Columnist Kevin Lake: Cautions City Council about moral certainty

  • Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper, left, responds during a public meeting Sept. 13 at the Senior Center to discuss the use of surveillance cameras downtown.    GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Moral certainty is a bad basis for law. Many evangelicals have a moral certainty that homosexuality is an abomination and want that to be the basis of law. Many people have a moral certainty that a woman’s right to control her own body equates to murder when it comes to terminating a pregnancy.

Moral certainty and righteousness exist in many forms, and must always be distrusted as a basis for social policy. Most of all, in a democracy, it cannot be the governing basis on which our legislators create law.

This is obvious to us in Northampton when it applies to conservative politicians, but I raise it here because the following has happened: Within a couple of days of Northampton’s police chief proposing security cameras, our City Council drafted a resolution that stated that such cameras are “inconsistent with an open and democratic society.” No hearings had yet been held and no discovery had taken place. This was simply the moral opinion of the drafters of the resolution.

The council thereby established as its starting point the characterization of any who might support the cameras as being against an open and democratic society. In open meeting, two of the sponsors later stated that for them, “This was essentially an ethical issue.”

The problem with moral certainty is that it implies, or even asserts, that other views are immoral. It discourages, or prevents, objective learning. Precisely when such feelings are most strong, legislators have to go out of their way to listen and learn and entertain alternatives and legislate based on the merits, not their own moral opinions.

As a thought experiment, imagine a city with a right-wing majority culture and a conservative City Council. In response to their police chief’s request for security cameras, and before any public hearings or discovery, that council drafts a resolution that states “Failure to monitor our public spaces invites terrorists and criminals and is inconsistent with responsible government.”

Organized groups come to public hearings holding large signs saying “Keep our city safe.” In early meetings those who voice concern for populations that might be negatively affected are hissed at and treated with disrespect. Business owners who voice concern hear hints of boycott.

In all subsequent meetings, unsurprisingly, one side of the argument predominates and the City Council feels affirmed. Even when, late in the process, several people come forward to say that they felt put off by the early process, but finally decided to push through their fear and speak against the proposal, the City Council tells them they are wrong — it has been a very open and balanced process and we discount your comments.

This is what has happened in Northampton, but in mirror image.

Once you started with the morally righteous language of the resolution, you steered the entire discussion away from true community learning. You created at least the appearance of bias.

Had you refrained from the resolution, had you explored with other progressive communities that use cameras how they wrestle with the practical and ethical issues of their use, had you done all manner of vigorous research and educated us all about what you’d learned, and then determined that the downsides of such cameras cannot be overcome, that would be another matter. As it is, you described only one path as moral and, at the end of the process, appear to have reached the conclusion you wanted to reach all along.

I personally do not support the installation of additional cameras. However, I want to caution our city councilors that while of course you have personal moral opinions as individuals, as legislators your ethical responsibility is to weigh the merits — all of the merits — whether they comport with your moral certainties or not.

If we demand it of conservatives, we have to hold ourselves to the same standard.

Kevin Lake, who is retired, has lived in Northampton since the late 1970s.