Monday, 7 September 2015

The Ethics of Enforcing Ethics: Part 2

Yesterday, the BBC carried a story regarding the Archbishop of Canterbury’s opposition to assisted dying.  Now, personally I happen to agree with the Right Reverend Welby’s stance, although I freely admit that it is a grey area, and it’s hard to know which is more compassionate, and whether anyone can or should be asked to suffer, perhaps needlessly.  That’s not a discussion I want to get into now.

In their ineffable wisdom, the BBC opened this story up to comments, and as with any story even vaguely pertaining to religion, the comments swiftly filled up with mockery, vitriol and abuse.  One of the frequently repeated comments boils down (when various insults have been removed) to “Why does this person think he has the right to try and force his beliefs on us?”

At some point, I’ll remember to get round to writing out my view on ‘rights’, but that day is not today.  I do not think that Welby has the right to try and share his beliefs with others; I think he has a duty to.

(Most) Christians believe that life is sacrosanct, and that this is one of those objective pillars of faith on which the church stands.  As I said, I don’t want to get into the assisted suicide debate here, but the fact remains that Christianity presents the sanctity of life as a fundamental truth.  Now, we might be wrong about that, but that’s what we believe, and if we believe it to be an objective and absolute truth, how can we possibly refrain from trying to share that truth, and prevent people from going against it?

Now, obviously I am not in favour of some sort of theocratic oppression, in which people are forced to obey the beliefs of a vocal minority.  I don’t believe that anyone should have someone else’s beliefs forced on them.  However, we absolutely have a duty to share them, and to try and persuade others, especially in an instance like this where lives may be taken, and even doing it forcefully (but never forcibly).  I occasionally indulge in a fond day-dream of a utopia in which people with widely differing, even diametrically opposing views can air and discuss their opinions without censure or censorship, but in a respectful (even if forceful and challenging) fashion, and listen to the views of others in a calm and equally respectful way.  Alas, this seems unlikely to ever occur.

I’ve posted before about the strange doublethink that allows us to rail against forcing our morality on others, and then passing law after law which does exactly this.  We state as absolute truths that theft, fraud, murder, assault and rape are wrong, and feel comfortable forcing these beliefs on others through punishment for failure to comply.  We understand the moral imperative that causes us to make these rules and laws, to constrain people from doing what we know to be wrong.  However, some people seem to fail to understand that exactly the same moral imperative drives people to protest outside abortion clinics, and for faith leaders to speak out publically against assisted suicide.  The only difference is majority opinion, and should morality really be a democracy?  A debate can be had here, but almost everyone will agree that certain things are fundamentally wrong, while others are fundamentally right.  It is around the edges that we are permitted to quibble.

If anyone, atheist, agnostic or believer, perceives an injustice, then surely it is their moral duty to speak out against it?  Others don’t necessarily have to agree with them or even listen to them, but to suggest that they ought not to speak at all is utterly wrong.  After all, silence and inaction are consent and, “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”.

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