Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Ed Feser: On 'Legislating Morality'

Edward Feser
The claim that 'we shouldn't impose our personal moral views on other people' is in fact a very curious one. It seems to convey the idea that all moral views are merely 'personal' in the sense of reflecting nothing more than individual tastes or preferences, and thus cannot justifiably be 'imposed' on those who do not share those tastes or preferences. Their constant appeal to this idea in criticizing conservative policies is thus probably the main reason liberals and libertarians are often suspected of being moral relativists. But since, as we've noted already, liberals and libertarians can be quite absolutist about their own moral beliefs, and are not at all reluctant to tell others that they ought to abide by them, it is evident that their views are not genuinely relativist at all. Indeed, the idea that 'we shouldn't impose our personal moral views on other people' sounds itself like an absolute moral imperative. So what exactly is going on here?

It seems clear that what liberals and libertarians really mean when they criticize conservatives for 'imposing their moral views on others' is not that there is anything wrong with letting moral views, even controversial ones, guide public policy. Rather, what they mean is that specifically conservative moral views shouldn't be allowed to guide policy -- either because such views are not, strictly speaking, really views about morality per se in the first place but are rather mere expressions of personal taste, or because they are views about morality, but views that happen to be false. To state their objection to conservative policies more frankly, though, would be less rhetorically effective. If a liberal or libertarian said 'My views are genuinely moral ones, and conservative views are mere expressions of personal taste' or 'My moral views are correct and conservative views are not,' then it would be obvious that he was making what are nothing more than undefended and highly debatable assertions. Far better, then, to say something like 'No one should impose his personal moral views on other people.' That way, the liberal or libertarian seems to be saying something obviously true (namely that no one should impose idiosyncratic and subjective personal tastes on others) when in fact he is making an extremely controversial claim for which he has offered no justification (namely that liberal or libertarian moral views, but not conservative ones, should be allowed to guide public policy).

Rhetorically effective as this move is, though, it is intellectually dishonest. To be sure, liberals and libertarians who talk this way probably don't consciously realize that they are engaging in a kind of sleight of hand. Most of them are no doubt just muddle-headed, and don't see the inconsistencies and confusions inherent in their view. But the inconsistencies and confusions are there all the same. If you are going to take a controversial position to the effect that all discrimination or wealth redistribution is wrong (as liberals and libertarians, respectively, would say) and therefore ought to be forbidden by law, you can't consistently say that controversial moral views shouldn't be enforced via legislation. If you believe that your own favored moral principles are objectively valid and binding on everyone, you shouldn't speak in a way that conveys the misleading impression that moral judgments in general are as idiosyncratic and subjective as tastes in ice cream. And of course, whatever other objections you might have to conservative policy proposals, it is hardly legitimate to rely on fallacious reasoning in criticizing them -- as those who commit what I've called 'the anti-conservative fallacy' do.

Not all moral principles ought to be enforced by the power of government, but almost everything government does is based on some moral principle or other. It is fatuous, then, to hold that 'we shouldn't legislate morality,' if this means that controversial moral principles shouldn't guide public policy. And almost every moral principle is controversial to a significant extent: even when people agree that murder is wrong, they often disagree about what counts as murder, as the disputes over abortion, euthanasia, and even the killing of animals attest. The question, then, is not whether controversial moral principles ought to inform our laws, but rather which controversial moral principles -- liberal, conservative, libertarian, or whatever -- ought to inform them.

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