Your morality ends where my privacy begins

Will Sutter of Lexington is a retired foreign service official and novelist.
Will Sutter of Lexington is a retired foreign service official and novelist.

Recently in these pages, Rick Hardison and Richard Nelson urged more debate on moral issues: abortion, same sex marriage and the right of religious belief to trump public responsibilities were cited as examples.

Let me suggest that we might be better off with less such discussion.

The writers mentioned Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as precedents, presidents who stated a moral obligation to reform a failing economy with millions jobless or protect every American’s right to vote. From this we conclude that public debates of morality are a fine old American tradition?

Clearly reforming a sick economy and protecting the right to vote are matters of great public importance. They directly affect millions of us adversely. But a woman’s right to control her own body? Or an individual’s right to choose a lifetime relationship to their own liking?

Aren’t these essentially private matters?

They are according to law. So why do we need to keep reopening them time and again on the grounds of morality? Who benefits from this except those who are paid to keep banging the moral drum?

Yes, protecting a woman’s health in abortion to keep her out of some back alley, or extending to gay couples the same civil and legal benefits extended to traditionally married ones are true public issues. But let’s examine them from the point of view of the common good, not the private morality of this group or that. The same applies to protecting the public from the arbitrary interventions of private religious beliefs in public service.

Whose morality would we choose as the standard of judgment?

These individual rights in no way imply others must have abortions or contract same sex unions. They involve only the principals, unlike massive unemployment or thwarted voting rights.

Behaviors that are essentially private and hurt no one, even if displeasing in one way or another, require forbearance rather than incessant moral scrutiny. Otherwise, a secular, pluralistic society such as ours is impossible.

There’s nothing wrong with debating these matters privately in churches, clubs and other private venues. But is it useful to keep pushing them into the public forum as a way of forbidding or condemning them?

To do so runs a serious risk of repeating here the doctrinal disputes that tore Europe apart during the religious wars of the 15th and 16th centuries.

It can’t happen here? Remember what the slave issue did to us when it slipped beyond the bounds of political compromise and became a matter of theological certainty. Do we want to repeat that?

The First Amendment makes religion a private matter, beyond the reach of government. Thus there is no need to establish a one, true dogma governing religious belief or licit private behavior. So wouldn’t we all be better off if we just minded our own business and kept out of the private affairs of others?

Let’s concentrate instead on issues that truly concern our republic, issues such as domestic tranquility, justice, national defense and the common good.

At issue

Nov. 2 commentary by Rick Hardison and Richard Nelson, “Morality is key ingredient in voting choices, public policy”