Saturday, February 24, 2007

In the Montana Senate, one right-to-life bill passes, one fails

No, not those kind of right-to-life bills.

In one action, the Senate passed a bill that would abolish the death penalty. We have discussed the death penalty before at length.

Perhaps the most politically interesting sidenote of the death penalty discussion was Sen. Jesse Laslovich's "I don't know why I'm doing this" vote in committee in support of the death penalty. What it pointed out to Montana Headlines is a matter similar to the gun issue that faces Democrats who want a political future in a conservative state.

One thinks of how then Gov. Bill Clinton rushed back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a brain-damaged black man during the 1992 presidential election -- no Republican would feel the need to do that in order to prove he was tough on crime.

Likewise, Sens. Shockley and Perry could advocate eliminating the death penalty in the Montana Sen. Judiciary Committee without worry that they would be thought soft on crime.

Laslovich, however, has the entire liberal image to avoid, and yet doubtless is seeing on the national stage the cost of flipping positions. Laslovich is young, and his inner conflict is probably genuine -- but it is interesting to note that the combination of his chosen words and his vote allow him the freedom to shift in either direction on this issue in the future if he wants to.

In another action, the House reversed itself on a measure it had previously passed by a 57-43 margin allowing greater leeway for citizens to defend themselves.

This was a key right-to-life measure, since it allows Montanans to defend their lives and the lives of family members with less fear of going to jail for their troubles. It is disappointing that the House was unable to find language that would accomplish the goals of the bill while addressing concerns of law enforcement officers. One hopes that this is a measure that will come up again next session, crafted in such a way as to pass.

While the headline of this post uses "rights" terminology, each of these bills illustrate the fundamental meaninglessness of the "rights" vocabulary that is our inheritance from the Enlightenment. It is all well and good to say that our Creator has endowed us with the inalienable right to liberty -- but try telling that to a modern African girl sold into Muslim slavery today. Her "inalienable right to liberty" only has meaning insofar as someone -- a government, a family member, a kind stranger -- does something to preserve her liberty or give it back to her.

The language of "rights" can be thought of as part of the Enlightenment project of creating a society that is good without being grounded in specifically Christian religious beliefs. The more radical aspects of this project of secularization has largely failed.

As a result, modern historians are now reinterpreting its history as the "creation of a secular space" within a religious society, rather than as a "transfer of authority" from religiously grounded institutions to secular institutions. This project of reinterpretation was, incidentally, discussed at length in the lecture by W. Clark Gilpin at Rocky Mountain College a week or so ago.

What we live with, as a practical matter, are not rights, but moral choices: moral choices by us and other individuals and moral choices by governments and other institutions with powers of coercion.

In the first bill mentioned above, an individual has made a moral choice to commit a heinous murder -- and a government makes a moral choice whether, in turn, to deprive him of his own life or not. Neither his victim nor he have a "right to life" -- they each just have a life, one which is held in someone else's hands.

In the second bill, we are dealing with a situation in which a man exercises the moral choice to defend his life and his family's lives. But that "right" to preserve his life only has meaning insofar as the government exercises the moral choice not to punish him for it by putting him in jail.

Now, to anyone with a sense of tradition grounded in Christian belief -- what Edmund Burke called the "prescriptions and prejudices" of a people -- the moral choices that should be made are obvious:

The African girl shouldn't be enslaved, and should be freed if she is; the murderer shouldn't murder; the man should defend his life and the lives of his family -- even if it means killing anther human being; the state may, but does not have to, justly deprive the murderer of his own life as punishment for taking another's life.

But again, these are really moral prescriptions (or commandments, as they were called in the Sinai desert) -- not "rights." Governments, like individuals are free to ignore those moral prescriptions.

Which is a major reason that the moral underpinnings of our elected officials matter so much.

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