Wrong versus Prohibited
Tibor R. Machan
In a recent column I defended the right to liberty of those who run
escort services. The idea ought to be obvious to Americans, whose
Declaration makes clear we have an unalienable right to liberty. Any
conduct that doesn?t violate another?s rights may not be banned,
forbidden, or forcibly stopped.
At my gym, where a few fellow masochists read my column in the local
paper, some have asked me, with genuine wonder, ?What?s the difference
between wrong and prohibited?? And their question has some meat to it
because in, for example, the Ten Commandments?which for many folks is the
quintessential list of what people may not do and ought to do?the
distinction isn?t made at all.
Take the sixth commandment, ?Thou shalt not kill,? versus the third,
?Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.? It is clear
that the former is a prohibition. What it concerns is one person taking
another?s life, which is not just something that ought not to be done but
some that is prohibited, something that may be prevented by force of law.
The former, however, is an admonition, an injunction, something that
people are implored not to do. But when they do it, they are not imposing
anything on someone else. They are not being aggressive when they swear,
although they could well be doing something that is morally wrong. So they
may not be forcibly stopped from doing it.
By conflating the two kinds of wrong-doing, the Ten Commandments
perpetrates a serious confusion, one that has afflicted many religious
moralities, including Christianity, Islam and others. And folks who are
educated in ethics by such moralities as the Ten Commandments are
understandably perplexed, even though they could avoid this if they had an
understanding of a crucial component of the American political and legal
Just consider the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. It states,
among other things, that no law may be made by Congress ?prohibiting the
free exercise? of religion ?or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the
press, or of the right of the people to peaceably assemble?.? Which is to
say, prohibiting bad choices in religion, bad talk, bad journalism, or
assembly for bad purposes?none of this may be prohibited. Yet there
clearly are instances of bad choices in religion, bad talk, bad
journalism, and bad assembly. So obviously not everything that?s bad may
be prohibited by law.
And that is just what having unalienable rights means. People have the
right to do what is wrong. What they have no right to do is what violates
the rights of others?for example, stopping another person from speaking
out, taking another person?s life and property, etc.
Yet what the American political tradition?since it follows classical
liberal teachings?makes very clear, other guides to conduct do not. And
that includes the Ten Commandments as well as the edicts of many other
religions. That is one main reason that Muslims could consider it
perfectly OK to attack Danish cartoonists?they believe that what those
cartoonists did not only should not have been done but ought to be
prohibited. They seem to have no conception of the right of free speech,
so abridging free speech is for them not a problem.
But it is one thing for Muslims to hold such a view, another for American
citizens who are sworn to uphold the U. S. Constitution. Yet my pals at
the gym had no clue how to differentiate between what is wrong and what
may be prohibited.
What is responsible for this kind of gross and dangerous ignorance? I am
not sure but I suspect that the main culprit is the government schooling
most people receive. Are they being taught the difference between wrongs
involving violation of others? rights and wrongs that breach certain
ethical injunctions but do not violate any rights? I guess they are not.
And so they are willing to accept?even support?their politicians making
laws that ban what they deem to be wrongful conduct that clearly involves
no violation of any rights.
That, I suppose, is the source of all the victimless crimes that serve to
fill our jails and prisons with people, to the embarrassment of us all who
think we live in a free society.