The ideas of Thomas Hobbes, the influential English philosopher who lived in the late 1500s to middle 1600s, are still considered important today. Hobbes is best remembered for his ideas on political philosophy. While Hobbes throughout his life championed the idea of absolutism for the sovereign he also is responsible for many of the fundamentals of Western political thought such as equality of men, individual rights, and the idea that all justifiable political power must be representative of the people (Edwards, 2002).
Hobbes also believed that human nature was such that people acted out of selfish-interests and if left to their own devices would do anything to get what they wanted or to acquire more power at the expense of others. Governments are then formed to shield people from their own selfishness; however he understood that even a King left unchecked would also act in a selfish manner at the expense of the people. Hobbes believed that a group of representatives presenting the issues and dilemmas of the common man could prevent monarchs from acting in their own self-interests. The basis of Hobbes's ideas have help form the major ideologies of Western democracies and his premise that governments are formed to protect the interests of the group and benefit all at the expense of limiting certain individual rights is still taught in elementary schools today (Edwards, 2002).
Governments based on the tenets of democracy have a moral obligation to act in the best interests of the people, or so one would think. Moreover, in a representative democracy or republic, the actions of government should reflect the will of the people (or of the majority of the people). However, it is clear from history as well as certain actions of the government recently that indicate that the legislation of morality by the government is not always in line with the wishes of the majority of the people. Interestingly for many the notion of morality conjures up images of the religious right, the ideas of conservative thinkers, and a host of other rather arcane impressions in many. Just what does the term "moral" represent?
Definition of Morality
The word "moral" or morality is taken from the Latin term moralitas, meaning character or proper behavior (Superson, 2009). This paper will use Shaw's (1999) definition of ethics as the branch of philosophy that deals with what is moral and answers questions about morality and the terms "ethical" and "moral" will be used interchangeably. Given its root word one might be tempted to believe that defining what is moral or ethical is actually rather straightforward. Nothing could be further from the truth. Entire texts are written on the issue. Rachels (2002) in his classic text discusses the minimum conception of morality which provides the basics of what it is to be a conscious moral agent: Morality is at the very least, the effort to guide one's conduct by reason-that is, to do what there are best reasons for doing-while giving equal rate to the best interests of each individual who will be affected by what one does. (p. 10). Rachels points out that not everyone accepts this minimum conception of morality, but those that do not run into serious difficulties explaining their reasoning. Therefore, for the sake of brevity this paper will accept this minimum conceptualization of what constitutes "moral behavior" or "ethical behavior" or however one wishers to phrase it. Thus, according to Rachels the differentiation among intent, decisions, and actions between those that are right or wrong indicates morality.
Luce (1999) eloquently outlined the tenets of Universal Morality, morality that is invariant to personal opinion, time, geographical boundaries, or creed. These tenets include truth, honesty, justice (the desire to render to everyone that which is his due), courage, compassion, duty, responsibility, loyalty, and honor.
The next question concerns how a person or group comes about making a moral or ethical decision? According to Shaw (1999) whatever falls outside the sphere of moral decisions are nonmoral decisions. Thus deciding whether or not to eat chocolate or vanilla ice cream for most of us is a nonmoral decision, it does not affect others (not to be confused with an immoral decision, the opposite of a moral decision). Moral decisions/standards affect others and have the potential to be beneficial or harmful to others, take priority over self-interest, and their soundness depends on the adequacy of the reasons that support them (Shaw, 1999).
Rachels (2002) cautions strongly against solely relying on one's feelings as a basis for making moral decisions. Strong feelings may often be signs of moral issues, but feelings or emotions are often irrational and often feelings can lead to opposite conclusions in different people (or even the same person). Moral judgments must differ from expressions of one's personal taste, even though feelings can be guided by arguments. Rachels makes the point that in order to understand the truth (or what is right) one must be guided by arguments that are opposite from one's feelings or from one's position on the subject. Moral decisions are a matter of consulting reason. In order to reason properly one must get the facts straight (hence the consideration of both the opposing and subjective points-of-view) and one must be impartial. By being impartial one concludes that the interests of all of those who are affected by the decision are equally important; no one person or group is privileged over another on the basis of who they are. Thus, moral judgments must be backed by good reasons. However, as simple as all this sounds, not all reasoning or arguments are sound and moral reasoning must differentiate sound from unsound, good from bad, right from wrong arguments.
Where do Moral Standards come from?
At this point many people would split of where we get our moral standards. One group would say that moral standards all come from religious views; others, especially in today's postmodern ethically relativistic climate, would state that right and wrong are functions of what society deems them to be. Shaw (1999) provides three reasons as to why moral standards do not come from religions:
(1.) People often act morally out of habit and immoral acts such as stealing are not within our personal conception of ourselves.
(2.) The moral dictates of religions are not precise, (e.g., Thou shalt not kill) and do not relieve us of the necessity of moral reasoning such as to when killing is moral (war, capital punishment, etc.).
(3.) The notion of divine command, that something is moral (or immoral) just because God says so is incorrect. God may command something because it is moral; it is not necessarily moral just because God says so (Shaw uses the example of the "Golden Rule" here to demonstrate that even in cultures with disparate beliefs regarding God, this axiom is considered a sign of morality).
With respect to ethical relativism Shaw (1999) points out that if this point is taken as valid then we cannot say that slavery in the south before the 1860's was immoral, nor can there be such a thing as ethical progress, nor should we criticize beliefs from our own society or subcultures within our society or other cultures (e.g., the treatment of females in Muslim cultures). Obviously many so called relativists cannot abide by their own assumptions.
Can the Government Legislate Morality?
Thus, morality is not necessarily determined by religion, culture, society, personal interest, or government. We often hear "You cannot legislate morality" from those protesting the attempts by certain more conservative groups to pass laws denying homosexual marriage or repeal current statutes such as legalized abortion. The question becomes of course can the government legislate morality? The answer to that question is a simple yes it can and yes it does. As citizens we even encourage the government to legislate morality. We can readily admit that the prohibitions against stealing, murder, child abuse, polygamy, and a number of other laws can be thought of as legislating moral principles. To state that morality cannot be legislated is simply to reveal an ignorance of what many laws actually are. In essence laws proclaim one particular behavior as being right and another behavior wrong, which is very close to out earlier definition of the minimal conception of morality. When certain groups pronounce that morality cannot be legislated, what they most likely mean is that the particular law is in conflict with their opinion and that legislation cannot change what they feel in their hearts. While this certainly may be true, changing someone's feelings is not the purpose of passing laws. Laws are passed for the better good of all concerned, regardless of one's personal convictions. Laws and statues encourage a certain type of behavior by citizens. It is impossible for nearly all types of legislation to be divorced from morality. Nearly all laws mandate morality. The question is not one of can the government legislate morality, but whose morality does the government legislate (Geisler & Turek, 1998)?