Yesterday's discussion on tolerance is naturally linked to another slogan that appears too often in moral discussion, the principle that we should not force our ideas of right and wrong on others.
However popular this slogan may be, the proposal is completely incoherent. What the person making this statement is actually saying is, "Thou shalt not force thy morality upon others, or else." This, of course, is a moral statement. Typically, the person making it is quite content to bring social and political sanctions against those who would violate this principle. That is to say, they are willing to force this moral principle on others.
Some recognize the inconsistency in forcing this moral principle upon others. They may refuse to do so. But, if they sit back and do nothing, then they are acting in all ways as if those who force their morality on others are entitled to do so. This drains the principle that it is wrong to force one's morality on others of all significance.
There is no way out of this trap because it is built on a contradiction. A moral principle is nothing more than a rule about what may be legitimately forced upon others. Debates over what morality requires and prohibits are debates over what it is permissible or impermissible to universally force on people. There is no sense to a moral principle that says that one not to have any moral principles.
Custom vs. Morality
To shed more light on the problem, let me note that I am not talking here about social customs. Some cultures hold that it is rude to belch at the table; others hold that it is a great compliment to the cook. There is no "right" or "wrong" on matters of custom. With respect to these types of concerns, it is perfectly legitimate to argue that it is morally wrong to impose one's own custom on others.
However, morality deals with a different set of concerns. At its core, morality deals with such things as theft, fraud, rape, torture, slavery, and murder. The person being told not to force his morality on others is being told to tolerate things like theft, fraud, rape, torture, slavery, and murder. If we do anything to protest this type of behavior, it is hard to describe this as anything other than forcing one’s morality upon others.
Moral issues are those issues where it is specifically legitimate to force one's morality upon others. There is no wrong in forcing one's morality upon the thief, con man, rapist, torturer (and those who he serves), slave trader, and murderer, among others. The very thing we are trying most to do, with respect to these moral wrongs, is force a morality on those who engage in this type of behavior.
There are circumstances within which a morally concerned individual may be forced to do nothing because he lacks the power the correct for certain abuses. He may enter a society where slaves are bought and sold and recognize that there is nothing he can do, at least not yet. This is not a matter of being tolerant of other systems. It is a matter of weighing practical concerns in considering how to handle such matters. Sometimes, those who do evil are simply too powerful to stop.
In law, we recognize that force is prima facie worse than peace. Therefore, we adopt a rule that a person is to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Our default position is that we are going to leave other people alone. We are going to leave this default position only when the evidence is compelling enough that we see no reasonable option. If we are uncertain, if we have reasonable doubt, we will give those who we would impose burdens upon the benefit of the doubt.
In other words, it is up to those who would deny people their life, health, liberty, and happiness to prove that it is necessary. It is never up to those whose life, health, liberty, or property would be taken to prove that the loss is unjustified.
This is one of several moral principles that have been written into the law in order to create a system of justice. We find it in the law. However, it is a principle that we put into the law because morality demands it.
This same moral principle tells us that it is not only in law, but in all things, that we are to leave people alone unless we have compelling evidence of the need to impose some burden on them. This suggests a presumption in favor of tolerance and against imposing one's morality on others. However, this is merely a presumption. Like the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, it can be overridden if we have enough evidence.
Clearly, in cases like slavery, murder, rape, theft, perjury, fraud, and the like, there is evidence beyond reasonable doubt that we should not be allowing these types of actions to pass unnoticed. In these cases, we can make a convincing case that prohibitions on this type of behavior may be forced on those who would do these kinds of things.
Faith is Not Proof
In trying to arrive at proof beyond a reasonable doubt, faith is not proof. Again, we can see the moral principles for how we ought to treat others in the principles we use in courts of law. An accuser who stood up before the court and said that he did not need evidence against the accused, but knows that the accused is guilty based on faith alone, would be tossed out of court.
The same principle applies to those who want to use faith alone to prove that some citizen should shoulder some burden – that his life, health, liberty, or property is to be taken from him. Those who do the taking need something more substantial than faith for the taking to be justified.
No objection can be raised against the person who uses faith to direct his own life. Objections can be raised against the person who, on the basis of faith alone, does harm to his neighbor. We must remember that the 9-11 attacks, suicide bombers, witch hunts, jihads, crusades, inquisitions, and religious wars without count were all conducted by people who had faith that they were doing the right thing.
"Thou shalt not force thy morality upon others" is an entirely incoherent moral position. It contradicts itself. It asserts that everybody should be made to follow the follow principle that nobody should be made to follow any given moral principle. This is incoherent.
Morality is intrinsically concerned with what may be imposed on others, and there are clearly some things that may be imposed upon others. Restrictions on behavior that tends to be harmful to others provides the clearest example of a set of restrictions that may be imposed upon others. There is no function more central to the institution of morality than imposing on others a set of restrictions that they not engage in such things as rape, murder, theft, and slavery.
Yet, a case can be made in favor of a presumption that others are to be left alone. The burden of proof rests on those who call for interfering with the lives of others - forcing them to live by certain rules. In some cases, such as rape and murder, the argument is easy to make. Where the argument is less obvious, we should begin with a presumption that peaceful citizens be left free to live their lives as they wish.
In coming up with evidence for interfering with the lives of others, faith is not evidence. Hard, physical evidence is required. History and the news both carry too many examples of people using faith to justify the harms that they inflict on others.