Legislating morality

A country or state’s laws serve to coordinate human life. Make everybody drive on the same side of the road, and you’ve made good headway on getting people not to crash into each other.

But laws do more than coordinate people. They bestow status on certain activities and practices, and not others. They show what citizens (or at least the legislators who supposedly legislate on the citizens’ behalf) value. Donations to charity are tax-exempt because donations to charity are a good use of private money–one it makes sense to subsidize in a way (unlike the purchase of a television, say).

This is what this whole marriage law controversy is about. Marriage, whatever else it might mean to religious folk, is a civil institution. It is a legal construct. It is used to coordinate and simplify certain aspects of life (inheritance, visitation rights, child custody, etc.). But it also and especially codifies a value judgment: marriage is a societal good.

There’s no way around it. Almost all legislation expresses a moral vision. The question is thus not whether we will “legislate morality” but rather which “morality” we will legislate.

This means we have to get on the same page about what it makes sense for us as a society to value.

And the only thing I can think of that it makes sense for a society to value is the well-being of its citizens. The vulnerable should be protected. Freely made contracts should be enforced. Our streets should be safe. The environment that sustains us should be kept clean. Meaningful lives should be readily possible to everyone who wishes to live such a life. Meaningful work should be relatively easy to come by. Government should be transparent. Information should be as free as is reasonably possible. Etc.

If a law does not contribute to the well-being of citizens, or if it contributes to the well-being of some citizens by arbitrarily harming other citizens, it is therefore not a good law.

Whose well-being, I ask you, is served by North Carolina’s Amendment One?

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