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The Quarrel With Morals

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“He is not a moral man,” a friend of mine said, in reference to a prominent attorney of our mutual acquaintance. It took me aback for a moment. Not because I questioned the assessment. Rather, because it opens the door to a flood of the kind of jokes people love to make about lawyers … often enough, with good reason.

What struck me was the great sadness with which my friend, himself an attorney, made his statement. It was not an accusation, but a sad recognition that a man vested with playing a prominent part in some of the most crucial legal questions of our time was not, at bottom, basing his decisions and participation on any deep-down commitment to eternal principles or abiding truths. He just does, presumably, “what he thinks is right.”

Many – maybe most – would be hard-pressed to find fault with that. Trouble is, it makes right and wrong less about right and wrong and more about feelings and instincts. My morality, then, is not about anything bigger than myself. My decisions are no longer grounded in truth, because there is no such thing as “truth.” There’s just what I feel. What I think. What I decide.

In the end, then, the great decisions of life come down not to integrity, but arrogance. Pride. I lay those questions at the altar of my own ego.

That’s a particular disastrous idolatry for someone who practices law – as an attorney, a clerk, or a judge – because the law is, at root, an agreed-upon morality. People don’t like to think that. Something deep in our nature rebels at the thought of someone else deciding what’s right or wrong, be that someone God or a legislature or a majority at the polls. “You can’t legislate morality,” folks will tell you. But, of course, in the end, you can’t legislate anything else.

Indeed, the ultimate objective of the law is to establish the moral code of a community. There’s really no other reason to go to all the trouble of creating a law in the first place if not to ingrain in the minds of a people the idea that certain things are right or wrong.

“The law is a great teacher,” says Dr. Frank Turek. “Whatever is legal, people think is moral, and whatever is illegal, people think is immoral. Laws change hearts and attitudes.”

That’s an extraordinary responsibility … one not worthy of any attorney or judge whose sense of right and wrong is no bigger than his own personal lights and inclinations.

A lawyer who is not moral is something very akin to a doctor who is not compassionate. He may be capable, technically, of doing the job, but why would he want to? What satisfaction can there ultimately be for a physician in helping people whose well-being he cares nothing about?

If the law is not about morals, then it’s about the exercise of power for its own sake: I am making a law so that I can force you to do what I want you to do. Divorced from a higher, deeper, greater moral authority, the exercise of creating, defending, and enforcing the law is about the ego of those whose arrogance demands the subservience of others.

I read of a thoughtful theologian who each semester asked his class, “Why is adultery wrong?”

The students would answer, almost in chorus: “Because God says so.”

“No,” the theologian said. “God says so because it’s wrong.” If right and wrong are but a matter of Divine whim, he suggested, we are all at the mercy of the greatest bully in the universe. But if there is such a thing as Right and Wrong – if there are, always and forever, certain ideas and behaviors that will make us better, or that will utterly destroy us – and a merciful God steps in to direct us clearly and consistently to which is which, then we are in the hands of a Creator who is at once just and merciful, loving and unyielding … a God inseparable from the Truth.

And so it is with those who would make, defend, and enforce the law … be they judge or attorney, legislator or governor, prosecutor or president. Either their laws are grounded in a truth more eternal than their own emotions and a moral code more profound than their own intuition … or else they’re just flexing their power, playing at politics, and force-feeding us their own instincts of the moment.

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites,” Edmund Burke wrote. “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."

Burke, whose writings are acknowledged as one of the primary inspirations of the Founding Fathers and a philosophical basis for the American Revolution, is most famous for the assertion, oft attributed to him—“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In truth, though, Burke knew, evil depends just as surely on immoral men determined to do … something. In America’s courts, as in her Congress today, we are endangered aplenty by both.

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