FREEPORT — “You cannot legislate morality.”

I must have been 10 when I first heard my father say those words, and they confused me then. Aren’t all laws trying to do just that, I wondered? Tell us right from wrong?

Decades later, I understand my father’s point.

Laws are sometimes simple parameters, like traffic rules, there to keep things organized, and flowing smoothing. We accede to them, if grudgingly, because we see the larger benefit. It’s not evil to go through a red light, but it is, and should be, illegal.

Laws sometimes frame values we share as a culture, like honesty and fairness, and try to put them into operation in specific situations. Philosophers tell us we are wading into deeper water here, where the goal is not only to set a minimum standard, but also an aspirational one.

No code of conduct can cover every circumstance, nor avoid the problem of competing values, where two “goods” collide. In the battle over gun control we line up on both sides, some of us valuing group safety, others choosing individual freedom to justify the laws we support.

As I watch an increasing array of state and national figures propose laws doomed to failure, I am troubled at the waste of time and effort this represents.

Laws that deny contraceptive information to adolescents, or force women to undergo tests they do not need before terminating a pregnancy, will not change behavior. Making it legal for teachers to hit a child, or illegal for two consenting adults to fall in love and commit their lives to one another, will change no one’s heart.

Imposing one person’s belief onto others substitutes law for morality. Lecture me if you like, educate me if you can, evangelize me toward sharing your values if you will. All of these are effective, respectful ways of changing an individual’s perspective.

And in changing individuals, we do shape the collective values that may ultimately be codified into law. Let civil rights stand as testament to that. But a sledgehammer is not a recruitment tool, and crushing those who think differently rarely leads to conversion.

Any law that uses religion as an excuse to harm others, to deprive them of their right to believe something different is not a law our Founding Fathers would have supported. It defies the very principle that brought them here: the separation of church and state.

That separation demands that we respect two sets of rules: those we choose internally, as members of a church, or an ethical community, and those that we support collectively, as a state or country. The former allow us to express our religious beliefs freely and without reservation. The latter require that that expression stops where it infringes on the rights of others to do the same.

“Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.” That’s another thing I heard my father say.

By then, I was old enough to recognize the difference, to know that he was challenging me to aspire to ethical standards that went beyond the law, and moral standards that went even deeper.

Laws can be crude tools, unsubtle and inflexible when it comes to dealing with complex human needs, and rights and personal choices.

Americans seem to know that intuitively, and usually reject laws that creep into those arenas, even when the stated purpose of the law is one they agree with. Witness the bipartisan horror we experienced when our congress was debating the fate of one tragic, brain-injured woman and her family’s right to choose her fate.

But the common sense of most Americans no longer guides our politics. Money and ego and extreme political agendas now hold sway. So, absurd and self-defeating laws will continue to be proposed and defeated and waste our time. It would be laughable if it were not also evidence of a dangerous truth.

The will of the majority no longer leads the way forward. Minorities with money have replaced it. And those whose job it is to represent us are listening to the narrow voices who will keep them in power. And that is the real danger. Because when you cannot hear the roar of the people over the roar of your own ambition, you have lost the meaning of the word democracy.

— Special to the Press Herald