Monday, March 09, 2009

One's Right to be Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent demonstration outside the Earl Warren Bldg in San Francisco someone was waiving around a sign that read: "A moral wrong can't be a civil right." Well, in fact it can! A simple case in point is when someone writes something that is immoral or produces pictures or movies that are morally corrupt or writes a book that praises Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot (Khmer Rouge). In America one definitely has a legal or civil right to do all this even though it's all arguably morally wrong. And all human beings have this right, actually, whether their legal system acknowledges it or not.

Indeed, the entire point of having rights is to be in charge of a sphere of one's life, which means one is free to act well or badly within such a sphere--it is entirely up to the individual and others may not invade the sphere even if quite rightly they judge what one is doing morally wrong.

This does not mean there is no right and wrong, or that no one can know it. It means only that whether one does what is right or does what is wrong must be up to the oneself and may not be imposed on one. The only exception is with wrong conduct that is a violation of someone else's rights because in that kind of case the intervention is not for correcting the bad conduct but for protecting the victim of rights violation.

This, at least, is the way rights are understood in a fully free society or country. Obviously in regimes that do not prize individual rights and liberty, what the people "in charge" will try to do is impose their own understanding of right on everyone else, just as if these others were their children! Even in a relatively open welfare state such as America, Britain, Canada, or Germany, the government will often impose on people its conception of what it amounts to be moral or ethical, thereby robbing them of their chance to be sovereign, to govern themselves. For example, all the so called compassion that governments engage in involves forcing citizens to part with their resources so governments than can do with them as they see fit, which sometimes amounts to helping certain citizens but more often comes to supporting some favorite project of the politicians and bureaucrats. The same with forcing people to be prudent about their use of drugs or alcohol! These are all challenges individuals must face on their own or with the help of family and friends.

Why should people have the freedom to do what is wrong, provided they aren't violating anyone's rights? Because they are by their very nature moral agents which means they can make decisions based on their convictions and this is how they earn credit or blame for how they live. And doing so is a person's major life project, to do the right thing of his or her own free will. But that also means they might fail, as many of us do quite often. By not permitting one to fail at living a morally good life, one also robs him or her of the chance to succeed! And that basically amounts to undermining their very humanity, the thing that makes them human--their moral nature.

What many folks even in America do not grasp is that the most important aspect of the American political tradition, including the revolution that got it more or less fully implemented in the country, is this establishment of the regime of individual sovereignty, of demoting the king and governments in general from their pretense of being in charge of the lives of their so called subjects. Government was identified, for example in the Declaration of Independence, as existing only to protect the rights of the citizenry not to run those lives.

Indeed, president Barack Obama would do well to keep this in mind as he talks of laying out grand plans for the country, plans that inevitably intrude on the personal projects of the citizenry. A free country isn't about such plans but about making it possible for all citizens to embark upon their own peaceful plans and projects, grand or modest.

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