Legislating Morality Research Paper

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[. . .] The Supreme Court claimed that when upholding the Roe vs. Wade decision that they were not legislating morality by making abortions legal. However, it is clear that in their decision by legalizing abortion the Supreme Court has essentially declared that abortion is right. As such, this is certainly a statement of morality and legalized abortions represent an example of the legislation of morality. Many government officials argue that legalizing abortions represents the government's way of remaining neutral on the issue of abortion; the government is not actually forcing anyone to go out and get an abortion nor is the government stating that having abortions is good, but instead the government is recognizing a woman's control over her body and are allowing women to exercise their options in the case of an unwanted pregnancy. Similar arguments could be used for other activities like prostitution or the use of illicit drugs. For example, if the government passed a law legalizing killing someone in self-defense as in the old west, it would be endorsing killing human beings under certain circumstances. Legalization of any activity is in a sense a government endorsement of that activity as making an activity illegal is not endorsing it. If this were not true why would we need any laws at all? The thing is that by legislating morality, the government endorses or opposes a particular activity. In the case of abortion, has this changed the way general public feels about abortion?

Turek (2009) states that people believe that whatever is legal is also moral. Laws actually help implement changes in attitude and behavior. He cites two examples as to how the law changed attitudes and behavior: slavery and abortion. Regarding slavery, no one will doubt that after the Civil War acts of slavery decreased dramatically, but there is no data on attitudes. Socialization has resulted in the current attitude change. Regarding abortion, Turek states that the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973 led to a change in the national attitude regarding abortion stating that in 1973 the vast majority of Americans believed that abortion was immoral, although he cites no source for this observation. He goes on to state that the number of abortions "exploded" to 16 times its previous number (again no source) and that legalizing abortion drastically changed that attitudes and behaviors of the American people regarding abortion. Interestingly, Reagan (1997) performed a detailed analysis of American attitudes towards abortion and included the effects of the Roe vs. Wade decision and found American attitudes towards abortion were stable for over two centuries including the time before and after the 1973 decision. Shaw (2003) reviewed results of public opinion surveys regarding legalized abortion that were collected from the late 1980s through 2003 and found very few changes in Americans' views regarding abortion over that time period. The percentages of Americans favoring or against legalized abortions does not appear to have changed much since abortion was legalized (hovering above 60% of Americans polled favoring abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy); however, public support regarding the types of motivations and circumstances of women seeking abortions did change. There was been an increase in support for abortions for women whose health or life are threatened by the pregnancy compared to woman motivated to have an abortion by the prospect of fetal defects, financial difficulties, or not wanting to have children. Thus, in the case of abortion, the legalization of abortions does not seem to have influenced public opinion to a significant extent, despite what religious conservatives believe or stay. However, compared to 1972 the annual number of deaths in women having abortions decreased by 70% in the late 1990s and the number of abortions in the United States increased from the 1970s until the late 1990s when it peaked and then fell and leveled off through 2008 (Pazol et al., 2008). Thus, it appears in some cases "legalizing morality" does not lead to the effects that many claim. Again, referring to the earlier discussion regarding moral arguments, we must get our facts straight and maintain an impartial attitude. The question of "is abortion moral" is quite different from the question "has legalizing abortions changed the beliefs and attitudes of Americans" are two different questions. The facts regarding the second question appear to be leading us to concluding that the answer is a resounding "no." The first question is an issue that will continue to be debated.

Yet Wolfe (2009) makes an interesting point regarding the legislation of morality. He agrees with many liberals that virtue cannot be obligated by legislation. Virtue is a matter of free will and therefore attempts to coerce it by means of legislation are a contradiction. Coercion does not reach into the soul of a person, but affects one's external behavior. Being moral or virtuous (which Wolfe seems to equate) is a matter of personal habits and choices. However, this does not imply that the government does not legislate morality. Wolfe makes a sound case for legislating morality.

Wolfe (2009) goes on to explain that legislation prohibiting certain acts (sand in essence promoting moral conduct) reduces their frequency. As discussed above, laws prohibiting abortion did reduce the frequency of abortions (although laws allowing abortion did not result in skyrocketing rates of abortions that continued to climb in the present era). Wolfe believes that such laws as restrictions on pornography, affect the behavior of the majority of people who are neither firmly committed nor firmly against the behavior by giving them guidelines as how to behave and instilling good habits. Such legislation does not affect those who were already firmly against the viewing of pornography on moral grounds nor does it affect the behavior of those who are so willing to engage in the behavior that they will attempt to find the means to evade the law and view or make pornographic materials. The case for legislating morality with respect to its reduction of the frequency of certain acts according to Wolfe is in its indirect effects. Making pornography illegal reduces the availability of such materials and some people then do not regularly indulge in it, form the habit of indulging in it, and do not form other habits associated with regularly indulging in pornography such as viewing women as sexual objects, engaging in impulsive sexual behaviors, and so forth. While Wolfe admits that there will always be some people who will ignore the law and find a way to engage themselves in illegal activities we do not repeal laws on rape or murder because some people break them. Thus, legislating morality is a valid endeavor.

A second reason Wolfe (2009) gives for legislating morality is that law contributes to the formation of moral ideals. Humans are not beings with an innate knowledge or sense of morality, but instead are social creatures whose abilities need to be developed by means of learning and instruction. He cites Aquinas and de Tocquevillie in putting forth the notion that people are not capable of producing their own comprehensive ethical standards. Like Hobbes he subscribes to the notion that people, if left unchecked, will act in accordance with their own selfish motives at the expense of affecting or harming the rights of others around them. The major instructional institutions for the development of moral behavior are the family and churches, but he ignores the substantial effects of peers, schools, and the media (although he does mention the media briefly) which have profound effects on attitude development (e.g., Arnett, 1995; Kandel & Andrews, 1987). Basically Wolfe states that laws state society's opinions. Society cannot help but to legislate morality in the sense of encouraging certain ways of living. These include having only one spouse, not stealing, paying taxes, etc. Thus, legislation cannot avoid creating and promoting morality as well as creating certain vices and reason should be exercised at directing the laws and not leaving then to chance (Wolfe, 2009).

Legislation and laws are inherently aimed at presenting themselves as moral (Appel, 2004; Wolfe, 2009); however, we can cite numerous cases where laws are overturned as being unjust or immoral. The issue becomes one of the government legislating morality as opposed to legislation being "moral" in the opinions of some. Again the issues surrounding abortion serve as an example. By legalizing abortion the government has legislated morality; however, many still view the act of abortion as immoral. Nonetheless, based on the poll data the government is acting in a moral fashion by bowing to the wishes of the majority. The issue of abortion as murder is a belief based on the refusal to accept certain defining standards as to when a fetus is considered a viable human being. These standards are based on scientific evidence and scientific conclusions as well as legal definitions. In effect, those that disagree with these standards are stating an opinion which denies these so-called facts,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Legislating Morality.  (2012, February 13).  Retrieved February 17, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/legislating-morality-ideas/3288071

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"Legislating Morality."  Essaytown.com.  February 13, 2012.  Accessed February 17, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/legislating-morality-ideas/3288071.