Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Coffin on Morality and Legislation

William Sloane Coffin has this to say on p. 56 of Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004): "We cannot legislate morality, only the conditions conducive to morality."

To combine three serious mistakes in one short sentence is quite a trick. First, since we do legislate morality, it follows that we can. Second, if Coffin is saying that we ought not legislate morality, then he is saying that we ought not have laws, since all laws legislate morality as I argued a few posts ago. Third, it is false that we can legislate the conditions conducive to morality. Among the conditions of morality (moral behavior) are freedom of the will and knowledge of right and wrong and their difference. Obviously these things fall outside of the scope of legislation. What Coffin wants to say is that we can only legislate certain conditions external to the agent, which, if they were to obtain, would lead to morally correct behavior. Well, nothing can lead to, in the sense of determine, morally correct behavior since free will is involved; but I grant that if everyone had a well-paying job that would reduce the incidence of crime. Unfortunately, the government cannot legislate jobs into existence.

In the same paragraph, we read this amazing sentence: "Economics are [sic] not a science; they [sic] are only politics in disguise." Is this to say that economic phenomena (buying, selling, bartering, etc.)are really political phenomena? That is obviously false: there could be economic phenomena even if there were no state (polis). Is it to say that economics as the study of economic phenomena is really just political science? That too is plainly false. Perhaps Coffin is merely making the trivial point that economic pronouncements are liable to be influenced by political considerations. If that is what he means, he should say it instead of saying something idiotic.

I am sorry to have to report that his book is filled with similar nonsense.