Show me evidence that laws alter the normative landscape of society.
April 29, 2009 8:22 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for evidence / examples to support the concept that laws affect the moral / cultural landscape of society.

I am studying the morality of euthanasia at the moment, and am investigating the concept that when principals are enshrined in law, they can, over time, alter the values / socially accepted norms of the society the law applies to. Specifically, the legalization of active voluntary euthanasia could change the role / perception of death in society in a detrimental manner.

I am looking for anything to do with the role laws play in the development of the moral / cultural landscape of society. Although my question is not necessarily specific to euthanasia, it would definitely be extra useful if you have euthanasia specific suggestions.

I am looking for both philosophical thought experiments or discussions as well as possibly empirical data, if it exists. Thanks in advance for your help hivemind.
posted by atmosphere to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you only looking for examples in modern democracies, where laws are passed based on votes by representatives of the country? Or, examples from old, when kings passed laws (such as the Pharohs choosing religion and expression of religious devotion to specific gods)?
posted by Houstonian at 8:27 PM on April 29, 2009

Woman's suffrage, civil rights laws, gay marriage.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:31 PM on April 29, 2009

"In Sweden, the first country to ban all physical punishment of children in 1979, the percentage of adults who hold positive attitudes toward spanking has declined from over 50 percent in the 1960s to 10 percent in 2000. In a 1994-1995 survey, among respondents who were 18 to 34 years old (and thus were children when the ban went into effect) and respondents who were currently 13- to 15-year-old children (born after the 1979 ban), only 6 percent approved of the use of mild forms of physical punishment. Use of physical punishment has also declined dramatically; whereas 51 percent of all preschool children had experienced physical punishment in 1980, only 8 percent had by 2000."

page 24 of this document from this FPP
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:33 PM on April 29, 2009

Support for the death penalty wanes when it is abolished. Slavery's popularity has declined notably since the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment...
posted by ewiar at 8:39 PM on April 29, 2009

Try Han Fei and the Legalist School of philosophy in ancient China.
posted by ornate insect at 8:42 PM on April 29, 2009

Response by poster: Houstonian: Sorry, I probably should have specified that this is 'contemporary ethical issues' and as such I am talking about modern democracies and ethical principals from the last fifty years or so. Thanks for bringing it up!

Pater Aletheias: Thank you, that is the sort of stuff I am looking for.
posted by atmosphere at 8:47 PM on April 29, 2009

The relationship is reciprocal. Focus on two-way influence, society on the law and vise-versa.

Abortion is the example you are looking for. I disagree with your position, but if you hold legalization of abortion bad (I personally do not), then you can chart the rise in abortions after Roe v. Wade.

Personally, I suspect that the number of people taking the choice of active euthanasia will be low. Suicide can not be deterred by the law. Assisted suicide is another matter.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:55 PM on April 29, 2009

Response by poster: Ironmouth: I don't necessarily think that euthanasia should not be legalized, I am simply exploring all sides of the argument. Some believe that when a law enshrines the principal that it is morally permissible for individuals to decide when their life is or isn't worth living, society's perception of the value of human life will change. I agree that not many would choose active voluntary euthanasia and that suicide cannot be deterred by the law. There is the possibility, at least from a philosophical perspective, that it could encourage or atleast desensitize social stigma against it. I guess I should have been clearer that it was this philosophical argument that I was hoping to evaluate with the help of the suggestions in this thread.

And for the record I am for the legalization of abortion, but I do think that it at least in part 'fixes the problem, not the cause of the problem'. Adequite sex ed is sometimes overlooked. Having said that, I don't really know much about abortion on that level. Thanks for the input so far everyone, there is some really interesting stuff here!
posted by atmosphere at 9:52 PM on April 29, 2009

As a followup to Ironmouth's comment: If you control for various factors (access to contraception, economics, etc), abortion rates are actually about the same around the world whether it is illegal or not, so you might not want to use that as an example.

The paper on which the NY Times article is based: Sedgh G, Henshaw S, Singh S, Åhman E, Shah IH. Induced abortion: rates and trends worldwide. Lancet 2007; 370: 1338–45.

As for euthanasia: Here's some polling data for California that covers a scattering of years from 1979-2005. The legal status of euthanasia did not change in California during that time, though it did in neighboring Oregon in 1997.

Here's some nationwide data from 1982-Dec 2001. It seems to trend generally towards favoring legalization.

Here's a (wiki-based, probably incomplete) list of state ballot initiatives dealing with assisted suicide. You'll definitely want to do some fact checking on these.

I couldn't find any polling data specific to Oregon, which is unfortunate.
posted by jedicus at 10:06 PM on April 29, 2009

Not much to do with euthanasia, but I'm sure there's a rich seam to be found in drug and alcohol laws.
posted by rhymer at 5:21 AM on April 30, 2009

An extended discussion of the relationship between law and social morality can be found here.
posted by valkyryn at 5:41 AM on April 30, 2009

Drunk driving laws changed public opinion on drunk driving.
posted by Xalf at 8:09 AM on April 30, 2009

-Someone asked on MeFi how to behave towards teens sitting in the front of a train. Turns out the person was annoyed because s/he was aware that there was an ordinance forbidding youths from sitting in those seats. Had no law existed (or had the person not been aware of it) there would have been no reason for the negative thoughts towards the youths.

-Members of the dominant cultural group in some communities dislike the style of sagged pants, (which started among African American male youths). Some communities have tried to outlaw this expression of culture through legislation.

-Miscegination, suffrage, gay rights- all of these laws attempt to legislate behaviors- and effectively changed attitudes towards entire populations of human beings.

-Laws about school prayer are an effort to manage the dominance of Judeo Christian ideals in this nation.
posted by Piscean at 6:46 PM on April 30, 2009

Societal views on on Drug use have, I am sure, moved in relationship to the laws being put on the books and the related enforcement to ban them. I mean, think about it, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes being a cocaine and morphine user, not a problem in the Victorian Era, but after 100 years of prohibitive drug laws we view that as unethical or at least unsavory behavior, no matter the context.

Now, in the case of Drug Laws we are talking about the elimination of previously available rights, so the social stigma is exacerbated because the "drug culture" that develops is inherently deprived of many of the otherwise lawful members. Thus, the "drug culture" becomes synonymous with "criminal culture" and eventually "immoral behavior". In your case you are allowing previously denied rights back into the sphere of legitimate behavior, so the dynamics would be different I expect.

That line of reasoning may not be sufficiently "philosophical" for you, more of a practical effect, but I am sure there are some pro-drug philosophers who have given more thought to the matter, I am just giving you an avenue of possible attack.

But I totally disagree with your thesis. The premise that all life is inherently valuable still does not answer the question of how to adjudicate claims of conflicting values. What happens when promoting the value "life" causes reductions in the values of "dignity", "self determination", "privacy" and "happiness" (since being forced to die of cancer involved immense levels of suffering and pain), not to mention the practical costs to society? Moreover, policies that mandate preservation of life despite the individual's reasonable desire for death in the face of verifiable costs, both ethical and practical, leads to a degradation of the value "life" itself.

There is nothing valuable about the biological process of life on a cellar level (well in cases of bio-diversity maybe, but we are talking about Human life, a species that is not in danger of going extinct, and ostensibly this is not some "special" human that holds the cure to cancer or some magical genome in their DNA...) But when we put the power in the hands of doctors to decide what is alive and dead, and reduce death decisions to clinical decisions about weather a person still has some arbitrary level of brain or heart activity, we strip away all the value that accrues from the experience of life and instead focus, to our detriment, on the narrow and not intrinsically valuable ground of simple-biological life. We eliminate discussion about competing value claims.

While you might argue that allowing euthanasia sets us down the slippery slope of a detrimental devaluation of life, I would argue that in the status quo where reasonable voluntary euthanasia is denied to rational actors we are in fact entrenching the power of the state over individual liberty and facing equal risk of going down the slippery slope of valuing "medical life" in biological metrics over "human values" like happiness, reduction of suffering, dignity and self determination.

In this case, while passage of legislation that allows for individuals to voluntarily choose euthanasia might cause social changes in ethical norms, those changes will not necessarily lead to "detrimental" ethical outcomes of people devaluing "life" in the absolute sense. If the role or perception of life/death were to shift it would probably occur as a re-evaluation of the "life" value in context with competing values such as "self determination/liberty", "compassion" and "happiness". It is not a simple "life goes down so death must go up" relationship, but more that other equally "good" values are entrenched and re-affirmed as co-equal with the value of life.

Moreover, I think you underestimate human virture if you think such core values as "life" and "happiness" will be thrown out simply because people are given more choices and rights. It is when people are presented with false choices, or no choices, that fundamental ethical lapses occur (indeed it is your presumable position that "all human life is intrinsically good" that motivated such unethical moral shifts as the acceptance of torture because "it saves life"... A prime example of how the misguided focus on one value, without considering it's relationship to other competing values, is bad)

Clearly, this is all premised on the legislation being well written in good faith, but assuming otherwise would be setting up a straw man argument. Badly written legislation can screw up even the most positive and universally accepted moral values.

Moreover self directed and voluntary euthanasia legislation would broaden peoples view of the nature of life, allow them to see life as more than just a simple EKG scan or brain activity but instead see it as part of the "life/death" cycle and come to a more full and nuanced evaluation of the "life" value. This would in turn cause them to lead a (presumably) more fulfilling and fruitful life.

Food for thought. And apologies if I took liberties or mis-characterized your position. Hopefully understanding and preemption of opposing viewpoints will help your project.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 10:47 PM on April 30, 2009

Edit - I mis-stated when I said you position must be ""all human life is intrinsically good"--that is fine and good. I should have said the problematic position to take is that "the value of human life (or perhaps all innocent human life) and living is primary to all other value claims". That absolute position is what leads to torture etc as I described.

Sorry for the imprecision, I was writing fast.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 11:11 AM on May 1, 2009

« Older Is it 20% or PMI or nothing for me?   |   How do I set up a computer to automatically copy... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.