Illiberal Belief #8: Morality Must Be Enforced

Bradley Doucet
Issue CCCVI - December 13, 2011
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Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whomever will listen how freedom is really in everyone's best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.

Between social conservatives on the right and tobacco prohibitionists on the left, it sometimes seems as if everyone wants to impose his or her version of morality on everyone else. After all, if it makes sense to protect us from things like murder, assault, and theft, why shouldn't our representatives in government also protect us from other sinful or harmful activities like pornography and smoking? These self-righteous souls have a clear vision of the good life, and they want you and me to share that life, whether we like it or not. I don't know whether they have good intentions or not—whether they are motivated by a desire to help others or merely by a desire to control them, or by some combination of these and other impulses—and I don't much care. What matters is whether what they are saying makes sense, and whether the results of their actions are actually good. It doesn't, and they aren't.

Why doesn't it make sense to treat pornography and smoking the same way we treat murder, assault, and theft? Because these latter acts are clear instances of aggression by one party causing real, unquestionable harm to another's person or property. As actual crimes, they merit retaliation in kind, and the use of defensive force against the aggressor is justified. Pornography and smoking, however, are just as clearly not instances of one party initiating the use of force against another. As long as those who participate in these activities do so voluntarily, no retaliation by the government or anyone else is justified, period. (Of course, to the extent that it happens, forcing someone to participate in the production of pornography is a crime, just as it would be a crime to force someone to work in the tobacco fields.)

The worst that can be said of things like porn and cigarettes is that they are vices. Vices can harm those who partake of them, but they must also be pleasurablem or else no one would ever freely choose them. Those who would impose their version of the good life on others think they know for certain that the harms outweigh the benefits, not just for them but for everyone else as well. They also assume that those harms and benefits will net out the same for everyone, ignoring the simple fact that people are different. (At the extreme, anti-vice crusaders may believe that pleasure itself is actually bad, but I must admit I am stumped about how to address such a twisted notion! It's probably best just to reason with those who are less damaged.) What are the negative results of prohibiting vices? It a) empowers actual criminals by allowing them to profit from the black market in prohibited wares, b) exposes non-criminals to added risks, and c) wastes resources that could be used to fight actual crimes, or for some other purpose entirely. In trying to convince those who worry about vice to allow other individuals to weigh personal harms and benefits for themselves, we should try to redirect their attention to these very real harms stemming from prohibition itself.

Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré's English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.