One of the questions that is often brought up in discussions of legal natural law theories (i.e. the idea that law is an purposive power that should guide people to better themselves by rewarding those actions that are morally good and punishing those actions that are morally wicked) and legal positivist theories (i.e. the idea that law is a practical entity that can be good or bad in nature an it may reward or punish anything a culture chooses) is the question of whether a government can be trusted to train its citizens in morality. The argument can be seen in this way:
- A claim is made that the law should train citizens in morality by rewarding morally good actions and punishing morally bad actions.
- A counter-claim is made that a bad government could then make bad laws that would train people to be immoral, and thus it is better to pass laws in a morally neutral way that protect the liberties of all from gross violation.
- Proponent A (of Natural Law) makes the argument that a libertine idea of freedom (i.e. freedom means doing whatever you want) actually encourages immorality because people are likely to follow the easiest path to a goal (moral or immoral) unless taught to do otherwise.
- Proponent B argues that it is up to parents to train their children in the moral beliefs that they hold, not up to the government to determine moral beliefs for a nation.
- Proponent A then argues that this will result in a nation with many moral disagreements, which strikes at the basic fabric that holds any society together and makes the nation itself inherently unstable.
- Proponent B argues that a morally pluralistic nation can work if a no-harm principle (similar to John Mill’s–that one may act as one pleases unless this action directly harms another) is in place.
- Proponent A points out that an individual can be harmed by indirect action. For instance, if my children are taught in school to embrace moral beliefs that I am convinced are actually immoral (i.e. such as the idea that gay marriage should be either embraced or condemned–each view held to be immoral by certain parties) then I have been harmed. Thus, a society that seeks to be pluralistic in a libertine fashion is not actually pluralistic unless it openly embraces indirect harm to everyone in the society.
- Proponent B then introduces an expanded no-harm principle that considers indirect harm as well as direct harm (similar to John Rawl’s ‘original position’ in A Theory of Justice which proposes that justice can only be known from an entirely unbiased position that assumes [or pretends] that the individual making the laws is not yet a part of society and could end up being any part of society [i.e. a fundamentalist Christian, Ecological activist, Homosexual, Abortion Doctor, Rapist, Congressman, etc.]),
- Proponent A points out that such an unbiased position is likely no more than a figment of our collective imagination because it is impossible to entirely know or put aside one’s personal biases.
- Proponent B disagrees and argues that the scientific method involves doing exactly that.
- Proponent A points out that scientists never put aside all of their biases (for instance, they are biased towards the position that the scientific method is valid and their senses are generally trustworthy), and that some scientists rarely put aside any of their biases.
- Proponent B disagrees again, pointing to the great progress that scientific work has achieved and arguing that a belief in the scientific method is based on clear reasoning and thus not a bias.
- Proponent A points out that the belief that human reason is valid is, in and of itself, a bias.
I’m sure that you can work out how the rest of this goes. It generally gets less complicated rather than more complicated from this point forward and an agreement is rarely achieved. So, this is my challenge to you today: I want you to respond to this debate. You don’t need to take one side over the other, though you can if you want. In fact, your response can be an attempt to show that the entire debate is ridiculous. However, you should respond to the debate.
As always, your response should be in the form of a 1000 word work of flash fiction. Enjoy!