Where the Political and the Moral Part Company

We bring our moral order or moral disorder with us into the political sphere, a region in which a healthy people would spend only a small part of their lives. Our moral natures are shaped in our communities and not even in our town-halls let alone in that state capitol 75 miles down the turnpike from where I sit. God help us if we start believing that we should expect or want any moral guidance from that other capitol 500 miles away from where I sit, so accessible by way of the interstate highway built for military mobility and so useful for destroying local moral order, the only sort of moral order possible to flesh-and-blood human beings.

This is the truth that underlies the semi-truth, “You can’t legislate morality.” That statement is wrong in that sense that a morally well-ordered society will have moral legislation which will be binding upon morally disordered people and those who are moral as a matter of convention as well as those who are morally well-ordered in a deeper and more substantial sense. But we have to remember two constraints upon moral activity in the political sphere:

  1. Political means can’t build the consensus which can produce a morally well-ordered society.

  2. As you ascend to higher levels of political abstraction, to greater centralization of power — however little or great, less and less agreement is possible amongst the various communities and political associations of communities with their various ways of life.

In fact, it’s unlikely that an overly complex society, actually a complex of communities, can build much of a consensus for more than the most basic issues. In saying this, I’m not even speaking of a society which has a substantial minority or majority of those whose moral ordering is less than complete or even outright deformed. A society which is really a collective of several morally well-ordered societies won’t be able to arrive at a consensus of customs and laws because those would be different for an Orthodox Jewish society and for a Mennonite society and still different again for Ukrainian Catholics.

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