March 6, 2009

Moral Wrongs and Civil Rights

The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments on challenges to Proposition 8 yesterday, and The New York Times seems to expect that, surprisingly, the court may rule more or less the way I want them to: that is, they are expected to rule that the state must extend all the same substantive rights to gay couples as to straight couples, but if the voters don't want to call them both by the same name they don't have to.

The NYT article happened to note that there were some protesters outside the courtroom, and one of them was holding a sign that read:

A Moral Wrong Can't Be a Civil Right

This is a terrifyingly stupid claim. (Terrifying because the guy who wrote it probably votes.) A moral wrong can't be a civil right. Really? So there is not one action - not even one! - that is morally wrong that the government can't stop me from doing? What about calling people who hold up stupid signs by nasty, obscene names? (Assume that I do it without making false factual claims or inciting violence.) That's typically wrong, isn't it? Should the government come arrest me if I do it?

You can't just pass from 'X is wrong' to 'X should be illegal' without any kind of argument in the middle! Morality/ethics/virtue is about an individual's free choices, not his or her coerced actions. Government is our collective engine of coercion, and civil rights specify the limits of our authority to coerce. If we are to make any room for morality at all, there will have to be moral wrongs that are civil rights - that is, there will have to be cases where people may choose between right and wrong without being coerced one way or the other. (For more on this subject, see here.)

Posted by Kenny at March 6, 2009 11:05 AM
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