Friday, 13 February 2015
The Ethics of Ethically Enforcing Ethics
“If you’re opposed to gay marriage, don’t marry someone of the same gender.” For gay marriage, you may substitute abortion, premarital sex, various medical and scientific procedures, or anything else that anyone gets upset about ever.
It’s a pithy and concise way of effectively saying “get your nose out of other people’s business”, and I’ve seen it being used numerous times in regard to various different things, and on first consideration, it seem reasonable enough. After all, just because you’re opposed to x, doesn’t mean that everybody is, and why should they stop x-ing just because you think that the very concept of x-dom is wrong, you close-minded x-ist, you!
Except that we do, don’t we? Of course we do. We not only inflict our morals on others, we insist that it is right to do so, and we call this process the law (capitalise to taste). We have decided that certain things are Not On, and that other things are Really Not On, and we insist that people do not do these things, and broadly speaking people accept this as a Good Thing.
But surely this leaves an enormous and ill-defined grey area? After all, just because I think that violent assault is wrong, why should that stop the fun of those who think it’s fine? I frown on murder, but who asked for my opinion on the subject anyway? I would class theft as being Not On, maybe sometimes even Really Not On, but maybe I’m just a crusty old thiefist, enforcing my outdated and bigoted views on those of a larcenous persuasion.
Really, it comes down to the question of whether or not it is harmful, either to the perpetrator or their victim(s).
Laws are created and maintained by public consensus, and generally public consensus relies largely on whether or not a thing is seen to be harmful. We can all agree that rape, murder, assault or theft are harmful to the victim, and should not be permitted. Slightly less clear is whether or not acts that are harmful to oneself should be permitted. The taking of recreational drugs is illegal in most countries, but these countries usually also permit consumption of alcohol and tobacco products, normally with various restrictions as to age, strength, quality, availability etc.
But what about abortion? This is much murkier, and I have no intention of plumbing the depths here, but the question of its morality or otherwise usually comes down to whether or not you class it as harmful, either to the baby/foetus/embryo/collection of cells (delete as you see fit) and/or the mother/bigger collection of cells. In this country, abortion is legal, up to a certain point. In many it is much more restricted, or outlawed altogether. Public consensus is heavily split on this question.
Homosexuality. There are some who are opposed to this on the grounds that they personally find the idea unpleasant, but there are also those who oppose it on the grounds that they believe it harmful to the persons involved, physically, mentally and/or spiritually, and even to those connected to them. I don’t happen to believe this, and so I have no problems with the concept, but can we tell such people to keep their noses out of other people’s business while insisting that the use of recreational drugs is wrong, and preventing those who wish to use them from doing so? The majority of people would probably agree that homosexuality isn’t intrinsically harmful (assuming they care), and so would agree that there’s no reason to prevent it. They would say that the onus is on those who oppose it to show that it’s harmful, and this generally leads on to completely different discussion entirely.
However, saying “If you don’t like x, simply don’t x” ignores the massive, misty grey regions that surround the idea of enforcing our ethical beliefs onto others, which we do every day on a massive scale.