Legalization and cognitive dissonance

Can you support the legalization of something (on a public level) but take a moral stance against that same thing (on a private level)?

This is a really good question. I think the answer is “yes”, but I’m not sure.

The temptation is of course that we nationalise our morality. If we think something is wrong, well, then everyone has to. Tolerance is bad, because it legitimizes morally wrong lifestyles, and if you aren’t actively against something, then you’re passively for it.

We could get rid of a lot of these problems by just going back to a monarchy. Don’t like something? Well, the king did it, and the king was appointed by God, so even this must have a purpose.

The authors of the New Testament seemed convinced that the world would be the world, the church would be the church, and that was that. We give to God things that are God and Caesar things that are Caesar’s. We are not surprised when the world does bad things because they’re the world.

We’re on a bit of a different footing now, with our moral majorities, and the idea that we can simply enshrine our morality in law and that’s that.

I don’t think Paul was writing with democracy and megachurches and Republicans and the Southern Baptist Convention and culture wars and all this mixing of government and church together.

I wonder what he would have thought about it.

In any case, the question isn’t really about morality. The question only exists because we have the option to enforce our morality. The real question is about the church’s place in the world, about its agenda, and its means. If you lived in a non-democratic society, you wouldn’t even be able to ask the question — of course your morality is sphere-bounded to your own person or family. You can’t affect others’ lives. In our democratic era, suddenly we have a way, and we’ve (of course) taken that collective problem and individualized it. Which obscures the origin and context of the question.

I go further than just asking if we can enforce morality or simply be agnostic about it in the public sphere.

I ask if I can support legalization in public on one hand, and believe it is wrong to partake in that legalization?

You can slot any moral wrong in there: Drug use, prostitution, abortion, etc, etc. The human cost of criminalizing any (especially enduringly popular) activity is pretty clear. You create criminals, both in the form of gangs and the prosecuted. You create a cycle of victims, as most are afraid to come forward for fear of prosecution. You create an underclass of people who are voiceless and persecuted by the police, the gangs, and their own human failure. Legalization is, in my mind, the only real way to fix this.

But I think cocaine, for instance, is wrong. It’s something that you shouldn’t do.

So there’s some cognitive dissonance there, at least for me.

2 thoughts on “Legalization and cognitive dissonance

  1. You’ve got some good thoughts here, Dan. I don’t have an easy answer for your question. But I agree with you, I think there must be cases (like drugs, as you suggest) where, on the whole, society would be improved if the issues were dealt with as issues of wisdom rather than issues of legality.

    (Off the top of my head, another similar issue might be the intersection of teenagers, technology, and sexuality. Right now, per the laws of the land, an underaged teenager who sends an unclothed pic of him/herself to someone else could be prosecuted for distribution under the same laws that are there to nail the pervs who prey on infants. While I would say the activity is morally wrong, having and enforcing a law against such immature teens does far more harm than good.)

    I appreciate your observation that only because we live in Christian-rooted democracies do we have the freedom to ask such questions. A blessing and a curse both, I guess.

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