Our way of life is based on a proposition: that we are free, equal, and able to seek happiness individually. That proposition is said to be “self-evident,” that is, so obvious as to need no argument in its defense. Yet look around: we usually act under some compulsion or other, we vary greatly in personal gifts and life circumstances, and we often have no clue as to what would make us happy or even what happiness is. From where I stand, that seems self-evident.
Freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness are heroic ideals. They are to be strived after, but never attained in any absolute sense. That is the purpose of ideals: to provide a faraway direction toward which our private and public business can strive. Otherwise, we live and die in a muddle. Human life, let me venture to say, is largely a muddle anyhow. It’s important to remember that as one considers the relationship between morality and freedom.
Americans, educated on these ideals, tend to believe that they are surrounded by an enormous sphere of protection, and that, within that sphere, their wishes are law. Again, that is only relatively true. We are the freest people on earth, but none of us lives in such a thing as a “freedom bubble.” Because we are linked to one another, and impinge on one another’s space, it’s much more muddled than that.
Traditionally, when the question arises of where to find the line between moral persuasion and calling in the police, a distinction is made between public and private morality. I touched on this subject in my last post; let me expand a bit.
Public morality makes the good citizen. It directs me to pay my taxes honestly, and should direct elected officials to spend that money without personal benefit. If public morality collapses, a community can be held together only by force. For that reason, it is generally accepted that, at strategic points, the law should be allowed to compel behavior that conforms with public morality. For example, if I cheat on my taxes, the IRS may see fit to throw me in jail. If my congressman uses my taxes to buy a Ferrari, he may find the cops knocking on his door. The need to preserve social peace leaves the government no choice but to come down hard against violators of public morality.
Private morality makes the good man and woman. It directs me to be a good husband and father, and to work diligently for those who pay my wages. Almost by definition, we tend to believe that private morality is off limits to the government. If I cheat on my wife, I may be a bad man, but not a criminal. If I lounge at work, Homer Simpson-like, that’s my employer’s lookout. Social peace is not at stake. The community is not really involved. Or so many of us – I would guess, unscientifically, the vast majority of Americans – incline. President Clinton’s defenders asked that he be forgiven the Monica Lewinksy affair, not because he had done the right thing, but because his failure was as a man rather than as President.
But how accurate is this perception of the divide between morality and law? At best, it is a gross generalization, spread over a patchwork of cultural decisions accumulated in the course of centuries. No doubt public morality is indispensable to the survival of democracy – but as we interpret democracy in this country, some public virtues can’t be compelled by law. Participating in the political process, for example. Or staying informed about public issues. Or defending the country by signing up with the armed forces or the national guard. Or even voting, the most important moment in a democracy. Many laws mandating public morality, furthermore, are difficult to enforce or can be twisted away from their moral intent. Teresa Heinz-Kerry’s tax rate was lower than mine, because she could afford better tax lawyers.
But where things get truly confusing is with the supposedly private sphere of morality, which in many cases has been the object of public attention and criminal law. Adultery? Some 20 states still criminalize it; in my state of Virginia it is a misdemeanor, and not long ago an attorney, for Chrissakes, pled guilty of cheating on his wife and was fined $250. Abortion has (mostly) been de-criminalized, but not incest, or bigamy, or prostitution, or smoking marijuana in the privacy of one’s home. No wall exists between private matters and the law.
Of course, many of these laws are even more unenforceable than those in support of public morality. As a shaper of behavior, morality trumps law. That is the greater point here. If freedom requires certain shared behaviors – as it unquestionably does – then morality must be enlisted in freedom’s cause. A question to be pursued is whether private morality plays any part in this.