Personal Moral Standards and Public Policy

A couple of incidents here and on the Pizza Parlor recently have raised in my mind the question:

To what extent is it legitimate to impose one’s personal moral standards as the standard to which others are supposed to abide?"

As asked, one’s initial answer would tend to be libertarian – not at all.

But contemplate Tarkus, who feels that raising his children in an environment where the kids are compelled to recognize a gay couple with children as “normal” is “failing to teach them right from wrong.” Though I disagree vehemently with his moral valuation, I can see a good motive lurking beneath it – that his children are going to learn right from wrong (as he sees it) and a social compulsion to value as acceptable something he personally finds wrong trespasses on that right and duty as a parent.

Likewise, the thread Is It OK to Be Homophobic? raised the issue of to what extent the “P.C.” stance of accepting gays as part of society can properly intrude on people’s personal opinions.

Over on the Pizza Parlor, several posters attempted to persuade gay posters that they were trying to justify sinful behavior – and tried to stress that they were doing it, not out of a desire to judge the gay posters, but out of brotherly love for them – that they (the anti-gay-acts posters) felt that they (the gay posters) were trying to rationalize away something that they should know to be sinful.

Then we have the abortion issue, where one side is firmly convinced that inducing an abortion is the taking of a human life, and the other side is firmly convinced that any strictures on abortion is interfering with a woman’s right to control her own body.

It is, however, to me fairly obvious that there are occasions when one has the privilege and right, and for many of us the duty, to act appropriately when confronted by something we consider immoral. A classic example would be becoming aware of child abuse – most of the posted indictments of Cardinal Law appear to have been on the grounds that he was aware, or should have been aware, of repeated occurrence of child molestations and failed to act.

It is not particularly easy to draw a line defining on what occasions one is entitled to impose one’s own moral standards on the general public (or to attempt to do so by speaking out, lobbying, etc.), and on what occasions one is required to keep one’s moral values to oneself and allow others to exercise their own.

Now, I want to request and require of all commenters that this thread not get hijacked into a discussion of gay sex and its morality, homophobia and its morality, abortion, child abuse or molestation by Catholic priests or anybody else. I use these as classic examples of instances where there are strong differences of opinion founded on moral standards.

Does anyone have a clearcut definition in mind of how one evaluates these different sorts of circumstances and judges whether one is justified in pressing for what one feels is moral or not?

Isn’t it incumbent in any case on the citizen of a liberal democracy to oppose public policy which conflicts with his or her personal moral sensibilities? The political system is dependent on that kind of input in order to reconcile the rule of law with societal standards. While “truth and justice” may not inevitably win out when political activism is pursued by holders of minority opinion, it at least puts the individual moralities to the test, which IMO is a good thing, in the long run.

We may have to suffer through the likes of Tom DeLay right now, but we’re also still reaping benefits from the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. Because some people were able to justify bucking public policies which conflicted with their personal moral standards.

It seems to me that this is one of the many areas in life that are simultaneously very complex, and brutally simple:

People make their choices, act as they do, and take the consequences.

Clear-cut? Certainly not. People who think that moral choices are always clear-cut in every circumstance tend to worry me. People who think that moral choices are never clear-cut in any circumstance also tend to worry me.

There usually is. It makes wonderful pavement because it’s cheap, plentiful, and astonishingly resilient–if sometimes distressingly opaque.