Roger Marolt: Roger This
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Although the technique is used more often in the letters to the editor section of the newspaper than proper grammar is, I am not a big fan of employing the dictionary as a source document for logical argument.
Let me give you an example why. First comes the ammunition obtained from Merriam-Webster: mo_ral_i_ty, n. 1. conformity to ideals of right human conduct. And, free_dom, n. 1. the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.
Next, there is the argument launched from this indisputable source of information: In free society, conformity must be a choice. And finally, the obvious conclusion: Morality cannot be legislated in the United States. And, that’s it. There is no more discussion. It’s hell for a person who likes a good debate.
In this example, connecting the dots is so simple, clean and inarguable that only the very stupid and/or the extremely brave would dare take the position that morality should be legislated. Have you ever heard anyone say it? I didn’t think so.
So, to continue with our example, for discussion’s sake, let’s see by a show of hands how many of us believe that it is not OK for our government to force the moral hand to tighten its grip on us by enacting legislation?
Go ahead. I don’t care if you’re alone at the coffee shop right now; get your hand up there. What’s the worst that can happen: The waiter might bring you another cup of coffee? Not quite. If you don’t raise your hand right now, and somebody happens to look over your shoulder and see what you are reading, they might believe that you are the type who believes morality should fall under the purview of the legal system. Yikes! What kind of a nut-job are you? Will we see you at the next book-burning party? (Go ahead and admit it; you have burned newspapers, haven’t you? Yep, that’s where it all begins.)
Now, look at the picture at the head of this column. Notice that I do not have my hand in the air. That’s not an editing error. I almost bought into the notion that we shouldn’t make immoral behavior illegal, too, but changed my mind before the photographer snapped the shot.
Further back than I can remember ” before terrorists, the war on them, the energy crisis, the environmental crises, the financial crisis, and whatever other ugly things repressed memory is blocking from my recall ” I honestly bought into the notion that our government should leave us alone in deciding matters of good and bad. That was before I realized that it is nearly impossible for our government not to legislate morality.
We began fighting a war in Iraq to combat the immoral actions of people we believed were intent on doing harm to others. We are ending it because we realized our first premise may have been immoral. We arrive at airports two hours before our flights because it is morally right that we sacrifice our time in order to protect lives. We pay taxes in order to support government spending on measures designed to clean up our environment because it is the morally correct action to take to protect future generations.
We lobby for laws to stop drilling in designated wilderness areas because we deem damaging those pristine areas to satisfy our consumption as immoral. We pay “sin” taxes on cigarettes, booze and gasoline because each of these products is linked to irresponsible behavior with them that we are morally obligated to discourage. There is no need for me to go on.
But, don’t jump to conclusions about where I am going with this. I am not advocating for the freedom of anarchy. To the contrary, I am all for our government legislating morality by consensus. We must be governed by enforceable rules of right conduct or risk grave harm at the hands of the few in society who do not adhere to right conduct by the force of their own conscience. Only under this protection are we truly free. (You will notice that it took a lot more than two words from the dictionary to piece together this conclusion. And, you may interpret them as you wish.)
The problem with abandoning the argument that morality should not be legislated, however, is that it places us in a very sticky predicament. It has been a convenient argument that has allowed us to avoid looking very closely at thorny issues that we have not sanctioned or condemned through legislation. This does not provide the consolation of a stalemate. Lack of action is the tacit stamp of approval.
Admitting that our government is us, and as such, that it does, in fact, have the responsibility of judging collective actions as either moral or immoral, places a heavy burden on our shoulders. It was far easier to use definitions from the dictionary to piece together logic that, ironically, excused us from thinking.