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Simplistic Policies, Law, Morality, and Religion
by Rick Garlikov

Simplistic policies or practices often tend to be too broad. The problem with that is if they are too broad and focus primarily on preventing bad or unwanted practices and occurrences, they will also prevent many good or desirable ones, or will have harsher than reasonable consequences. And if they are too broad and are designed with the primary intention of encouraging good or desirable practices, they will also encourage bad or undesirable ones. Selfish or otherwise undeserving people will tend to take advantage of lenient policies, but overly strict policies tend to make it difficult for deserving people to be properly served. A simple illustration of this idea is that if police enforce speed limits strictly, even in areas where speed limits are set to be unusually low for the driving conditions, many drivers will be ticketed even though they will be driving prima facie safely and will have merely perhaps accidentally strayed a bit above the set limit.. However, if it is known that police will not give tickets to anyone within, say, 10 mph of the speed limit, many drivers will begin to drive 5-10 mph over the limit. If it is known police don't even patrol certain roads, some drivers will drive at quite high speeds, far exceeding the limit.

There are many areas where this principle applies; e.g., tax laws, campaign advertising and monetary contribution laws, welfare abuse, etc., etc. In such cases the problem is often that laws or policies are worded in such a way that people can follow their letter while obviously circumventing their intent. For example, recently the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "issue advertising" on television, radio, etc. was not subject to the same restrictions that election campaign advertising was. But they apparently defined election campaign ads as those that specifically urged people to vote for a particular candidate by saying something like "Vote for...". Almost immediately groups started putting together ads that simply point out that candidates they opposed were basically on the wrong side of certain important issues. They discuss the issues superficially and then paint the candidate they oppose as being unreasonable or being in the debt of special interest groups, in regard to this issue. But because these ads do not ask you to vote for a particular person, they supposedly meet the verbal standard the Supreme Court has spelled out, though they seem to common sense to be aimed directly at getting someone else elected. In other cases, innocent-seeming tax deductions, for a particular, reasonable type of expense situation, suddenly become vehicles for legally avoiding taxes that legislators never intended or expected to fit the category they created.

Unfortunately it is difficult to make policies in a formal or algorithmic way that are precise enough to achieve what is desirable, and only what is desirable, without being too difficult to administrate. Yet the American legal system is geared to formalism, rather than to discretion and judgment, except perhaps in case law decisions where judges and courts make finer distinctions if they have the latitude and the desire to doso. It was, and is, feared that discretion leads to unfairness and loss of explicit legal protections, because it is thought that if crimes are not precisely described in advance, people could be prosecuted at the whim of others for acts they had no reason to believe were wrong. The fact that precise wording of laws in a formal system leads to loopholes and unintended, often unreasonable or even unconscionable, consequences, seems to many people (though not to me(1)) to be a price worth paying for preventing such prosecutorial abuses.

Sometimes ironically, too broad policies even have an opposite effect of their intentions, as when automatic penalties seem too harsh for the conditions of a particular crime for a jury to be willing to convict a defendant they think guilty, but not deserving of the punishment automatically attached to a guilty verdict. For example, sometimes juries will not convict a person they think guilty of a relatively minor offense if it turns out to be his third relevant crime in a "three-strikes-and-you're-out" state that gives automatic life terms for third convictions. Or a jury might not want to find a man guilty of rape if the circumstances are mitigating, but not excusing (e.g., the girl was an enthusiastic participant for much of the experience but changed her mind at the last moment) but the only penalty for what the jury thinks is a wrong act on the man's part is an automatic incommensurately severe punishment, as if he had simply suddenly attacked and forcibly violated someone who had nothing to do with him or who had been minding her own business. Rape prosecutions might be better served if rape was an offense charged "in degrees" as homicides are.

Similarly, and Worse,
With Simplistic Moral Policies
The reason overly broad moral policies are worse than overly broad legal ones is that morality is not a formal system -- what is moral does not depend on how "rules" are stated. And it is a mistake, sometimes a purposeful one, to think it is. A simple example is when a young boy kicks his little brother or sister meanly after his parents have just told him to "keep your hands off your brother; stop hitting him!" and protests that he wasn't "hitting" and he didn't put his "hands" on him/her, and claims therefore to be innocent and blameless.

Further, there are no administrative needs nor formal "rules of evidence" requirements to satisfy with regard to morality. Moreover, mistaken precedents need not set permanent standards upon their reconsideration. And there is ample opportunity to think about fine distinctions that may be crucial. There is often no external need for simplistic rules, particularly rules that don't have explanatory justifications given with them.

Extreme Simplistic Positions
Unfortunately social moralizing, at least in the United States, tends to become polarized into all-or-nothing positions, particularly in the news media, or sometimes because of news media treatment of issues. The stating of reasonable, complex, sustained positions and distinctions, especially during a live interview, is normally not a very "telegenic" exercise or one that live tv lends itself to doing well. And when someone tries to do it on tv, particularly with an impatient host or opponent, they tend to appear vague and indecisive or to be splitting hairs and over-intellectualizing an issue. The only way most of the news media seems able to handle, or shows interest in trying to handle, complexity in issues is to have different people each contribute some small portion, particularly if they are disagreeing with each other, rather than to have one or two people give a more systematic explanation. Further, it tends to be politicians or high-level administrators who are interviewed, rather than people who actually think about and write about the details of various policies and positions. That almost always leads to overgeneralized, fairly shallow, positions - expressed sometimes unfortunately at best in rhetorically memorable ways. There are some exceptions to this. Some prepared speeches, such as those of Churchill, FDR, Martin Luther King, and John Kennedy on issues that were as much about morality as they were about politics and government, are wonderful displays of moral reasoning coming across well in the media. Many important historical speeches given before the advent of radio and television could probably also come across well in those media if given with a decent delivery. But such compelling speeches and manners of delivery are rare.
A Simplistic Position Taken About the
Relationship Between Morality and Religion -
A Position Which Affects Moral Reasoning for the Worse
The particular simplistic, polarizing, broad principle I am concerned about is the current view, popular in many circles (in America at least), that it is the straying from religion that causes so much immorality, incivility, and indecency that is occurring so visibly in the United States -- that it is the lack of religious values, particularly Bible-based values which is causing the lack of moral values, and that a return to Biblical religious values will solve this problem, or is what is necessary to begin to solve this problem.

I understand the rationale for this view, which is that (1) supposedly if everyone practiced certain religions faithfully they would probably not do many of the kinds of things found so objectionable in society today; or at least (2) if certain religious principles guided law and regulatory practices, then many objectionable practices would not be tolerated and as openly practiced and modeled as they are today.

And I am sympathetic about the need to solve what I think are very real problems -- the lack of moral and civil standards, the lack of moral and civil education, and the lack of public consensus about these things.

But I think this particular suggested solution is mistaken because religion and morality are not the same things, as I will try to show below. But moreover, if you equate them in peoples' minds, then simplistic reasoning takes over in the way it has done recently whereby some people either try to adopt religious orthodoxy (or in some cases adopt a misguided zeal in the name of religion) or give up many or all moral principles just because they are (also) part of some religion which they think is false. If you try to make the truth of any moral principles dependent on the truth of all the other ones, or all the other beliefs, in a given "system", so that the belief in any of them rises or falls with any of the others, you end up with "all-or-nothing" disputes about morality, rather than with reasonable disputes about particular moral principles which may or may not be flawed.(2)

It is not helpful for a society to alternate between total acceptance and total rejection of systems which are a mixture of good and bad, truth and error. The more productive course would be to try to distinguish what is good and what is true from what is not, and to eliminate the latter while preserving the former. To do this with regard to morality, it is unnecessary for us all to become adherents of the same religion, or of any religion; and it is unnecessary to reject all principles espoused by a religious group just because one might reject some of their (other) religious pronouncements.

The following is why I think morality and religion are not necessarily the same thing, even when religious views are also morally correct ones:

1) Many/most people are capable of a higher moral awareness than what particular religions might prescribe - that is often how new religions or new denominations (or new congregations) within a religion form. When a group of sufficiently active members of a given religion or congregation feels, as a matter of conscience, that their religion or their religious leaders have taken a wrong turn and are prescribing and proscribing the wrong things, they will leave that group and start a new religious group with a different set of pronouncements. In these cases, morality takes precedence over religion, not vice versa.

2) Many of the interpretations of sacred commandments in various religions are done by people who obviously give a philosophical justification for their interpretation. Much of the Talmud, for example, which gives the Judaic interpretation of the Old Testament (and is many, many times more voluminous) brings to bear on the Old Testament laws many social, ethical and philosophical ideas and experiences that are not directly expressed in the Bible. Again, the scholars who interpret the Bible often do so from a standpoint of moral philosophy, not from merely asking God to express His clarifications in a more direct and precise manner.

3) Apart from the most orthodox believers in at least Judaism and Christianity, people tend to pick and choose the laws and rules from their religions which they think they "really are supposed to" follow.(3) They do not consider themselves immoral because they do not obey all the laws; and they are not usually considered immoral by their friends and neighbors, or often, even their clergymen.

4) Moral problems arise in life that are not specifically addressed in religions; and they require a philosophical answer or a philosophical interpretation of some religious passage alleged to be most relevant.

5) The fact that some laws in a given country may also be commandments of a religion does not mean that the laws are therefore religious laws. Similarly, just because a moral principle might also be held important by a religion, that does not mean the principle is basically or only a religious principle. That a community would have laws against theft (which is also one of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament) does not mean it is a religious community.

6) It is not clear to me that one is acting from a moral sense, or is "being" moral, when one obeys a rule or follows a principle out of fear of punishment, rather than because one understands it is the right thing to do. Therefore it is not clear that religious values based on fear of eternal damnation, alienation from God, or any other sort of spiritual or physical punishment are really moral values, even if the "rules" or principles are the same as moral ones.

7) Most people who try to do the right thing don't do so out of fear of punishment, but because we have a sense of right and wrong separate from the punishment aspect. Civilized people don't refrain from murder, rape, burglary, etc. just because it is against the law. Even if there were no police force, most people would not commit these acts because they know them to be wrong, not because they fear being caught and punished.

8) When one does something out of an understanding it is right, one is also not doing it for a reward, nor in order to impress or please God, even though doing right may result in pleasing God. When you drive slowly through a residential neighborhood where children are playing, and you put on your brakes in order not to run over a child who runs out into the street in front of your car, you are not doing that in order to please either God or the child's mother, even though both may actually be pleased. You are doing it to save the child. You are doing it for him/her, not for the mother or God or yourself. God's pleasure, or the mother's gratitude has nothing to do with making your action right.

9) There are many non-religious people who behave quite decently and who have good moral values, often many of the same moral values of their religious neighbors. Fear of God, or of punishment from God, is not necessary for behaving morally or for having good values.

10) Historically, religious people, individually or as a group, do not seem immune from perpetrating terrible acts. Religious convictions are no vaccination against committing evil.

There can be morality, decency, and civility without their being part of religion and without their being based on authority. It is time that we recognized that; and it is time we discussed what specific sorts of things are right, and when, and why, instead of arguing about whether some whole system of prescribed behavior and belief needs to be imposed. None of this can be accomplished if we are merely going to maintain a search for simplistic solutions to complex issues and simplistic policies for complex practices.

Rick Garlikov (  

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.

1. I would be interested in seeing some experimentation with a different legal philosophy - one where laws and other sorts of statements are meant to serve more as guidelines against doing things that are arguably wrong, than as being the sole determiner of what is wrong. The idea would be that if in court you could show that someone was doing something wrong, they would have to stop doing it; and if it could be shown that they ought to have known better in the first place, there might be additional penalties assessed. In order to prevent frivolous cases from filling the courts, bringing frivolous suits would itself be a wrong that could be penalized under this system. As would be police or governmental brutality or prosecutorial/persecuting excesses. There could be general principles of civilized behavior also made public that would serve as general guides. Complaints might not go directly to a court, but to some sort of screening panel or arbitration panel to begin with to make sure there was some basic level of merit and/or to try to correct the situation in whichever direction seemed best and most feasible. The essential idea is to end up with a system more in line with common sense and moral reasoning, so that people cannot knowingly mistreat others by hiding behind nuances, mistakes, unintended implications, or unaddressed issues in the law that allow what is wrong. (Return to text.)

2. Part of the social upheaval about the Viet Nam War was the battle over whether those who protested the war were patriotic or not - the "America: Love It or Leave It" syndrome. Protest of particular laws is not a protest against a whole system of laws; and civil disobedience or defiance is not necessarily a sign of civic disregard nor a call to revolution.

A similar kind of simplistic reasoning applies to the view that a person's total character rises or falls with whether s/he lives by all, or certain, alleged virtues or ideals or not. The particular current application of this view is that if public officials have secrets we might not publicly condone about their private lives, and/or moreover if they lie about these things in order to conceal them, then they cannot be trusted in any matter, whether public or private. The courtroom tactic that relies on this view is the attempt to discredit a witness in some relatively minor, or logically irrelevant, part of his testimony or character in order to cast doubt on the part of his testimony most relevant to the issue before the court. While it may be the case that some people are basically unscrupulous and/or self-centered, it does not follow, I don't believe, that if someone holds some different values from you (or if they choose a different priority of values when two or more values conflict in a given situation), that it means s/he holds all different values from you and cannot be trusted to live by any of them.

One of my problems with Bennett's The Book of Virtues is that not all of what are claimed to be virtues always are virtues. Loyalty can be inappropriately blind; truthfulness can be inappropriately brutal or can give information to people who don't deserve to have it (such as to the enemy in wartime), or perhaps to a competitor in business. Plus, there can be situations where virtues conflict, and one cannot be true to both, such as when honesty and loyalty are brought into conflict in being asked to testify against a friend or colleague. So to say that one must have all of a given set of (alleged) virtues in order to be considered to be a decent person, is, I think, simplistic and unreasonable, and it sets a virtually impossible standard. This sort of simplistic view also, I suspect, leads to a great deal of "glass ceiling" job discrimination where employers are reluctant to promote people who are not like them in ways personally important to them, and who then mistakenly see those differences as being signs of job-performance inadequacies as well. (Return to text.)

3. The following verses of the Bible are ones, for example, that most Christians would not follow, nor think right or necessary to follow. Similarly with Jews in regard to the included Old Testament laws.

Colossians 2:16 (said to justify ignoring most of the laws given by God in the Old Testament):

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or new moon or sabbath.

[But what about the following laws that have nothing to do with food, drink, or holy days?]

Deut. 22:11 "You shall not wear a mingled stuff, wool and linen together."

22:5 "A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man...."

Deut. 21:18ff: "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city,....'he will not obey our voice....' Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones."

[And if one throws out these words from Deuteronomy, then why not also the commandments from Deuteronomy 5 about not killing, stealing, etc.?]

And how can the next passage be reconciled with the two following it:

Colossians 3:5-6:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.

Colossians: 2:13-14
And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this He set aside, nailing it to the cross.

Colossians 3:12-13
Put on then...compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

The following are miscellaneous passages from the New Testament that many conscientious Christians would not countenance. (This is not meant to single out or pick on Christians; many Jews do not follow many of the laws of the Old Testament, and think it is morally unnecessary to do so, as with the above three laws from Deuteronomy. I include the following verses mainly because this particular section was written originally for a group composed mainly of Christians who already were aware they didn't keep Old Testament laws and didn't think they needed to, but who thought they kept New Testament laws), and because Jews who don't keep all the Old Testament laws or who don't even know what they all are, usually realize they are picking and choosing to keep just the laws they think make sense to them. They think that is justified, but, again, their justification is not itself a religious one; it is a philosophical one.

Colossians 3:18
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Colossians 3:20
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. [What about abusive parents?]

1 Timothy 2:11-12
Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.

1 Timothy 2:11-12
Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed.

If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree..., he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth....

2 Colossians:8
See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy....

[Do the above two simply mean "never think for yourself"? And is this good advice? Be careful, for no matter how you answer this, you may be doing philosophy!]

1 Timothy 6:17ff
...the rich...are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed. [Why are good deeds necessary if grace is justified simply through faith?!]

1 Corinthians 14:34ff
...women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Ephesians 5:22ff
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church....let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. (Return to text.)

Reset June 21, 2000