Monday, November 28, 2005

Do Not Force Your Morality Upon Others, Or Else

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.

Practical Tolerance

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.


Anonymous said...

I believe the idea that one should "impose morality on others" is really attempting to express that the government isn't always the appropriate tool to bend others to moral obligations. Not everything in the content of our moral beliefs should be coerced via legal obligations.

So, while I might think it immoral to advocate the death of Jews in a book, I might also argue that it is not the proper role of the government to proscribe this behavior. You ought not to do it, but the government ought not to use force to stop you from doing it.

This phrase is most often used to refer to "morals" people have that don't seem to have anything to do with causing substantial harm to others. So, someone will say, "While your religion might teach you that it is wrong to masturbate, it's wrong to impose your morality on others, so please don't make this a law." The idea there is simply that not everything you might think of as prescribed or proscribed should automatically be advocated in the political arena. Only certain kinds of moral prescriptions belong in the domain of government, regardless of why you think them. To other behaviors, we should practice tolerance, even when we think our normative judgments has something to say about what we personally ought to do.

Now, clearly people confuse and misuse this. The phrase is really quite screwed up for what people are getting at, but what they often want to say is a defensible idea.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It is always possible that a person can mean by a phrase something that is innocent. If by "true" I mean "green" and by "false" I mean "my car", then "false is true" can be a true statement.

The person who says, "Thou shalt not force thy morality upon others" is not taken to be making the type of claim as you define it -- particularly by opponents. Instead, the person who makes the claim "Thou shalt not force thy morality on others" is taken to be referring to all morality -- including slavery, rape, and murder.

Instead, if the person making this claim is interpreted as saying, "Thou shalt not force SOME moral claims on others," then the statement is empty. The person making this claim still has to argue why masturbation is in the family of morals that is not to be enforced on others. The first does not advance the argument even one step.

However, I still hold that it is a part of the very meaning of morality that it refers to things that are to be forced upon others. A wrong that is not to be forced upon others fits the same category as a round square. If masturbation is not the type of thing to be forced on others, then it is not wrong.

Now, I can adopt a personal rule. I can make it a rule, for example, not to eat chocolate from Holloween until Easter. This is a rule. But, it does qualify as a morality. If I were to say that it is wrong (immoral) not to eat chocolate during this time, then I am saying that this is something that NO PERSON should do, and that those who do it are legitimately subject to some form of condemnation or punishment.

It is simply incoherent to say, "That is wrong, but it's okay to go ahead and do it if you want to."

Anonymous said...

A wrong that is not to be forced upon others fits the same category as a round square. If masturbation is not the type of thing to be forced on others, then it is not wrong.

This does not follow through simply tautologically asserting it. Morality concerns conduct that should, should not, or can be engaged in, of which the application of force to others is a subset. You may argue that moral prescriptions are coextensive with justification of the use of force, but there needs to be some argument there, semantic or otherwise. It's perfectly possible to think that one ought not or ought to do something while thinking others are proscribed from using coercive methods to get someone to act in that manner. I think my "Burn all Jews" book would qualify as such an example. I don't think you are morally permissed to be advocating harm befall the Jews. You ought not to do it. I just think you should be legally permissed. In other words, I don't think the use of force is justified to stop you.

As for the "forcing morality on others argument," I do think it matters a great deal to understand what a person is trying to say, even if their argument is superficially wrong. I tried to make it clear take I think the statement is confused, but I've spoken and prodded enough people with the "Do not impose morality on others" mantra to know they are advocating something like liberal tolerance - where not everything in the content of our beliefs about how people ought to act is enforced upon others. This is common enough that when I hear the phrase, I'll simply ask if that's what they mean before I go about attacking the their statement on a literal level. It comes off as pendantic otherwise.