Friday, May 22, 2009

Sin, regrets and public policy

There is an argument that crops up in political circles now and then, which I’ve never quite understood. I call it the “repentance” argument.

Generally what happens is that the lobbying group in question, often conservatives, drags forth some “sinner” who confesses their errant ways and tells the world that they regret their previous decisions and wish they could have avoided the “sin” into which they previously fell. This is usually accompanied with a call for legislation to outlaw the “sin” in question.

The assumption is that the confession from this repentant sinner is sufficient argument to justify the heavy hand of government stepping in and saving others from their sins as well.

Back when Ed Meese was trying hard to ban erotica there was something of a growth industry in repentant porn stars hitting the political sawdust trail and confessing their sins. Of course, instead of seeking absolution from some deity they were asking Big Brother to be their savior. I’ve always fond this tendency from Christians to be a rather odd one. They will argue that “Jesus has the power to save you from your sin” but when it comes down to it they lobby for Big Brother to save you from your sins instead. Apparently they have more faith in the heavy hand of the State than in any deity.

I’ve known lots of radically different people from very different walks of life, people who’ve made many different choices. I remember being amused that one adult film that hit the circuit featured three people I knew. Quite honestly it was god-awful and I couldn’t force myself to watch it. One of the performers told me of regrets for having made this decision. Another, apparently never had a single regret except perhaps on aesthetic grounds. The third, I’m not sure about, but I understand she still making a living in what we might call the sexual services industry. Even the one who expressed some regrets didn’t seem more than mildly displeased about the previous choices.

Women who had abortions, and later wished they hadn’t, are trotted forth by the Religious Right all the time. We are supposed to assume that the regrets expressed by this woman are justification for banning all choice in the matter for all other women. I can understand this sort of scenario having appeal to those who buy into the sinner/salvation theory of life. But precisely why they think this argument has any currency in the real world is beyond me.

Regrets are pretty much the norm for human beings. We all have them. But they aren’t proof of anything. I know that I’ve got some regrets but I doubt the Religious Right would appreciate them. I regret wasting years inside a fundamentalist Christian sect. I really, really regret that. I won’t say I didn’t learn anything, I did. I learned exactly how dangerous and deranged these people really are and why we should not let them set public policy. But I could have learned that lesson in far less painful ways.

I regret that I delayed having sex for the first time. I’m not sure if I delayed due to the negative influence of religion or because I was just terrified. Either way it is a regret I have. Others, no doubt, would regret not waiting. And the reason for this is obvious—people aren’t created with cookie cutters. We are individuals and each individual is genuinely different from each other individual.

Consider the following comments from someone I know fairly well who posed for some rather erotic images. “I did it because I needed to earn some money and this was quick and easy. At the time I didn’t give it much thought. Later I came to wonder if I had done the right thing and wished I hadn’t. But then even later I realized I was glad I did. Where I used to worry about the photos popping up at the most inconvenient time now I’d pay to have a set for myself, just because I think I looked damn good in them and would like to relive my youth. I’ve got only one of the photos and I’m glad I have it and glad I did it.”

So this person went from having no regrets, to having some regrets, to finally having no regrets, but actually appreciating it. This is why regrets don’t actually tell us anything about whether something should be legal or illegal. All my biggest regrets in life were about entirely legal choices I made which I now believe were the wrong ones. No one that I know of would make any of those choices illegal.

This is not to say that some regrets are not well earned. There are things that people do that ought to regret doing. But we can’t legislate on the basis of regrets. Regretting that you stole from an old woman, for instance, ought to be legislated against whether you regret it or not. Your regrets don’t matter, her rights do. It is legislated against because it violates the life, liberty or property of another person.

But when it is your life, your liberty and your property on the line, it is your decision. And no matter what your decision, or your regrets; it simply is no one else’s business.

Sinners walking down the aisle to find salvation may have some dramatic appeal to those inclined toward that sort of theatrics. But it really ought not have any place in the world of policy making.