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