No Other God

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2014-02-19 – You’ll excuse me for using this space to respond to a review that is currently appearing in The Nation called Beyond Naturalism: On Ronald Dworkin. The gist of the article is a debate: should law come from religious morals or simply from the lawmaker’s belief in what constitutes the common good (or the good of himself or some constituency). Dworkin, who apparently did not believe in a god, nevertheless thought that morality needed to be rooted in something more that common agreement. Otherwise, majorities could run roughshod over individuals.

Maybe so, but I doubt it.

Point One: Whose religious values become enshrined in law? This is a big question in a pluralistic society like ours, but even in narrow societies there are disagreements. Who resolves the disagreements? God? I don’t think so. Making law is a human endeavor.

Point Two: Although much of our law is derived from religion-based morality, much religion-based morality is entirely outside the law. Take a look at the 10 commandments. No matter how you count them, you probably won’t find secular law on more than three: thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not bear false witness. Some societies have ratcheted this up by adding adultery and the Sabbath and maybe even thou shalt have no other gods before me. Societies that add these last three are generally thought of as oppressive.

Some things are just left between us and our gods, should we choose to have them.

Point Three: Oddly, a central value of religion-based morality is almost never explicitly enacted into law: love your neighbor as yourself or its variant golden rules, do unto others as you wish others to do unto you.

Is there value in having law based on religion-sanctioned morality? Sure. Law is best that needs to be enforced least. If people agree with laws, if they already live their lives by a morality that underlies enacted codes, then infractions will be few. People believe in religion-sanctioned morality.

So, how do we protect the individual from the majority? Maybe this is what comes from do unto others. Maybe this is a sense of justice based on reciprocity, based on putting yourself into another’s position.

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