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Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?

September 1st, 2009 by Matt

The assumption that ‘it is wrong to impose your moral beliefs onto others’ is almost unilaterally accepted in society. Everyone knows this, only zealous religious types seem to believe that it is acceptable to try to foist their morality onto others; the concept of respecting other people’s beliefs seems to be lost on the religious.

One does not have to look far to see this assumption at work; in the Aotearoa Ethnic Network Journal atheist commentator, Ken Perrott, writes,

Non-religious people have the right to be free from interference by religious people and organisations, freedom from proselytising, and freedom from imposition of values, morality and practice. I don’t think religious people should see this as in any way violating their rights. If anything, it helps preserve the sacredness of their beliefs –imposition on others degrades a belief.

Perrott is clear; those with religious beliefs should not demand that others comply with their views on morality. This criticism is not new, we see it regularly in the media and it is equally prevalent in academia. In her book, The Abortion Myth, bio-ethicist Leslie Cannold writes,

In the United States, the feminist rejection of the moral had a strong connection to the anti-choice religious right’s promotion of itself as the “moral” voice of the Republican movement. The agenda of the Christian right is, to put it rather baldly, to make the Bible (rather than the secular U.S Constitution) the supreme law of the land. The United States religious right, like most religious extremists, believe their political beliefs are actually God’s will. … [Feminism is opposed] to one religious group’s imposition of its rather narrow version of morality on a pluralistic society.

Cannold states that any appeals to Gods will, as laid down in the Bible, constitute an imposition of moral views onto others. Feminists such as her, she assures us, oppose such things.

I find the claim, that it is wrong to impose your moral beliefs onto others, strange. Despite widespread acceptance to the contrary, I see nothing objectionable in imposing moral beliefs onto others.

While this comment may strike many as absurd, I assure you it is not for the following reasons. First of all, to claim that it is wrong to impose your moral beliefs onto others is self-defeating. Second, the contention is subject to serious counter-examples. I’ll explain what I mean.

If it is wrong to impose one’s beliefs onto others then it follows that one is required to refrain from such impositions; further, any attempt to impose moral beliefs should be prevented. However, this claim is itself a moral belief and as we’ve just established, it is being imposed on others. Therefore the claim is self-defeating, those who defend it are attempting to impose a moral belief about not-imposing moral beliefs onto others.

As for the counter examples, consider acts such as rape, assault or infanticide. I personally believe each of these practices is wrong for me to engage in. Further, I think it is wrong for others to do these things. In fact, I even support the commission of these acts being considered a crime punishable by the state. I am sure most would agree with me. However, if it were wrong to impose moral beliefs onto others then our position on rape, assault or infanticide would be unacceptable. We would have to leave others free to choose whether they wished to rape, assault or kill children – to do otherwise would be to impose our moral beliefs onto others.

Perhaps I am being uncharitable; Perrott and Cannold and others who advocate the claim, do not object to such impositions in an unqualified manner and certainly do not intend to promote anarchy. Their objection is that it is inappropriate to impose certain kinds of moral principles upon others.

The types of principles Cannold means to catch are those she labels “narrow”. What is meant by this spatial metaphor is unclear; however, I presume she means that this is a minority religious 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 advocated as a basis for rules binding on all people is that the majority accepts the principle. However, this majoritarianism modification to the claim that it is wrong to impose your moral beliefs onto others is equally flawed.

Consider a culture where the majority believes that a husband has the right to beat his wife. Would Cannold contend that in such a society criticism by a Christian-feminist minority of this practice and their advocacy of norms forbidding spousal abuse is an unacceptable imposition of a narrow religious 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?

The objection to imposing one’s “narrow” moral beliefs onto others is flawed. What is wrong is not the imposition of someone’s values but the imposition of values that are incorrect, irrational, unethical, oppressive or unjust. If the principles expounded are correct and accurately reflect justice then there is nothing wrong with imposing them onto others, even if they are religious beliefs.

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the September 09 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

Letters to the editor should be sent to: editorial@investigatemagazine.DELETE.com

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30 responses so far ↓

  • Nice piece.  It might be useful to define the words "moral" and "impose."  I loosely operationalize the term "moral" to mean "I will think better of you (or worse of you) if you do so-and-so."  In that sense, "to impose my moral beliefs" could just mean "I will publicly praise (or blame) you rather than keep my thoughts to myself." 

  • "Christian-feminist" – LOL you've got to be kidding. It's not possible to be a Christian and a Feminist.

    And yes it's easy to rant about how standing against rape and infanticide is the same as having to live day in, day out with Christian fundies basically attacking you at every turn and insisting you believe what they believe or you'll burn in Hell and bla bla bla. But it's really not about that.

    Of course you have to spend your life harrassing and attacking non-believers and people who hold beliefs other than your own. That's what being a Christian is.

    But don't try to justify it with rubbish about 'moral beliefs' be honest say that's what your religion is about. Don't be fake about your motives.

    If you're proud to be a Christian you shouldn't have to hide anything. God knows it's everyone else who has to hide their beliefs from Christians.

  • I think that a lot of the time, the statement made is not really "it's wrong to impose your moral beliefs on others", but rather "it's wrong to impose your moral beliefs on others, where those beliefs can only be justified by appeal to religious claims (or any other claims not widely accepted)".

  • it’s wrong to impose your moral beliefs on others, where those beliefs can only be justified by appeal to religious claims (or any other claims not widely accepted)”.

    Sure this line is often taken in debates about religion in public life. The problem is that it excludes far to much. All known secular moral theories, utilitarianism, kantianism, etc are rejected by some reasonable people. Similarly, most secular political philosophies, Libertarianism, Socialism, Conservitivism, etc are rejected by a significant number of people in our society. In fact not everyone accepts that moral obligations exist, and many hold that morality is relative. If one is to exclude all beliefs which are not “widely accepted” from being the basis of a rule applying to other people then almost no rules are justified including rules that secularists typically support.
    .-= ´ latest blog-post ..Moving to WordPress – Please Stand By =-.

  • The problem is that those doing the imposing are firmly of the opinion that their beliefs are moral and just, those who are being imposed upon are of a different opinion.

    True, people generally advocate moral rules they think are correct. However, this seems to apply to any rule or law. Some serial killers do not believe that its wrong to rape and kill women, those who support such laws disagree. Does it follow laws against murder are unjust. Some people don’t think infanticide is wrong, does it follow that laws against infanticide are unjust?
    .-= ´ latest blog-post ..Moving to WordPress – Please Stand By =-.

  • “Christian-feminist” – LOL you’ve got to be kidding. It’s not possible to be a Christian and a Feminist. ”

    Tell that to Kate Shepperd. I suppose people like her do not exist.

    And yes it’s easy to rant about how standing against rape and infanticide is the same as having to live day in, day out with Christian fundies basically attacking you at every turn and insisting you believe what they believe or you’ll burn in Hell and bla bla bla. But it’s really not about that.

    Well if I had said that standing against infanticide is the same living day in and day out with what you describe you might have a point. What I said was that (a) moral rules against rape and infanticide are moral rules, and (b) its appropriate to impose them on others, therefore it can’t be wrong to impose ones views on others.

    As a historical point however, you should acknowledge that laws against infanticide actually came about because of Christians and Christian beliefs being imposed on others and are still today opposed by many of the worlds leading secularists, usually on grounds associated with their advocacy of abortion. So the issues may not be as far apart as you think.

    of course you have to spend your life harrassing and attacking non-believers and people who hold beliefs other than your own. That’s what being a Christian is.

    I see you attack me for my beliefs, and claim that one should not do this, Am I supposed to respect incoherent rubbish like this just because some believer once hurt your feelings?

    But don’t try to justify it with rubbish about ‘moral beliefs’ be honest say that’s what your religion is about. Don’t be fake about your motives.

    Well even if those were my motives ( which they are not) none of that addresses my argument, which stands or falls apart from the motives of the arguer.
    .-= ´ latest blog-post ..Darwinian Evolution, Chance and Design =-.

  • Mr Gronk, I agree few people would admit to holding this belief if pushed into a logical corner. I think however many people do hold this belief on in certain contexts ( like say the abortion debate) without reflecting on its implications, when they do we get the interesting qualifications.

    On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with grounding morality in religious beliefs. But it becomes quite problematic when you take that a step further and enforce the rules using the police, law courts, etc.

    Not necessarily, take the belief that infanticide is wrong, or theft is wrong, or that its wrong to execute a person without a trial, those are all religious beliefs and it does not seem problematic to enforce them via the courts.

    If you don’t think so, we agree that the a person’s morality depends on the set of beliefs he has about the nature of reality, including his religious beliefs; and that demanding others act as though his beliefs are true is problematic unless they also happen to hold the same beliefs.

    Two things here, First, I don’t think the example you cite shows that a “person’s morality depends on the set of beliefs he has about the nature of reality” rather I think the example shows that the truth of the persons beliefs depend on facts about the nature of reality and the truth or falsity of certain religious beliefs.

    Second, I don’t see how it follows from this however that its inappropriate to demand that other people act in accord with the principle unless they share the beliefs. In fact this seems to be to be false.

    Take the claim that infanticide is wrong, this claim rests on certain other claims such as that new born infants are human beings and there is a moral rule which prohibits all people from killing human beings. Now, there exist people who reject both of these claims, some people claim that moral rules which bind all people do not exist, and others hold that the infant is not a human being in the requisite sense to be covered by this rule. Does it follow that its inappropriate to have laws against infanticide? Or take the claim that rape is wrong, this claim is true only if nihilism: the contention that all moral claims are false is mistaken. Many people believe in nihilism, does it follow that we should not have laws against rape?
    .-= ´ latest blog-post ..Video of Matthew Flannagan Speaking on Moral Relativism =-.

  • Mr Gronk, that’s true, but the point is, when it comes to morality, in the end we appeal to some claims.What is specifically wrong about religious claims?

    In regards to “any other claims not widely accepted”. Are you saying that morality should be based on head count?

  • In regards to “any other claims not widely accepted”. Are you saying that morality should be based on head count? …. like a referendum say….?????

  • …. like a referendum say….?????

    Referendum is to vote for legislation, and for people to voice their opinion. So?

  • The problem is that those doing the imposing are firmly of the opinion that their beliefs are moral and just, those who are being imposed upon are of a different opinion.

  • Sid,

    I see I didn’t express myself clearly enough. A common problem of mine in blog comments.

    First, I didn’t say I agreed with the position. Rather, I was afraid Matt’s post was directed at a position very few people would admit to holding if pushed into a logical corner. Critiquing the bare and unqualified position of “It’s wrong to impose moral beliefs on others” is all very well if people actually hold it, but I don’t think it does us much good to look as though we’re chasing after straw men.

    On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with grounding morality in religious beliefs. But it becomes quite problematic when you take that a step further and enforce the rules using the police, law courts, etc. This can be readily seen when we consider the restrictions placed on Christian belief and practice in Muslim nations. I haven’t read the Koran; but let’s assume for the sake of the argument that the Koran commands such restrictions wherever a Muslim government exists. Would the Koran still be wrong in this matter if Allah were the one true God? If you don’t think so, we agree that the a person’s morality depends on the set of beliefs he has about the nature of reality, including his religious beliefs; and that demanding others act as though his beliefs are true is problematic unless they also happen to hold the same beliefs.

    I’m not saying morality should be based on head count at all. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, irrespective of what I or anyone else happens to think at any given moment. But in a fallen world and a secular state, sometimes the best we can do is appeal to “widely held public opinion”.

    Thought experiment: Joe Bloggs likes to go out and get stoned on a weekly basis. He doesn’t believe in God. Would you attempt to convince him to change his behaviour, and if so, how might you go about it?

  • This debate is confused. When people say “one should not impose moral beliefs on others”, the only way it makes sense is as the Kantian prohibition on heteronomous moral codes. Kant’s claim that morality was imposed on us by virtue of rationality means that it is imposed on us as autonomous beings (beings capable of acting according to a rule) by our own rational natures. So somebody who “imposes” the prohibition on murder on another person is not really forcing it on someone else, because the other person is already subject to the prohibition on account of their own autonomous will. That’s different than if I said that wearing red was to be prohibited and compelled others not to do so, for that would count as a heteronomous prohibition.

    This filters down to liberal societies via Rawls’ work, since the liberal society is supposed to be something that all rational beings could agree on once they (in Kantian fashion) had eliminated their own inclinations from consideration (via the veil of ignorance). But the same agreement requires the exclusion of religious belief from the fundamental principles of a society in order to protect religious freedom (since nobody would agree to be bound by the tenets of someone else’s religion. Thus, attempts to force specifically religious beliefs on to others would be a case of heteronomy (because no citizen behind the veil of ignorance could agree to it).

    Prohibitions against things like murder and religious freedom are such that (acc. to Rawls) no rational autonomous person could disagree with them, so they are not cases of heteronomy. How could they be, since any rational person would agree to them?

    Of course people are free to disagree with the contractualist account, but that is what people are implicitly appealing to when they object to the imposition of religious rules, so the error is not the one diagnosed here.

  • Matt. May I suggest you read Romans Chapter 14-15 in some depth and reflect upon its contents.

  • How could they be, since any rational person would agree to them?

    But why would someone be irrational if he/she disagrees? Isn’t it just labelling game? If you disagree, you’re irrational.

  • The argument goes something like this. Rational activity is rule governed activity. Autonomous activity is rule governed activity where the person operates according to their own rule. A rule that binds one rational being qua rational ought to bind all rational beings (like how 2+2=4) is the same for everyone. Since people’s personal inclinations tend to produce disagreement, they are out. Only rules that are based on reason alone, where the reason you act by has to count as a good reason for everyone will be binding on all rational beings.

    So, if state authority is to be based on the consent of the governed, it has to be based on something that all individuals would freely agree to as a community of rational beings. It’s important that the agreement takes place under conditions of hypothetical equality, for there would be no possibility of agreement if it did not (and this is the crucial point). Rawls’ way of fixing this is for each person to imagine they are creating the rules for a society in which they have no idea what position they will be, whether they are religious or atheist, man or woman, rich or poor. Rawls thinks that any rational person under such conditions would create essentially the same rules (personal liberties, civil rights, a maximin distribution of wealth). Therefore, those rules are binding on all rational beings, as they are what all rational beings would agree to. Since you are a rational being, you would agree to them as well, which is why you have no rational defense if the state does something like imprison you for a crime.

    Essentially, the Kant/Rawls view fetishizes consent. The only legitimate rules are those to which people autonomously consent. When people, like criminals, argue that they do not consent to being imprisoned, what they are doing is making one rule for themselves and another for everyone else. But such a view can never be the foundation of an agreement between persons (because no one else would agree to such a rule), so the only way in which we can have a rule governed society that operates by consent is to base it on rules that all persons would agree to (and this requires the rules to be formulated under conditions of hypothetical equality).

    I actually think this is bunk, but it is the reasoning behind all modern liberal societies.

    It’s relevant to this debate, because no person in the original position would agree to anything less than religious freedom. So therefore it is impossible on these grounds to justify a state in which religious people impose their religious beliefs on others (unless those beliefs correspond to those that would be agreed upon under the original position, like “don’t kill”). Religious people are, however, perfectly entitled to try to convert everyone else to their religion. They just aren’t allowed to make it a requirement of law or use coercion to do it.

  • I think however many people do hold this belief on in certain contexts ( like say the abortion debate) without reflecting on its implications, when they do we get the interesting qualifications.
    Agreed. And it’s probably more a problem with the medium than the message. I didn’t read this blog post and think, “Wow, there’s a knock-down argument against a common form of moral relativism!” Instead, I thought, “That’s all very well, but if no-one really believes this, it’ll all be water off a duck’s back.” I guess I was playing a bit of devil’s advocate and seeing if I could tease out a more thorough argument. I agree that people are often inconsistent respecting moral relativism; the question is, then, whether their inconsistency is justified.
    Take the belief that infanticide is wrong, or theft is wrong, or that its wrong to execute a person without a trial, those are all religious beliefs and it does not seem problematic to enforce them via the courts.
    I was trying to be careful (again, it seems I failed). While those moral beliefs can, and often do, proceed from religious foundations, they can also be derived by other means; for example, by appealing to the desire for an orderly society governed by laws, as opposed to the tyranny of an arbitrary government, or an anarchy along the lines of, “every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.” They are also often arrived at by appeal to emotion: “Infanticide makes me feel awful, therefore I’ll contend against it.” Appeal to emotion is, of course, facile, and can be very dangerous, especially to the losers; but nevertheless, if something (say, infanticide) makes a large enough number of people feel awful enough, there will be laws promulgated against it, without the need for an appeal to the Scriptures. Likewise, while the laws against theft probably have a similar foundation in reality (people raised to believe stealing is wrong, and rightly so), they can also be given a somewhat more rational foundation: “If I don’t want to be watching my house and possessions 24/7, I’d better provide a basis for thieves and robbers to be punished, so they’re less tempted to rob me, and can be caught and punished by the State if they do so.”
    First, I don’t think the example you cite shows that a “person’s morality depends on the set of beliefs he has about the nature of reality” rather I think the example shows that the truth of the persons beliefs depend on facts about the nature of reality and the truth or falsity of certain religious beliefs.
    It certainly does show the latter. But I think it shows the former as well. Does the Koran teach that the penalty for apostasy is death, and does the Government of Iran (say) enforce this in law and practice? If both these are true (even if only for the sake of the argument), and your claim is correct, then you’re really saying that the Government of Iran is full of officials who consciously believe their law is repugnant, and the teaching of the Koran is repugnant, and yet act to follow both. I myself find it difficult to accept a claim that a person’s morality and values are not at least partially informed by his religious and other beliefs.
    Second, I don’t see how it follows from this however that its inappropriate to demand that other people act in accord with the principle unless they share the beliefs. In fact this seems to be to be false.
    Take the claim that infanticide is wrong, this claim rests on certain other claims such as that new born infants are human beings and there is a moral rule which prohibits all people from killing human beings. Now, there exist people who reject both of these claims, some people claim that moral rules which bind all people do not exist, and others hold that the infant is not a human being in the requisite sense to be covered by this rule. Does it follow that its inappropriate to have laws against infanticide? Or take the claim that rape is wrong, this claim is true only if nihilism: the contention that all moral claims are false is mistaken. Many people believe in nihilism, does it follow that we should not have laws against rape?

    I didn’t necessarily say inappropriate. I said problematic. It may be quite appropriate to do exactly that, depending on the issue at stake; but in a secular society you must be able to appeal to something other than the Scriptures, even if a teaching of the Scriptures is why you yourself believe whatever-it-is. It’s for this reason, for example, that I see great value in the efforts of pro-life campaigners to focus on the essential humanity of the unborn child; that is a claim of fact, and one which can be readily shown to be true. Appeal solely to a Scriptural injunction against abortion (even were there such a black-and-white verse) would then turn into a game of, “Well, why should I accept that when I don’t believe the Scriptures have any authority?”, and so on.
    The issue of infanticide which you raise is an interesting one. I don’t think (though I am, as always, open to correction) that society, through the criminal code, says any longer that there’s a rule against killing “human beings” (cf. abortion). Instead, the claim is that it’s wrong to kill a “natural person”; the former being a question of fact, and the latter a question of law. I myself think the distinction between a “human being” and a “natural person” is false and abusive, as it has led to the creation of a category of “humans which are not worthy of legal status”, which category can be extended (or shrunk) by Act of Parliament, or even by decisions of the courts. (It also could lead to the creation of non-human natural persons, but that’s another matter.) But I can not easily see how I could go about proving the disjunct wrong. How, for example, would you go about proving the moral and legal claim, “All humans should be considered natural persons”?

  • L, your eloquent exposition of Rawls had me wondering whether you were my polsci lecturer, until your comment “I actually think this is bunk”.

    Matt seems to be responsding ot a position apparently endorsed by Ken Perrott, that “Non-religious people have the right to be free from interference by religious people and organisations, freedom from proselytising, and freedom from imposition of values, morality and practice.” Freedom from imposition of values is one thing, but this position seems to go further. I haven’t seen the context of Ken Perrott’s statement. However, if he is saying that non-religious people have the legal right to be free from proselytising, the position he endorses implies that would-be proselytisers do not have the right to freely express their religious (or anti-religious, as the case may be) views, since this would violate the ‘right’ of non-religious people to be free from proselytising. I can certainly relate to life being made complicated by fundamentalist nutters threatening Hell to nonbelievers. But in this case, freedom of expression must trump freedom from being annoyed! If the esteemed ‘Guest’ is sick of living with Christian fundies, perhaps he needs to find new friends, instead of moaning about his current ones online?

  • Hi Matt, I pretty much agree with your post – as you’ve framed this issue – Where I see you coming unstuck is with your claim that: “If the principles expounded are correct and accurately reflect justice then there is nothing wrong with imposing them onto others”.
    So who’s to decide which principles are correct and accurate?
    You with your moral beliefs, or me with mine?
    I’ve expressed my views that morality is subjective on your site before, so to answer my own question, there is no objectively correct answer to moral questions, society decides.

  • […] common theme appeared in the comments section of my Investigate Magazine article, Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others? Commenters suggested I had not addressed the standard liberal conception of the role of religion […]

  • […] POSTS: Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others? Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian […]

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  • Matt- you make so many good points. Something that has always bothered me is that the non-believers want to pick and choose which Christian ethics they want to follow. They complain about Christian values being imposed on them, but fail to recognize that the freedoms we enjoy are based on God’s existence. Furthermore, how can we define the words “good” “moral” and “wrong” without God. If he doesn’t exist, there’s no reason why people shouldn’t be able to treat others how they want (lie, cheat, steal, kill), because there would be no moral consequences for their actions.

  • If “imposing our beliefs onto others” means enshrining those beliefs into law, obviously there’s nothing universally wrong with it; I believe that murder is wrong, and fortunately it is also illegal. However, it’s less obvious what other criteria must be met for an action to be made illegal. A woman flirting with her friend’s boyfriend might be morally wrong, but most of us don’t think that it should be illegal. I think that it’s morally right for me to play with my kid and keep her TV consumption to a reasonable level, but I don’t think that there should be a law to that effect.

    I’m not sure what the dividing line should be between legally actionable morality and the other sort.

  • I’m not sure what the dividing line should be between legally actionable morality and the other sort. I have some sympathy with Aquinas position here:

    as Isidore says (Etym. v, 21), law should be “possible both according to nature, and according to the customs of the country.” Now possibility or faculty of action is due to an interior habit or disposition: since the same thing is not possible to one who has not a virtuous habit, as is possible to one who has. Thus the same is not possible to a child as to a full-grown man: for which reason the law for children is not the same as for adults, since many things are permitted to children, which in an adult are punished by law or at any rate are open to blame. In like manner many things are permissible to men not perfect in virtue, which would be intolerable in a virtuous man.

    Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

    This is probably another “to do” blog post.

  • […] Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others? Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian […]

  • “only zealous religious types”… Only?!

    “the concept of respecting other people’s beliefs seems to be lost on the religious.”

    I find intolerance exists across all sections of society, religious or otherwise. I’m not religious but it’s funny how I always feel the need to state that when acting as the defence! Take out the “religious” from this debate and you’ve got a fascinating (and I’d argue more balanced) conversation 🙂

  • ‘it is wrong to impose your moral beliefs onto others’
    Isn’t the person who is saying that imposing his moral beliefs on you?