On occasion I have moral dilemmas that I can't quite solve for myself. One of the recurring themes in this area is the fight between personal liberties, which I hold to be incredibly important, and the right of society to regulate itself.
People often are dishonest with themselves when it comes to personal liberties. Many people who oppose seatbelt laws or chafe at the idea of cigarette taxes or smoking bans will handily denounce pornography and will call for its ban. This sort of cognitive dissonance stems from Man's inner conviction of self-righteousness: My frame of reference is correct, and yours is not.This is outlined by Robert Heinlein in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress:
"Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws - always for other fellow."Defining the problem thusly -- that its none of my business what someone else does -- involves a certain amount of acceptance that his frame of reference, his morals (or lack thereof) differ from my own. This inevitably leads into moral relativism which, in turn, ultimately reduces to nihilism. If we can't establish an absolute frame of reference for our personal decisions (what is right and what is not) then we have no footing to make decisions for anyone but ourselves -- and therefore cannot judge anyone's actions. Under this umbrella, all actions becomes equally permissible, and there is no wrong or right. This is a major tenet of modern political Liberalism.
Needless to say, I find that somewhat distressing. I personally believe that there is absolute right and wrong in the universe. I don't profess to know these standards to perfection, but social evolution appears to point toward certain rights that lead to healthier, better societies, something I attribute to the blessings from God that embracing of such laws brings about. Western society is, in terms of competition, beating the pants off of more rigid and less free society. I believe that Locke hit upon some major planks in the absolute right and wrong of the universe when he defined his natural rights.
On a different tack, there is also the fact that no human being lives completely isolated from another. Existential though it may be, even small actions we make every day can have large effects on others. This completely undermines a large aspect of man's right to do whatever he pleases -- because every person is a small part of a summation that makes up society. A society of free deadbeats is not necessarily a successful society.
And therein lies the problem. Society has a self-preservation interest as strong as any individual being, and will strive to regulate its members in such a way that it will survive; individuals, however, have the right to personal liberties which may or may not contribute positively to society.
So where to draw the line? It becomes difficult to develop any sort of rule that will adequately serve to answer generally to the problem because every single action can ultimately be evaluated on a cost or benefit to society, while in turn every action of society that reduces liberty is inherently wrong.
An anecdote is in order:
Drug use is of questionable value to society. People who are addicted to drugs tend to not be stellar examples of civilization. High levels of drug use will kill you, and even moderate amounts of certain drugs can render you socially useless. By this definition, drug usage is something that more competitive societies will not allow.
However, drug use does not, on the surface, negatively impact anyone but the user. How then can we reliably apply a general rule to outlaw drugs without violating Man's right to liberty?
And even then, society is often irregular on its own definitions of what is and isn't beneficial to itself -- see the debate on the merits of alcohol versus marijuana.
This same dilemma applies almost universally to any action, from abortion to religious freedom to same-sex marriage. The only difference is the clarity of the benefit or harm to society and the price of liberty to be paid.
Ultimately I find that Western ethics tend to have worked pretty well so far in the world -- a loose standard to make moral decisions by, but one that transcends a mere acceptance of the values of my religion. Further, I believe that society ought to more often err on the side of liberty than the side of regulation -- because I do know that liberty itself (and the appreciation thereof) has value when measuring the success of a culture.
This can be expanded to politics through another Heinlein quote:
"There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him."