An essay donated by Curt Leavitt

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An essay donated by Curt Leavitt

Evolution of moral law: from
faith-based to evidence-based.
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Sponsored link.
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In his explosive work The Moral Landscape, 1 Sam Harris says the first step for the so-called science of morality is to establish a good definition of morality. In this article (and others I've written) I say:

"That is moral which contributes to human fulfillment - in this world or the next (if you believe in life after death). Morality has to do with means and ends. It is concerned with the societal laws and personal virtues that evidence shows can achieve our hierarchy of needs and inalienable rights."

Most Americans agreed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" should go, and so it went. In the third week of Dec. 2010, both House and Senate Democrats (with help from a few Republicans) repealed the 17 year old legislation, and the President signed it into law three days before Christmas. In the eyes of many, it was moral legislation, advancing justice and human rights, and comparable to President Truman's ending racial segregation in our armed forces in the 1950's.

It's a proper blow to the intolerance and even hatred of some religious groups. And it demonstrates once again that an increasing numbers of Americans are supporting the evidence of science over blind faith in ancient dogmas and taboos. In fact, 77% of the American people approve of what Congress has done.

Other nations set the example for us to follow. As of June 2009, twenty-five countries had laws allowing military service by openly gay people. They are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

If you're wonder why countries like Japan and China aren't on the list, it's because none of the major Chinese or Japanese religions consider homosexual acts a sin. Of course many denominations in the "Abrahamic" religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do consider such acts sinful - and that is the source of the conflict.

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Theocratic laws in the United States:

Many of our laws have been based on the religious beliefs of conservative Catholics and Protestants that once dominated the cities and states of our nation and in some areas still do. But, the evolution of moral law from faith to evidence based principles is clearly seen in eight landmark court cases of the last 50 years that overthrew theocratic laws of a particular religious faith:

  • Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965) – In 1879 a law was passed in Catholic dominated Connecticut that placed broad criminal sanctions on sexual speech, including all materials related to sexuality, birth control and abortion. In a landmark case in 1965, the Supreme Court of the U.S. struck down that law on the grounds that it violated the “right to marital privacy. Since Griswold, the Supreme Court has made several further rulings protecting sexual privacy, most notably Roe v. Wade.

  • Loving v. Virginia (1967), was a landmark civil rights case in which the U. S. Supreme Court ended all race-based restrictions on marriage in the United States. At one point, the trial judge in the case, Leon Bazile, proclaimed:
    “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
  • Roe v. Wade (1973) – The Court recognized that the Catholic Church (and many non-Catholics) believed a human soul is instilled at the instant of conception, making the life of an early embryo as valuable as that of the mother. But the court must make decisions on the basis of evidence not faith; and although an early embryo is potentially a person, that tiny mass of cells is no more equal to the mother than an acorn is equal to an Oak tree. In 1973, by a vote of 7-2, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all state laws restricting women’s access to abortions during the first three months of pregnancy and only those 2nd trimester restrictions were upheld that protected the health of pregnant women.

  • Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) - U.S. Supreme Court 7 to 2 struck down Louisiana law that required if evolution is taught in public schools then creationism must also be taught. The decision ended any prospect of public schools being legally forced to teach creationism. Some antievolutionists began using the term “intelligent design.

  • Lawrence v. Texas (2003) – As recently as 1960, every state had an anti-sodomy law. In 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law banning private consensual sex between adults of the same sex -- invalidating such laws in 13 states where they still existed. The Texas Court that had convicted Lawrence and Garner stated “the proscriptions against sodomy had ancient roots (referring to Biblical admonitions). But 6 of the 9 U.S. Supreme Court Justices were more impressed with modern evidence in recent European court decisions. Judges Breyer and Sandra Day O’Connor said:
    "We see all the time how the world is growing together. Through commerce, through globalization, through the spread of democratic institutions, through immigration, it’s becoming more and more one world of many different kinds of people. And how they’re going to live together across the world will be the challenge, and whether our Constitution will fit into the governing documents of other nations will be a challenge"
  • The Terri Schiavo Case (2005) - In 1998, Terri Schiavo’s husband filed a petition to discontinue life support for his wife and Circuit Judge George Greer granted the request. Terri Schiavo’s parents appealed that decision, but both the Florida Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.

    In 2003 doctors removed Schiavo’s feeding tube. With pressure from the religious right, an emergency act of the state legislature was signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush (the President's brother), and Schiavo was placed back on life support. In 2004, Circuit Judge Douglas Baird refused for a second time to allow Schiavo’s parents to intervene and the Florida Supreme court declared “Terri’s Law unconstitutional. In 2005, the Republican dominated congress became involved, passed a bill that would allow the tube to be reconnected, and President Bush signed it. On March 22, U.S. District Judge Whittemore refused to order the reinsertion of the tube, and Schiavo died March 31. The autopsy showed she had been brain dead for years.

  • Intelligent Design’ Is Not Science (2005) - In Pennsylvania, in 2005-DEC, U.S. District Judge John Jones struck down a school board’s decision to require biology students in Dover, PA to hear about the concept of “intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theory. The Judge said,
    “We find the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which is to promote religion. It is ironic that several of these individuals who so staunchly touted their religious convictions in public would time and again lie in this Court to disguise the real purpose behind the I.D. Policy.
    Jones’ decision puts an exclamation mark on a courtroom battle widely hailed as the successor to the Scopes “monkey trial of 1925.

  • Physician-Assisted Suicide Is Upheld in Ganzales v. Oregon (Jan 2006) - In 1994, the people of Oregon voted to enact the “Death With dignity Act, enabling physicians to legally prescribe certain lethal substances to assist in the painless death of competent yet terminally ill individuals. In Nov. 2001, U.S. Attorney general John Ashcroft employed what has become known as the “Ashcroft Directive, under which physicians who assisted in suicide (even under Oregon law) could be criminally prosecuted for violating federal law. In April 2002 the U.S. District Court in Oregon ruled the Ashcroft Directive invalid because it violated the plain language of the Congress, and the court lectured Ashcroft for overstepping his authority. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted review of the case, and in Jan 2006 upheld Oregon’s doctor-assisted suicide law and rejected the position of the Bush administration by a 6-3 vote.

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The evolution of moral law from faith-based to evidence-based principles:

"That is moral which contributes to human fulfillment - in this world or the next (if you believe in life after death). Morality has to do with means and ends. It is concerned with the societal laws and personal virtues that evidence shows can achieve our hierarchy of needs and inalienable rights."

Of course we must distinguish between "natural" and "supernatural" faith. We should have reasonable faith in individuals and institutions who from day to day have earned our trust. Supernatural faith, on the other hand, is summed up in the words of scripture: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe". For many, that includes belief in devils, the virgin birth, and that an embryo at the instant of conception is as valuable as the mother.

Replacing supernatural faith with a universal “rational morality is a work in progress. Aristotle got a good start, but his natural ethics has been pretty much neglected for over 2000 years; and we’ve learned a lot about human nature since “The Philosopher was around.

There was a time when nations wouldn’t go to war without consulting their priests. People prayed to rain gods when crops withered. They burned witches; and faith healers were esteemed (at least in times of pestilence).

Then came “the Enlightenment and the success of science: in medicine, agriculture, industry, and war. To put it mildly, evidence has been shown more reliable than faith in any search for truth. Thus, in law as well as science, modern evidence is replacing divisive beliefs of faith.

Supernatural faith is not just unreliable. Many thoughtful church goers are concerned with the injustice of such faith. We all agree that religious fundamentalists have the right to judge their own lives on ancient scriptures. But, what right do they have to judge others as sinful on their faith?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was submitted to the United Nations by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 and adopted by the nations of the world. The recent legislation by our Congress ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is that kind of historic document and joins the famous court cases above ending theocratic laws and advancing a universal morality that is rational and just.

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Reference used:

  1. Sam Harris, "The Moral Landscape," Free Press, (2010). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

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Written 2011-JAN-04
First posted on 2011-MAR-09
Latest revision: 2011-MAR-13
Author: Curt Leavitt. He has taught in the Minnesota State College System for over 20 years and lives in Shoreview, MN.
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