by the Constitution.
The State governments have a greater power to make laws that apply to citizens, but still are subject to the will of the people and the courts interpretation of the Constitution.

Just my opinion, bashed out while waiting for the microwave to beep in the lunch room, so it’s subject to revision after my blood sugar levels normalize.

I think there’s a distinction to be made between religious views and morality in this case. I wouldn’t have a problem with lawmakers making judgements based on certain moral views- ones which can be generally accepted without reference to a specific religion, even if the lawmaker’s moral view is informed by religious belief. There’s a difference between passing laws to control pollution based on a moral belief that polluters shouldn’t be permitted to spoil the environment tha the rest of us have to live in , and passing laws prohibiting the use of corn products because “God said so”.

Well, in the first place, anyone who thinks state or federal legislators (or even city council or school board members) are going to shelve their religious beliefs while they legislate just isn’t living in the real world. It is simply unreasonable to expect someone to set aside something that has a tremendous influence over the way he/she acts, thinks or speaks. I’m an atheist, but I understand perfectly that, when it comes time to cast a vote for or against a proposed law, every legislator has to look into his/her conscience and say, “Is this really the right thing to do?” And religion has a huge influence over a person’s conscience. It’s usually the way we were raised, it’s ingrained and imprinted and impressed – how can anyone possibly ignore that kind of influence? They can’t, and it’s silly to ask them to.

Having said that, however, I think it would be difficult for a candidate to be elected on a purely religious platform in most areas of the U.S. No doubt, there are pockets of religious fundamentalism where a candidate who vows to bring prayer back into schools and force Constitutional recoginition of Christianity as the official religion of the United States might be elected. That person would be pretty ineffective in the statehouse or Capitol, however.

Because religion is a deeply personal thing, I think most people object to someone from another religious group trying to legislate based on “what the Bible says.” When I was an Episcopalian, I was a devout one, steeped in the faith; but I was appalled at the lengths the local Baptists and Roman Catholics went to to try to overturn abortion rights and even bring prayer back into schools. My religious upbringing and indoctrination convinced me utterly that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was horrified on a daily basis at what those Baptists and Catholics were doing in His name. As a devout Episcopalian, I also worked to eliminate the death penalty in Colorado (still haven’t succeeded) and for a variety of other liberal causes. That’s what we Episcopalians were back then – we were social liberals.

What I think **Guinistasia ** was trying to say was that, if a lawmaker wants his or her actions and decisions to be guided by his or her religion, that’s fine; but not all of us subscribe to the tenets of the Bible, so it’s a really bad idea to try to legislate from the Bible. I would find no more validity in a law based entirely on the Gospel of St. Mark than you would a law based entirely on the Book of Mormon.

One man’s unassailable truth is another man’s mythology; we don’t all believe the same thing, so we can’t ever agree on what the Bible really says. We can’t even really agree on what is and isn’t moral.

The real basis for and measure of legislation, I believe, is what the legislator believes is good for the country and for the future of our civilization. Sometimes that’s just too big a question for any person to satisfactorily answer, and we just have to fall back on what we believe to be the truth. And if our lawmakers always did that, I’d be fine with it. What I detest is lawmakers always voting according to what’s going to bring in the most campaign money and the most votes. Sometimes I wish they’d adopt a piece of legislation that caused real hardship to Americans, but was the right thing to do, just to show that they really do know how to lead. I’m not holding my breath.

Bobotheoptimist, It is not my intent to argue that if lawmakers sometimes (wrongfully) favor big business, that they should sometimes favor the religious.

Rather, it is my intent to ask people this question:

Congress is considering a law forbidding Mopery. How should a Congresscritter decide whether to vote for or against this law?

Your answer seems to indicate that they should evaluate what (if anything) the Consitution says about Mopery, and what the constituents want.

That’s reasonable.

The original exchange occurred in a thread on an issue far more fraught with emotion than the fictious offense of Mopery.

doreen’s comments make sense to me as well. One may not be able to separate one’s religious beliefs from the rest of one’s world view, but one can separate statements of principal which others may support from capricious because God said it claims.

sunrazor, I appreciatiate your thoughts as well. I’m not sure that I agree with you in the details, but the bulk of your post makes sense to me. And, I appreciate your viewpoint that what is good for the country and good for the future of civilization is what lawmakers should make laws based on–and I agree that too often lawmakers vote based on what will ensure campaign finance contributions and votes for re-election.

State and local governments legislate in any number of areas other than those covered by the US Constitution.

Regarding the OP, I’m having a little trouble with your choice of the word morality. For example, don’t “all men are created equal” and entitled to equal protection of the laws reflect moral principles?

I’d think so. I think many laws reflect the moral principles of their proponents, to one extent or another. I would use the word morality to mean the sense of what is right and wrong, sinful and not sinful–and recognize that those with different religious beliefs might answer the question of what is right or wrong differently.

If it is helpful, ignore the part of the OP which focuses on morality, and just answer the title question, if you can. How should a lawmaker decide how to vote on a law?

I think the legislator should use his judgement based on:

  1. What does the most good for the most people?

  2. What represents the most effective use of government funds?

  3. What offers the greatest degree of individual freedom?

These three factors will sometimes be in conflict. In these cases he/she needs to weigh the consequences and the benefits as best he can.

You understand my thoughts indeed. It’s not realistic nor likely to happen, but they should be voting how the majority of their constituents want them to vote, if it doesn’t obviously go against the Constitution. I don’t care how they were brought up or what they “feel” is right or wrong, they were hired to do a job and they should do it the way their bosses (us) want it done. Of course, I also believe that we all have an obligation to know what they are voting on, which rests on them being able to write laws that are comprehensible to the majority of voters, which depends on the voters paying attention to what’s going on… And I’d like a magic pony, too. :wink:

That’s what I meant, I think. I worded it poorly. State and locals aren’t as severely restricted by the Constitution as the Federal government is supposed to be.

I’m going to disagree to a point. Left to their own devices, “the majority of consituents” would wreck government in their own best interests. Remember, the Constitution was amended first to allow Prohibition, then to repeal it less than 15 years later.

Oftentimes “the majority of constituents” prefer to ignore what’s right. While not trying to start a side debate, recent ballot issues on gay marriage and abortion show that a majority of voters in given areas may have ideas of what’s “right” that are far different from others.

And trying to separate someone’s religious beliefs from an abstract construction of morality is about as difficult as splitting a piece of spaghetti lengthwise.

About the most I can expect from my elected officials is to vote for what’s in the best interests of “the community” even when – for example, funding for mass transit – it may end up costing me money without that much direct benefit.

Well, that’s a valid point. Unfortunately, politicians have repeatedly shown themselves to be at least as self serving, greedy, and short sighted as their constituents. Given a choice, I’ll trust my neighbors. Also, pork barrel projects, light rail systems, base closure, and the like aren’t exactly the kind of laws I thought we were talking about. “The morality of Army base closure” isn’t nearly as interesting as “the morality of stem cell research bans”.

Re: ballot issues - see my statements on the role of the Supreme Court.

I don’t really get your prohibition argument… I do acknowledge that the two events occurred, but what’s your point? That the 18th or the 21st Amendment was wrong? That the people shouldn’t have the power to amend? Or that prohibition was bad?

And why do you assume that some smooth talking ex-lawyers/business moguls really have the best interests of the community in mind? (No offense to lawyers anywhere meant in associating you fine people with politicians) I haven’t seen much evidence of that from the Federal level.


The exchange which inspired this thread did take place in a thread on Stem Cell Research. But, I’m more interested in what should shape the decisions made by lawmakers in general, rather than just in cases involving high-profile issues. Sure, it may be harder to see moral issues in transit systems than in medical research, but that just gives people more opportunity to explore other aspects–like favoring big business, or whatever. Morality probably got too much emphasis in my OP.

Personally, I believe that there should be an amendment to the constitution that says for every new law passed, 2 old ones must be removed. I figure that eventually, we would be down to the 10 commandmants or something pretty close. (Maybe not, knowing our government we would end up with 10 versions of the no stem cell research ban or something.)

My point was that trying to legislate moral issues based on the will of constituents is damn near impossible. Did the manufacture and sale of alcohol really change from “okay” to “immoral” and back in a space of less than 15 years?

I don’t assume that all politicans only and always have the best interests of the community at heart. I hope they do when I vote for them, and if I decide they don’t, I don’t vote for them again.

Ok… I don’t know enough about the process that resulted in prohibition apparently. Didn’t legislators have a part in it? The fact that it was so widely ignored indicates to me that it didn’t really have the support of the people, and so was probably a result of loudmouthed WCTU just like many of our current laws are a result of special interest groups with more pull in Washington than you or I.
Of course the best we can do is evaluate their actions come election time and let our feelings be known that way. But that is just a forceful way of trying to get our elected officials to follow the will of the majority. After all, if they don’t do what the majority wants, they won’t get reelected (theoretically), and so I stand by my earlier statements.

Eureka, I was trying to differentiate between deciding how budgets are spent and making laws. A law requiring each city in the country to provide mass transit is not the same as a senator cutting funding to one project to pay for light rail. The second isn’t what I was thinking of when discussing lawmaking. Budgets, day to day affairs, defense contract allocation, welfare payments, things like this are the kind of thing that I thought kunilou meant with the majority wrecking government in their own best interests.

And, like ASAKMOTSD almost kind of implied, the best government is the one that does the least. I am, quite obviously, fairly libertarian, so I don’t expect nor receive much respect for my political views, and that’s ok. Just my opinions echoing my absolute disdain for my government.

Remember that over 80% of the “lawmakers” in the United States Government are known as “Representatives.” Their job is to represent their constituents. They should do what the people that elected them want them to do. I can’t speak for other countries and their systems, but in a representative democracy, your lawmaker shouldn’t be doing what he/she “feels” is right, but what the majority of their constituency wants done.

Only to an extent. The purpose of having a representative government rather than a purely democratic one was specifically so that representatives could make decisions based on law and reason instead of simple popularity.


The instructor of my Political Science class in college often mentioned that fact that elected officials must wrestle with the somtimes conflicting ideas of representing what voters want vs. doing what he/she thinks is best.
Actually, I don’t think that most voters want their leaders to be mere representatives of popular opinion, I think they want them to make knowledgeable decisions based on what they know. I would expect my representative to thoroughly study the issues, have his/her staff do research, talk to experts, and come up with intelligent and creative ideas that I personally don’t have, because I’m just an average person who goes to work every day.
Similarly, if I have a pain in my chest, I don’t want a doctor who says “OK, I’m your representative. Tell me what you want me to do. If you want a bypass, I’ll do that. If you want a transplant, I’ll do that. If you just want some pain killers, I write you a prescription.” I would expect my doctor to be much more knowledgeable about what’s best in this situation, and could steer me towards making a good choice about treatment. I also want my politicians to be experts in what they do, too, and also to consider the moral aspects involved.
Of course, if a politician veers too far from what the voters want, he/she won’t get re-elected.

I’ll limit my answer to the U.S. Congress. First and foremost, a lawmaker must abide by the U.S. Constitution, to which she has sworn an oath before beginning her duties Next come a whole lot of competing imperatives:

  • what is in the national interest?
  • what most helps my district and/or state?
  • what would be the best use of limited Federal funds?
  • what should be left to the states for their own individual legislation?
  • what helps my party take/retain control of Congress?
  • what is most consistent with my own moral/religious/ethical compass?
  • what gets me reelected? (this will be at the top of the list, for many!)

Different legislators will rank these in different orders, obviously. The voters ought to return her to office, or throw her out, to the extent that the lawmaker gets her priorities wrong.

And I think most voters want their politicians to do exactly what the voter thinks is right

If your representatives consistently voted the opposite of what you felt was right, and told you that they are basing their votes on studies that you don’t understand, would that be ok? Heck, maybe Bush and company are really much smarter than the rest of us and their studies show that Iraq was a good idea, so ignoring popular opinion is the right thing to do. (Not bashing Bush here, just making an example)

I’m sorry, but that’s not a very good example. C’mon, comparing doctors and politicians? Think that one through a little bit more please. Doctors are not representatives, they are professionals with a highly specialized degree. Politicians win popularity contests.

I’d like them to be experts, but vehemently oppose any suggestion that they (or anyone) has any right to legislate morality. Keep your morals to yourself and obey the laws of the land.

Exactly my point. Politicians have to pander to the will of the majority, or they are out of work. If they piss off enough people, even if they do it for a good reason, they are out.