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Imposing Your Beliefs Onto Others: A Defence

November 7th, 2007 by Matt

Recently an acquaintance forwarded me a some comments about this blog on a internet forum. The critic, who goes by the handle Kaiwai stated:

Matt Flanagan I find, yes, some of the things I agree with but there is generally speaking, a huge difference; I don’t set out to impose my views by way of legislation – if I want to ‘change the world’, I’d sooner set an example by living the life I preach, then hope that it’ll rub off on others

I want to focus on one criticism levelled at me in this comment. It’s the objection that that I support “imposing my views onto others”. This criticism of religious conservatives is not new, I have seen it numerous times in the media and even some academics use it. In her book The Abortion Myth, bio-ethicist Leslie Cannold writes.

The United States religious right, like most religious extremists, believe their political beliefs are actually God’s will. … [Feminism is opposed] to one religious groups imposition of its rather narrow version of morality on a pluralistic society.

Cannold objects that any appeal to divine law as laid down in scripture constitutes an imposition of one’s view upon others and this is, she assumes objectionable. Feminists (such as her) she assures us oppose such things.

I always find this objection strange, because despite widespread impression to the contrary there is nothing objectionable about imposing one’s moral beliefs or values upon others. I know this comment will strike many as absurd, so I will offer two arguments for this claim. Firstly, the contention that it is wrong to require others to comply with one’s moral principles is subject to serious counter-examples. Secondly, it is self-referentially incoherent.

Turning to the first, consider an act like rape, assault or infanticide. I believe each of these practices is wrong. Further, I expect others to refrain from doing them. I even support their commission being considered a crime punishable by the state. However, if it were wrong to impose my moral beliefs upon others, my position on rape, assault or infanticide would be unacceptable. I would have to leave others free to choose whether they wished to rape or kill children and hold that my own qualms about these matters do not apply to others. This would be absurd.

Secondly, the contention that it is wrong to require others to comply with one’s moral principles is self-referentially incoherent. This is clear when one realises the contention itself is a moral principle. Those who defend it assert that it is wrong to impose one’s beliefs upon others, that one is required to refrain from such an imposition and any attempts to do so should be prevented. However, given that this contention expresses a moral principle then those who defend it have no right to expect that others will comply with it, nor can they force people to do so. If it is wrong to require others to comply with one’s own moral principles then those who reject this principle, such as I, are free from having to follow it since no one has the right to impose it upon me.

In fact, this contention that imposing your moral principles upon others is wrong has all sorts of curious consequences. Paul Hill believed that it was morally permissible to shoot abortionists. I think Paul Hill was wrong. However, if this contention is correct it is wrong for me to demand that Mr Hill comply with my beliefs as that would be forcing my beliefs on to him. Consequently, the laws that ban shooting abortionists are unjust as they impose someone else’s morality on to another. The same thing can be said about those who block abortion clinics and even those who blow them up. The alleged duty not to impose one’s beliefs onto others is a double-edged sword. Not only does it proscribe the criminalisation of abortion but it also proscribes making laws against preventing people from having abortions. It simultaneously entails both that people should be free to have abortions and free to force others not to have abortions. It is incoherent.

By itself, the observation that people are imposing their beliefs upon others is of little consequence. However, perhaps I am being unchartible Cannold does not object to such imposition in an unqualified manner. Her objection is that it is inappropriate to impose certain kinds of moral principles upon others . The types of principles Cannold wants to reject as a basis for public debate are those she labels “narrow”. What is meant by this spatial metaphor is unclear; however, I presume she means that this is a minority view, held by only a small segment of society.

Implicit in this argument is the claim that a necessary condition for any principle to be utilised in public debate is that the majority accepts it as true. However, this is subject to numerous counter-examples. Consider a culture where the majority believes that a husband has the right to beat his wife. Would an advocate of majoritarianism contend that in such a society criticism by a feminist minority of this practice and the advocacy of norms forbidding spousal abuse is an unacceptable imposition of a narrow, feminist perspective in a pluralistic society? Would it be true that in such a society public policy could not be based on the moral principle that it is wrong for a man to beat his wife?

Consider an Islamic society where the majority believe that conversion to a rival, monotheistic religion is immoral and should be a capital offence. Not to execute converts to Judaism or Christianity in such a society would, by this reasoning, be unjust. In societies where a racial majority thinks a racial minority is sub-human, it would be unjust to grant equal human rights.

I think then the objection to imposing ones “narrow” beliefs on to others is misguided. What is wrong is not the imposition of someones values, but the imposition of values that incorrect, irrational, oppressive or unjust. If the principles expounded in Christianity are correct and accurately reflect justice then there is nothing wrong with imposing them on others. To label an appeal to these values as unjust because it involves such an imposition is to argue backwards.

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