Public morality is often referred to as moral and ethical standards that are enforced in a society, by the law, the police, or social pressure, and applied to public life, to the content of the media and to conduct in public places. Public morality usually involves the regulation of sexual matters, which include prostitution and homosexuality, but it also addresses the issues of nudity, pornography, the acceptability of cohabitation before marriage, and the protection of children (Wikpedia, 2006).
It has been suggested by some that there is a growing occurrence of over criminalization in the United States, that our police, prosecutorial, and judicial time, personnel and resources are being preoccupied with an overload in attempts to regulate public morality. The question has been asked as to just how far our government-sanctioned view of morality should intrude into the private lives of its citizens.
If we think about history and what is taking place and has taken place not only in the United States but in other countries as well, it is easy to determine that there is not a phenomenon of over criminalization in this country and that, in fact, the exact opposite may be occurring. Government officials both write and enforce the laws of our society. As a consequence government, and those who comprise it, not only intones their own set their own morals and ethics but they are put into the position of judging those of others.
But it is fair to ask whether or not true justice is inherent in this process. To address that question, it is first important to realize that justice is more than just law; justice is the product of morals and ethics (Kropotkin, 1923). Three philosophical outlines in particular can be used to demonstrate this correlation. Plato provides perhaps the most enlightening view of the concept of justice. Indeed, his writings serve as the basis for many of the later philosophers which would follow in his footsteps (Dantzig, 1955).
In The Republic he gives us the basis of the existence of our modern-day government and the role of that government in ensuring justice. Through his wide-ranging discussion of the ideas of ethics and morality, however, we are able to establish that government is a man-made organization which enforces the desires of the majority, or at least the most influential, for the most part. Under this philosophical framework, therefore, government might not actually ensure justice but only the desires and wishes of the most powerful segment of our society.
We can use either ancient or contemporary examples as to the successes and failures of government in providing justice. Given the various scandals and situations which have evolved over the history of the United States alone, the need for our governmental structure cannot be debated. It is our government which determines our actions and reactions. Nor is it debatable, however, that governmental structure, despite all of its attention to the concepts of ethics and morality, sometimes fails.
There are numerous instances of such failures of course but there are also many instances of success. Government, therefore, is an integral if not perfect component of ensuring justice for our actions and deeds. John Stewart Mill and Immanuel Kant offer additional guidance on the concept of justice. Although seemingly contradictory, both Kants famous categorical imperative of reason and Mills concept of utilitarianism provide considerable insight to the inherent strengths and weaknesses of our concept of justice.
While Kant approaches ethics from the standpoint that appropriate behavior is the result of social determination and that some thing such as right and wrong are simply principles which are inherent in human nature, Mill holds that terms such as good and right are defined on the basis of which behavior provides the greatest benefit to the largest number of people. Kant proposes instead that there is a categorical imperative in reason. All three of these philosophic views are important in understanding the role of the U. S. government in contemporary times.
They prompt us to ask whether moral issues are an appropriate venue for governmental intervention. Should our government intrude on our personal behavior when that behavior does not compromise the welfare of others? The answer is that the sum total of our behavior does indeed impact others. That is true even when we are considering such highly controversial issues as sexual choice and reproductive rights. The problem with our government today is that it is backing off of the moral judgments around which it once revolved. It is not that our government is becoming more intrusive from a moral perspective.
Indeed it is becoming less intrusive. If we look to other countries for guidance in regard to the appropriate role of the government in morality we can gain a better perspective of what is wrong with our own system. Japan, for example, is one of the most densely populated nations on the earth yet their crime rate is phenomenally low in comparison to other equally developed countries (Wertheimer and Adams, 1994). In fact, although Japan’s population density is approximately thirty times the density which exists in the United States, Japan maintains one of the earth’s lowest crime rates (Wertheimer and Adams, 1994).
Its homicides are less than one-fifth of the homicides which occur in the U. S. , U. S. rapes are twenty-two times the number of rapes in Japan, and armed robberies in the U. S. are 114 times that of Japan (Wertheimer and Adams, 1994). Since ancient times the Japanese criminal justice system has placed an emphasis on traditional morality which simply has not been a component of the American system during any point in our history (Cooke, 1991). Although no penal codes existed during earlier Japanese history, there was enforcement of the moral code (Cooke, 1991).
That same enforcement continues today both as a result of specific governmental intervention but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a result of societal concentration on acceptable moral behavior. In the U. S. , in comparison, we have backed off this concentration. We prefer to avoid the outcry of the few who are in favor of such moral transgressions as prostitution, gambling, and pornography at the risk of the majority. While we may consider such activities as personal choice, in reality, those choices affect not just the individual making the choice but society as a whole.
References Cooke, Melinda W. (1991, Jan 1). Japan: Chapter 7E. The Criminal Justice System. Countries of the World. Dantzig, Tobias. (1955). The Bequest of the Greeks. Charles Scribner and Sons, New York. Kropotkin, P. (1923). Ethics, Origin and Development. New York: The Dial Press. Wertheimer, Linda and Noah Adams. (1994, Aug 18). Japanese and American Crime and Culture Compared. All Things Considered (NPR). Wikipedia. (2006). Definition of Public Morality. Retrieved April 22, 2006, from: http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/publicmorality.
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