Imposing Morality

by Jay Johansen
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I had said that I was against abortion. The young man I was speaking to shook his head. "You're entitled to your own beliefs," he said, "but you can't impose your morality on others."

"Why not?" I asked.

Obviously taken aback by this reply, he said, "What do you mean?"

"Why can't I impose my morality on others? Would it be wrong or bad for me to impose my morality on others?"

"Well, yeah, of course," he replied. It was clear from his tone that this was obvious. "You have no right to ..."

"But isn't 'wrong' a moral word?" I asked. "If you belive something is wrong, if I have 'no right' to do it, that's a moral judgement. So you're telling me that I should follow your moral code. You're trying to impose your morality on me."

"That's different," he explained helpfully. "I'm just saying that you can't tell other people what to do."

"How is it different? You're saying I have no right to impose my morals on others, but you're trying to impose your morals on me."

"I'm not trying to impose my morals on anyone!" he insisted. "Just the opposite: I'm saying you shouldn't impose your morals."

"But that's an opinion about morals," I said. "And you're trying to impose it on me."

"No, that's different," he repeated. And from there the conversation just went in circles until he walked away in disgust at my disregard for elementary rules of moral behavior.


That's the funny thing about the whole "imposing morality" argument. If there's nothing wrong with "imposing my morality" on others, then why shouldn't I do it? If there is something wrong with doing this, then for you to tell me not to do it is to impose your opinion about right and wrong -- your morality -- on me. Perhaps in my moral code, it's perfectable acceptable to impose my morality on others. If you think it's wrong to impose your morals on others, then fine, don't do it, but don't try imposing that belief on me! I'll go around imposing my morality all I want, and you should just leave me alone. If you think there's something wrong with imposing morality, and you see someone else doing this, you might rationally say, "I would never do that", or "That makes me uncomfortable". But you have no moral right to tell someone to stop. To do that would make you a hypocrite. In the very act of condemning someone else, you are condemning yourself, because you are doing exactly what you condemn him for.

Indeed, does anyone really believe that it is always wrong to impose your morality on others? Do the people who say this really believe it themselves? Suppose I was in a debate with someone who said that it was wrong to impose your morality on others, that everyone should be free to do whatever they think is right. And suppose I then screamed, "That's a stupid idea!", ran over to the other person and punched him in the face. I should try this in a debate some time and see what happens. Because if the other guy really believed what he just said, his only possible consistent response to being punched in the face would be to say, "I think it's wrong to use violence against people who disagree with you. But that's just my opinion. If you think beating people up is acceptable behavior, well, I certainly wouldn't want to impose my morality on you. So I'll just lie here on the floor in a pool of blood while you stomp on my head." Somehow I doubt that that would be his response. More likely he would fight back, and/or call the police and have me arrested for assault. That is, he would impose his morality -- that violence is not an acceptable debating tactic -- on me.

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Posted 13 Nov 2004.

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