Sunday, November 7, 2010

Does Freedom Impose Morality?

James Peron
Over the years I've come across various forms of the same argument mostly from the same sort of people: fundamentalist or conservative Christians.
They will come along and argue that homosexuality ought to be illegal, that censorship should be imposed by the state to keep sexual material illegal, that abortion should be banned, etc. And many who oppose them argue that it is wrong to impose your morality on others.

The fundamentalist then says: "Why not? Aren't you imposing your morality on me?"

And typically the opponent of the statist conservative is confused by this. Why are they confused?

They seem to think the fundamentalist might have a point, but he doesn't. Look carefully at what is being said.

"Aren't you IMPOSING your morality on me?"

In fact that is not the case at all.

Take any of the issues that the fundamentalist is concerned about. Start with homosexuality, which seems to be an absolute obsession with them. What is the secular liberal (modern or classical) proposing for the Christian, in regards to homosexuality? Are they imposing it on anyone? Not at all.

No mandatory gayness is required. The Christian is still free to follow his own moral code as he sees fit. He is not prevented from seeking chastity, or the preferred sexuality of his deity. He is absolutely free to not engage in homosexuality, unless he really, really wants to do so. (And we all know that some of them really, really want to.) Exactly what was imposed on him? Nothing.

Take pornography as another example. I have never heard of one advocate of free speech recommending that pornography become mandatory. I don't know of Christians being rounded up and forced into adult theaters with their eye-lids propped up with toothpicks in order to force them to consume erotica. If a Christian consumes erotica it is because he seeks it out and pays for it.

What about television and the internet? Well, turn the question around. What about the atheist on the internet or watching television? I'm not a believer but people I know continually send me Christian messages by email which I'd rather not receive. So what do I do when they come in? I delete them.

What about Christian television? When in the US, in particular, just changing channels will inevitably bring me across some unwanted theologically-inclined channel. Does the fact that I don't want to watch it mean I have the right to ban it? Obviously not. All I need do is change the channel one more time—and I do. Simple and easy.
Pornography on television is actually much harder to find. There are shows with fleeting nudity but nothing particularly explicit. Just as my remote control can be clicked once more to avoid the Christian show, the Christian's remote control can be used to avoid any "immorality" he happens to find. And if he thinks the medium itself is utterly corrupt he doesn't have to watch it, just the same as atheists don't have to attend church.

Most of the really explicit sexual material on television is expensive. You have to subscribe to it. You have to make an effort to get it. If any of this is offending them then it is because they went out of their way to receive it.

The classical liberal perspective, or libertarianism, does not impose on others. In the free society each individual makes choices out of their own free will. The Christians can shun pornography, homosexuality, divorce, promiscuity or anything else he may consider a sin.

The only thing that the free society prevents is the imposition of morality on others. "Ah," says the conservative, "What about laws against theft, killing, rape, etc.?"

Again what is rape? It is imposing a sexual liaison on an individual without their consent. The rapist must impose on the victim or there is no rape. If the "victim" has consented to the act it is not rape. Crimes properly understood require the imposition of one person's morality onto the other. You use force to steal from people. You are imposing on them. You use force to kill others, or to beat them. Every crime is imposing on others. Freedom is leaving people alone and leaving people alone is not imposing anything on them.

If I defend myself from attack am I forcing my will on the attacker? No, I am preventing him from forcing his morality, or lack of it, on me. But notice that if the Christian uses these as examples of forcing his will on others he doesn't look nearly as good. He ends up in the same camp as murderers, rapists and muggers. Hardly good company to keep I would think.

They also would be completely relativizing morality. They are putting the morality of the rapists on the same plane as that of the victim. Would they honestly argue that a woman who kicks a rapists in the privates, thus making rape a moot issue for him at the moment, is forcing her morality on the rapist? Is a woman who shoots a man intent on killing her child really imposing her will on the killer?

They seem to have a very odd view of what it means to "impose".

In fact the only people in this debate attempting to impose anything on others are the moral conservatives who want to use the law.

It strikes me as utterly bizarre to define the concept of "leaving other people alone" as imposing on them. The classically liberal society does not impose, it leaves alone. And the two are very different, though from the way conservatives argue you would think they were precisely the same thing. The fallacy in the conservative's argument is that he misdefines "impose" or "force". There is no way you can "impose" on another by leaving them alone.

I remember in college when I took a course on Christian ethics, taught by a local minister. I argued in a term paper for the maximum freedom possible for the individual. The minister, a socialist, was very perturbed by it and wrote across the paper: "You just want to force people to be free."

How do you force freedom? Freedom is merely leaving others alone. A free society doesn't force the Christian to buy a porno magazine, or require him to join in depraved gay orgies. It merely leaves him alone to make his own choices. Whether or not he trusts himself to do the "right" thing without the force of law I don't know. But certainly there is no imposition on him at all. No, laissez faire is not imposing your morality on others. It is precisely the opposite.

James Peron is the president of The Moorfield Storey Institute.


  1. Your arguement seems at first glance rather simple and even reasonable, but in a society which 'leaves alone', how can Christians or anyone else with a moral conscience be blamed for caring about the well-being of the society in which they live.

    And if caring for society means sometimes protecting it from itself, why should that be construed as imposing morality on others? Morality is not something that can be imposed because it does not come from the individual but exists often in spite of the individual.

    The hostility of your post towards Christians is disappointing and ignores the importance and reality of the freedom for which you argue. "Freedom is not the right to do as you please, but the liberty to do as you ought."

  2. I just note that what you justify is authoritarian rule and leaves no room for individual freedom. You suppose that your claim to revelation gives you superior knowledge and thus allows you to impose your will on others. I deny you have superior knowledge.

  3. There is this question hit my mind: if every individual is free to act based upon their will and follow their own intentions, then wouldn't we be living in a jungle? A jungle whose residents are the so-called civilized human beings? And also do you think all people possess this capasity and knowledg to act and treat wisely while not violating the right of others? If not, what is supposed to be done?

  4. No one said people are free to act "based upon their own will and follow their own intentions." There is a provison attached to that—they can't be violating the rights of others in the process. That is the purpose of law.

    No, I don't think every person possess that capacity which is why law is needed.