Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Impossibility of Moral Enforcement

Let me start this post with the claim that I am a legal positivist, meaning that philosophically, I believe that the existence of law is based solely on social facts and that a legal system can validly exist without any moral basis. Note this, it doesn’t mean that the law cannot contain any moral values, it simply means that law can be separated from morality issues in order to exist.

This separation is crucial to understand why I take the position that pure moral enforcement would be an impossible attempt. I will also use the concept of separation of moral and legal issues in Islamic law to support my argument in this post.

As you may be aware, this world is full with people who believe that the morality of a society must be upheld and enforced even when there is no legal rules relating to such matter. Take the example of Lady Gaga’s concert in Jakarta.

I am not talking about the thugs who demand the concert to be cancelled since based on the facts on their usual practices, I don’t think that they are motivated by morality issues. It would be more accurate if we explain their motivation from pure economics issues.

What I am talking here are people who take the issue at face value and believe from an internal point of view that Lady Gaga’s concert adversely affects the morality of our nation and thus encourage the legal authorities to conduct morality enforcement by prohibiting the concert even when the legal basis is ambiguous or even non existent. 

Suppose that no legal rules exist concerning such matter. Can morality be simply enforced within such condition? The answer would be no.

First, different with legal rules which are usually accessible to the public and have more certainties with respect to their contents, moral rules do not have clear standards and authorities to which one can ask for a final judgment.

Second, legal rules exist in order to coordinate the behavior of the people. They exist as a response to social net loss caused by certain actions. While morality rules deal with decencies, things that are good to be followed by a person, where breaching such rules might cause disagreement from other people but not strong enough to justify enforcement (which would always involve costs).

Here are some examples from Islamic law provisions. Eating pork and drinking alcoholic drinks are both prohibited, yet penal sanctions exist only for being drunk. Why?

A simplified explanation would be: Because the net social loss of eating pork is questionable and might only affect people in a personal level while drinking problem creates social loss, especially in terms of accidents. Even the United States admits that drinking is indeed a social problem.

Another example would be the law on adultery. To accuse someone for adultery, you must provide 4 male witnesses with the highest standard of human being. Failure to do this would cause the other witnesses to be deemed of giving false testimony and there is a harsh penalty for that action.

Interestingly, the privacy rule in Islamic law is also very tight. Not only that you are forbidden to enter into someone’s private property, you are also forbidden to even spying at someone’s house. Breaching such rule will allow the home owner to hit you in the eyes.

In other words, the entire legal rules on adultery is structured to deal with adultery cases practiced in the public and those that fall under the scope of privacy will be considered as a moral issue. Notice this: Islamic morality will never deem adultery as a permissible act (you are still responsible to God for your personal action), but legal enforcement will only be conducted when clear social loss is established, say due to the public act.   

This brings us to the third issue. It is possible that moral enforcers might still argue that although breach of moral rules do not cause clear social losses, it still causes losses, at least to the people whose moral values are being harassed by such act.

I agree, this can be considered as a loss. But since the losses are pretty much subjective and solely related to the moral enforcer’s taste of decency, it is absolutely necessary that these moral enforcers adhere to the strictest standards of good human being. Why?

You can’t claim that you experience losses because some people are breaching the values that you perceive so highly when you don’t take such values seriously either. So this is a completely different issue with legal enforcement where such standard is not necessary as I argued in my previous article.

Now the final question for these moral enforcers is: Can you really adhere to your own principles?

Remember, God hates hypocrites more than people who consciously breach moral rules and admit that they are wrong.  

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