Sodom's Shadow: The Uncertain Line Between Public and Private Morality

51 Pages Posted: 7 Dec 2010 Last revised: 10 Dec 2010

See all articles by Todd E. Pettys

Todd E. Pettys

University of Iowa - College of Law

Date Written: December 26, 2009


In citizens’ debates about issues of public policy, we frequently encounter what this Article calls the divine accountability thesis - the controversial claim that the divine realm will punish a city, state, or nation unless it performs or proscribes certain forms of conduct. Many of us reject that claim, but its persistent usage in numerous societies over the past five thousand years teaches us a great deal about citizens’ political self-conceptions. This Article begins by arguing that the divine accountability thesis illustrates human beings’ deeply ingrained tendency to regard their political communities as discrete moral entities, individually deserving of punishment or reward. Drawing from the work of Ronald Dworkin and others, the Article then argues that the divine accountability thesis has an influential secular counterpart, consisting of two widely shared perceptions that, taken together, compose what this Article calls the integration thesis. The integration thesis holds that our individual identities are integrated with, and partially constructed by, the political communities to which we belong, and that each of our political communities is akin to a personified moral agent whose conduct reverberates in the individual lives of its integrated members. The integration thesis and the divine accountability thesis often push in precisely the same direction - namely, toward using the law as a means of stripping individuals of their freedom to make certain moral decisions for themselves. Hoping to draw advocates of these and other political viewpoints onto common ground, the Article proposes seven questions that all scholars and citizens ought to ask when assessing whether a given moral issue should be resolved collectively by a political community or should be left for each individual to resolve on his or her own.

Keywords: morality, accountability, integration, integrated, divine, political community, public morality, private morality, autonomy, establishment clause, liberalism

JEL Classification: K10, K14, K19, K42, K49

Suggested Citation

Pettys, Todd E., Sodom's Shadow: The Uncertain Line Between Public and Private Morality (December 26, 2009). Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 61, p. 1161, 2010, U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-01, Available at SSRN:

Todd E. Pettys (Contact Author)

University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States
319-335-6814 (Phone)
319-335-9098 (Fax)

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