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Moral Policing is the Last Thing A Moral Society Needs

In many societies, but especially those home to strong Muslim or Judeo-Christian religious cultures, there is a call from a vocal minority for moral policing. But is this necessary to enforce moral behaviour? Absolutely not.

Written by johnleemk on 6:59:01 am Mar 2, 2007.

I recently read an interesting defence of moral policing. The basic premise, as usual for Malaysians, focused on the importance of Islam and its supposed exhortations for Muslims to keep immorality in check. (Never mind that legally we are a secular state, and that the government's pronunciations that we are an Islamic state are mere puffs.)

The real relevant thrust of the argument, I thought, came from the point that it cannot be a bad thing to improve the morals of a society through "non-punitive" social sanctions. This, I think, is not really a well-thought-out argument.

First, it is helpful to define what "moral policing" is. Does it entail entering people's homes to prevent immoral behaviour, or does it entail sanctioning immoral behaviour in public?

Proponents of moral policing always define moral policing as the latter, but I cannot think of a single instance of what they would call "moral policing" that confined itself to behaviour in public. In the end, the slippery slope always takes the moral police beyond the threshold of the home.

Therefore, it is worth examining both the "in theory" and "in fact" facets of moral policing. Let us see how moral policing would work in theory.

From what I understand, to police anything, you first need a well-defined set of laws. An obvious source would be a religious text — in Malaysia's case, this would be the Quran, but in Western countries, this would likely be the Bible.

The problem, however, is that almost all religious texts include prohibitions on immoral behaviour that would normally be carried out in private. Take, for example, the usual injunctions against fornication or homosexuality that can be found in most Judeo-Christian and Muslim texts. Extremely few people do this in public, so how can we justify enforcing these laws?

In such a case, we then have to pick and choose what to enforce, and the end result is that we cannot agree on what merits enforcement. After all, what would be inappropriate contact between members of the opposite sex? Does this include holding hands, or just things like kissing?

In the first place, if someone is behaving immorally in public, they should already be in trouble under the existing criminal laws. Indecent behaviour, such as public nudity, or public sexual intercourse, just to name two examples, is banned by almost every civilised country in the world. (A few, mainly European countries, do permit some amount of public nudity, though.)

Creating a moral police which would supposedly enforce "social sanctions" seems rather pointless in such a case. Some might suggest that the moral police would exist to limit things like extremely romantic/sexual/indecent behaviour, but this seems to be a cop out to me.

If society truly believes this behaviour is unacceptable, it wouldn't be a problem criminalising it under the secular law. If one has to form a new enforcement body simply to enforce these additional moral laws, it's suggestive that these moral laws haven't found favour with society at large, and thus what we have is a minority attempting to impose its will on the majority.

To make matters worse, when moral policing is actually implemented, they inevitably slide down the slippery slope into a morass of filth and voyeurism. Malaysia alone has more than enough examples of such cases — the married Christian American couple who were nailed by the moral police for supposedly being an unmarried Muslim couple in close proximity.

There still has not been a good case presented for moral policing. True, religious texts such as the Quran may refer to enjoining immoral behaviour, but it is one thing for people to frown on and express displeasure with a particular act. It is another thing for them to become moral vigilantes and berate people while pretending they have the long arm of the real law behind them.

In the first place, a moral society would not need moral policing to keep its immoral people in check. A moral society would simply express its disapproval of such behaviour in an informal manner, and shame the offenders into ending the abhorrent actions. If this did not work, the secular law could always be amended to prohibit unacceptable indecent acts. There is no need for a moral police.