Basic Category Mistake, Madame Minister: “Legal” Doesn’t Mean “Good”–It Just Means “Legal”

We don’t turn to our politicians for fine points of ethical reasoning. Politicians are supposed to be good at other things, such as finding ways for us to get along as best we can with each other and, as the makers of laws, to understand what laws are, and are for.

Ontario’s Minister of Education, however, continues to disgrace herself by utterly misunderstanding basic principles of her portfolio and profession. LifeSiteNews reports from an official transcript (and I have confirmed this with other sources) the following remarks of the minister at a press conference last week:

Minister Laurel Broten told a press conference at Queen’s Park that Catholic teaching on abortion is “misogyny.”

“We do not allow and we’re very clear with the passage of Bill 13 that Catholic teachings cannot be taught in our schools [including Roman Catholic schools] that violates human rights and which brings a lack of acceptance to participation in schools,” she said when asked if it’s okay for the [Roman Catholic] schools to encourage pro-life rallies.

Minister Broten here has made not one, but three, fundamental mistakes.

1. She may herself believe that anti-abortion moral teaching is misogynistic. Lots of prochoice people do, since they (in my view, simplistically) identify the general rights of women with the particular legal option of terminating their pregnancies whenever they like for whatever reason they like—which is the legal situation here in Canada. But for a minister of state to denounce in such sweeping terms the ethics of a large number of Ontarians, including the express teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and its Ontario schools—all of whom she is obliged to serve (that’s what “minister” means: “servant”)—is a category mistake, as we philosophers say. It’s the wrong kind of thing for a minister to say. Some might even suggest it is a form of political malpractice, a dereliction of ministerial duty, a betrayal of her high office.

2. She is quite wrong that Bill 13 (or any other bill that would be upheld by any court’s fair reading of the Canadian Constitution) requires Roman Catholic schools to teach a prochoice position in flat contradiction to their historic and contemporary doctrines. Bill 13 doesn’t say so, and it could not withstand constitutional testing if it did.

3. The most basic mistake she is making, however, is one that many, many people make in discussions of public policy and public life nowadays. The mistake is to equate what is (merely) legal with what is morally unobjectionable. If something is legal, so it is argued, it is beyond moral objection by anyone, and those who do object to what is legal are “imposing their views on others” or otherwise somehow acting inappropriately toward their neighbours.

Thus, those who object to abortion (such as, say, the Roman Catholic Church) are wrong, in the minister’s view, because they are vociferously opposing what is legal, and what is legal is beyond moral disapproval.

But that’s just ridiculous. Lying, for example, is legal—at least, it is in most circumstances. It’s illegal when it comes to contracts, yes, and when it comes to other special situations and relationships (such as oaths of office, which can be construed as contracts themselves, I suppose). But, mostly, lying is legal. Yet one would hardly then argue that lying is just as good as telling the truth. Politicians, for example, are known sometimes to lie and, when they are found to be lying, they sometimes are embarrassed, denounced, and even forced to leave office. They didn’t do anything illegal, necessarily, but most of us think that in the case of at least certain kinds and degrees of dishonesty, they have proven themselves unfit for office. Lying is legal, but it’s also (at least usually) wrong.

Swearing is legal, but we hardly condone someone spouting off profanely and at length in public spaces. Cheating at your friendly Tuesday night poker game is legal, but once you’re caught, you’re not likely to be asked back. Lots and lots of bad things are legal, because the law sets a minimum standard of behaviour about only certain matters. The law is not about what a society approves of as good, but only what a society feels it mustinsist upon and enforce by official sanction and punishment for transgression.

Abortion, therefore, is currently legal. But that does not mean—as both prochoice proponents and skittish (gutless? unprincipled?) ministers, premiers, and prime ministers seem devoutly to wish it to mean—it is above moral condemnation, let alone mere moral discussion. Indeed, a sane society, let alone a multicultural/intercultural society stocked with people of quite different views on quite a wide range of important subjects, cannot survive the insistence by state officers that everything that is legal must be taught to schoolchildren as being thereby good.

When it comes to sex, sexuality, reproduction, abortion, and the like, public education should include a discussion of what is, yes, legal and also what are the diverse views of Canadians on these various matters. Why? First, because our children are owed the truth, and second, because such truth ought to equip them to make better choices as responsible adults. A description of what is legal coupled with a description of what are the extant views of Canadians isn’t nearly enough, of course, to equip students for adequate moral reasoning. But it is at least part of what the state owes its young citizens.

That, plus the genuine right to think for themselves and not to be bullied by a government minister—of education, for pity’s sake—into a particular view of a subject on which responsible Canadians do differ and are free to differ.

Yes, the irony of a bullying minister of education using an anti-bullying law about sex to bully people whose views she doesn’t like about matters to do with sex is not hard to spot.

Again, we don’t expect politicians to be masters of subtle reasoning. But this minister seems to be so gripped with the righteousness of her views that she has left reason aside.

Such people are properly called fanatics. And they really ought not to be serving in such offices.


17 Responses to “Basic Category Mistake, Madame Minister: “Legal” Doesn’t Mean “Good”–It Just Means “Legal””

  1. contrararian

    “…because our children are owed the truth…”

    Category error. Who’s truth?

    “Religious truth” and “factual truth” are often not the same things.

        • Charles

          Christians are able to do this as man has a teleological purpose in their worldview. I am not aware of any in a secular worldview or how they arrive at one logically. A secularist can, therefore, can only simply point out facts, but nothing more. Unless of course they can demonstrate how they overcome Hume.

          • contrararian

            A persons pretence to “teleological purpose” does not make that purpose true. In other words, just because you say you hear the voice of god, it does not follow that you actually hear the voice of god.

            • Charles

              didn’t say it was true, only they allow for one. A secularist does not. So it is illogical to say there is no teleology, but Catholics ought [not] to teach their morals in their schools. Why the inconsistency?

            • contrararian

              Why should the Catholic Church use public tax money to push its morality over the law of the land? And why should it receive tax breaks and other benefits if it acts like a political body rather than a religious one?

            • Charles

              Don’t stop there. Why should the Canadian government punish murder?

            • contrararian

              Because murder is the law of the land.

              Rules we can agree on without religious affiliation become laws. Duh.

            • Charles

              Q: Why should the government punish murder? A: Cause the government punishes murder. *scratch head*

              And the Nazis agreed as a society to exterminate the Jews. What’s your point?

            • contrararian

              Now you are just being silly. Did the Jews agree to this persecution?

              If the Catholic Church wishes to lobby politically that’s fine: but it should not have special privileges to do so.

  2. John

    Guys, we’re getting off the point here. The “truth” I’m talking about here is truth we can all agree on: the current laws of Canada (what are they?) and the current diversity of opinions on the relevant subjects (what are they?). Those can be taught be anyone who knows the facts, legal and sociological.

    As to what students OUGHT to think about matters contested by large portions of the Canadian population, it’s not obvious to me that public school teachers are equipped or commissioned to teach a particular moral view. Those questions are for individuals, families, religious groups, philosophical cafés, and the like.

    • contrararian

      If public school teachers are not equipped to teach a particular moral view, why on earth should they push the Catholic Church’s moral view over the law of the land in Canada?

      • John

        In this case, contrarian, public funds go to Catholic schools in the province of Ontario as part of the original terms of Canadian Confederation in 1867. I don’t agree that this situation ought to continue, but that’s another topic for another time. For now, there is no actual contradiction: Catholic teachers teach Catholic doctrine in Catholic schools–that, again, in Ontario get public support.

        My point is that public school teachers generally are not (yet) equipped to engage in wide-ranging conversation about ethical differences and ethical formation, nor is it part of their mandate to teach particular values that are not a matter of consensus in the public they serve and represent as teachers.

        By all means they should teach values, just not their own values or the values of a particular section of the public, but the values we as Canadians have established as the cultural norms of our society. Beyond that, other institutions (families, churches, discussion groups, etc.) are the proper places for ethical discussion–including this weblog!

    • John

      Uh, okay, Brother Brandon, but it’s a really badly written piece, so you’ll understand if I stick with what I’ve written.

      The second half of the second point (!) is good, though, in pointing out what one must keep pointing out in this context, namely, that to pronounce an issue “settled” in a democracy is just to misunderstand democracy–another bad quality in a political leader!


Comments are closed.