One Reason We Shouldn’t Legislate Morality

I’m sure this is probably true everywhere, to some extent, but I can only speak about Tennessee, because this is where I live and where I’ve spent the longest portion of my adult life. But one thing that strikes me repeatedly in Tennessee is how often people want things they think are wrong–morally wrong–to be illegal, but then they don’t want their friends, who they know are good people, to face the harsh legal consequences for their moral ills.

And to me, this makes sense. There are a lot of things I think are morally wrong–like telling your husband your child is his (and believe me, I think that is a huge, huge moral wrong), or being addicted to drugs, and so on–that I don’t think should be against the law. They’re just not matters that we actually want to see legal penalties applied equally to everyone in the same circumstances. We just want people to not do them. So, if I hear about this total bitch, Sue Jones, who let her husband think the kid he raised was his and he didn’t find out until the real dad came forward, I’m like “Wow, she is a total bitch.” I know the point I’m about to make and just rereading that sentence, I’m like “Yeah, there totally should be some recourse for Sue’s husband. She should have to pay!”

But if it’s my friend, Sue Jones, and I know her husband beats her and would kill her if he knew that kid wasn’t his, I would council her every damn day to keep her mouth shut. And if it’s only because the kid’s big, scary, “I will put you in the ground, Mr. Jones” actual dad got out of prison for his involvement in a scary biker gang that Sue felt safe having Scary Dad tell Less-Scary Not-Dad that he’s not the dad, I would think “Whew, thank goodness everyone got through that scenario in one piece.

I think that’s only human. When we know the people involved and we know the complexities, things that seemed so clear cut in one direction in the abstract–it should be illegal for a woman to let a man think he’s the father of her child if he’s not–become very clear cut in the other direction when we know the particular people–My friend, Sue, should NEVER tell her abusive husband who would kill her if he learned she’d cheated on him that the kid is not his.

But it seems like, in Tennessee, we want to have it both ways. We want “women” to be held legally accountable, but we want our friend Sue to be let off the hook.

So, now we have this situation in Knoxville, where the D.A. who knew his friend, Judge Baumgartner, was not fit to be on the bench and yet, rather than seeing him removed from the bench the second he knew there was a problem–i.e. following the rules–he looked the other way–i.e. treated Baumgartner’s behavior like it was a moral failing, not a legal one.

And now?

Prosecutors warned that if the fact a judge was using pain medications as grounds for a reversal, that ruling could have “far-reaching implications.”

Now, let’s not be coy. The fact that a judge was abusing pain medications is grounds for reversal, should indeed have “far-reaching implications.” That’s why you don’t treat your friend’s legal failings like moral failings. Because it means every prosecution you conducted in front of him is fucked.

For our own good as a state, we need to stop conflating morality and legality and expecting exceptions in the way the law is applied for our friends.

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3 thoughts on “One Reason We Shouldn’t Legislate Morality

  1. we need to stop conflating morality and legality and expecting exceptions in the way the law is applied for our friends.

    But… but… but… I’m sure that somewhere in the TCA “Good Ol’ Boy” is listed as an affirmative defense.

  2. People are almost always willing to give friends a pass where they would not tolerate the same behavior by others. The ability to transcend principle for friendship can be annoying but it probably protects us from becoming something just this side of Vulcans.

    In politics and government however, it is often an excuse for not being willing to pay the price of doing the right thing. Whenever a politician talks about deserving ‘loyalty’ or ‘being loyal’ it is time to push the suspicion button. Not that loyalty is a bad thing but if you are a candidate or an elected official, your first loyalty is to the nation and then to your constituents, not to the people who got you elected or who can help you advance you career.

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