Last week, Ireland voted to end its ban on divorce by a painfully narrow margin. This disappointing development may indicate that the irreligion and secularism so widely regarded as hallmarks of "modernity" may have infilitrated one of the few nations still committed to calling its citizens to Christian living. The issues that were raised during the debate over the divorce ban demonstrate why such a ban is a good idea even for a nation committed to secularism.
A ban on divorce preserves the integrity of marriage as an institution. The permanence of marriage makes people take the commitment seriously. By encouraging couples to work through their differences instead of splitting up, the ban keeps families intact. In doing so, it protects the interests of children. While no one would claim that single parents cannot raise children properly, the conclusion that children are best served by stable, two-parent households is a reasonable one.
In certain limited cases, such as abusive relationships, physical separation of spouses is acceptable and inevitable. (Even the Catholic Church, the unyielding defender of marriage, accepts this unfortunate reality.) But at least a prohibition on divorce sends the strong message that such separation should only be turned to as a last resort, not as a weakened substitute for divorce. While some marriages may still break up, with partners living apart but not formally divorced, at least the Irish state was able to say that it did everything in its power to preserve marriage as an institution.
In the debate over the divorce ban, one commonly heard argument was that in prohibiting divorce the Irish state was forcing Catholic moral teaching upon non-Catholics. The dispute raises a fundamental question: Can we justify imposing laws that reflect the religious beliefs of one particular group upon an entire nation composed of people with differing religious beliefs? Such laws are attacked as constituting an "imposition of morality." In this alleged tyranny of the majority, the dominant group in a state compels the other groups to live according to beliefs that these minorities do not possess.
This argument, while intuitively compelling, falls apart upon closer analysis. Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes, when asked at a debate about whether his conservative views represented the legislation of morality, offered an excellent response. "What a stupid question!" he said. "Every law has moral content."
Keyes is absolutely right. All laws, even the most innocuous and widely accepted ones, reflect a certain subjective worldview. All laws rely on certain assumptions that are distinctly moral in nature. To say that human beings have a right to life that must be respected, or to say (as a utilitarian might) that we should recognize a right to life in order to maximize societal utility, is already to take a moral stance that does not lie beyond dispute.
Suppose I believe that human beings are not entitled to any natural rights that I must refrain from violating. Why must I be forced to accept the majority belief that human beings possess certain natural rights that deserve to be respected and protected by law? How can this tenet be forced upon me? Isn't our system designed to protect individuals like me who possess unpopular views and who want to live according to those views?
To argue against laws because they constitute "impositions of morality" is a waste of time. Let us simply evaluate laws on their own merits, without engaging in a priori dismissal of proposals just because they are religious in origin There are many different moralities in our pluralistic society. What we must recognize is that some moralities are simply better than others.
When called to do so, we must make difficult value judgements about which moral beliefs to impose in a particular case. In crafting our laws, we must throw away our irrational fear of arguments based on religion and morality. The wisdom that they have to offer us is too valuable to be thrown away.
David H. lat's column appears on alternate Tuesday.