Is non-abuse what “good moral character” means?

It would seem that our public standards of “good moral character” are too low.

That’s the unavoidable conclusion that comes when you read the “Affidavit of Good Moral Character,” a document produced by the Florida Department of Children and Families. It’s required by the State of Florida that those who want to work with children “affirm and attest under penalty of perjury that [they] meet the moral character requirements for employment . . .”

What are these “moral character requirements”?

That applicants:

. . . have not been arrested with disposition pending or found guilty of, regardless of adjudication, or entered a plea of nolo contender or guilty to or have been adjudicated delinquent and the record has not been sealed or expunged for, any offense prohibited under any of the following provisions of the Florida Statutes . . .

In other words, that they have never been found guilty of or are currently charged with violating Florida laws.

Which laws? Well, first, every possible law relating to “sexual misconduct” with patients, the mentally ill, or children (ranging from rape to voyeurism); abuse; murder; manslaughter; kidnapping; assault “if the offense was a felony” or “if the victim of offense was a minor”; burglary; theft; “fraudulent sale of controlled substances”; and a few other odds and ends.

It’s a moment like this that you begin to realize how perverted our definition of “good moral character” has become. Somehow that term has been used to title a document that would be better called “Affidavit of Legal Conduct.”

It’s a classic example of what the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “defining deviancy down.” Moynihan (who was not only a senator but a PhD in History) was using a theory of the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim had suggested in 1895 that, first, crime and deviance were normal throughout human history and human society. However, second, there was a limit to the deviance any community can “afford to recognize,” and that communities traditionally exert social control to contain that deviancy. Moynihan suggested that “over the past generation . . . the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”

In the case of the State of Florida, where “good moral character” might once have meant being kind, loving, courageous, merciful, and wise—all for the benefit of the children under the person’s care—it now means that one hasn’t forced a child to have sex.

Nor is Florida alone in defining character down. The Immigration Learning Center explains to potential U.S. citizens that “good moral character” is what you must maintain during your five years before filing for citizenship. And as in Florida, good moral character is defined as obeying certain laws. They helpfully explain that “people who have been convicted of murder at any time cannot become U.S. citizens”—murder seems to exceed the statue of character limitations that otherwise applies.

After reading such bland, boring legalese, it no longer seems mysterious why everyone is in favor of character, but no one can seem to define it. Florida and the Immigration Learning Center, with the full force of government behind them, define character as simply not breaking the law—including those against the most awful violations in this or any other culture.

And it recalls the words of James Davison Hunter in The Death of Character, published seventeen years ago, but—as such evidence proves—even more relevant today. He begins the book with a “Postmortem” for character, and writes “. . . character in America has not died a natural death. There has been an ironic and unintended complicity among the very people who have taken on the task of being its guardians and promoters.”

Seventeen years later, that complicity continues.