Who Are You to Force Your Morality?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/21/2013

Some thoughts on the question “who are you to force your morality on someone else?”

I got two calls yesterday that dealt with the same issue. The first call was a challenge. You know, “Who are you to force your beliefs on others?” The second call was really a question from a concerned Christian: “How do we know when we should force our beliefs on others?” Let me give you a couple of comments about this whole concern about forcing our beliefs.

Such a thing generally comes up when a Christian is giving his opinion in one fashion or another about morality. He is saying what he thinks is right or wrong and how that ought to play out in society. If the Christian viewpoint goes against the grain (which much of Christian morality does—sexual morality, the morality that relates to the rights of the unborn children, those kinds of things), frequently we are going to get a challenge and the challenge is, “Who are you to force your morality on someone else?”

It is good for you to know up front that this challenge is usually offered in a self-refuting way. It defeats itself because it is a challenge to you that you ought not force others or ask others to live according to your moral point of view. Yet that challenge itself is a moral point of view that someone else believes in and is asking you to live by. To put it simply, they’re forcing their morality on you when they say that you shouldn’t force your morality on someone else.

I usually just point that out because, tactically, when I get approached with that issue, when someone says, “Who are you to say?”, I back off just a little bit and offer a series of questions that are meant to get at the self-refuting nature of that objection. I want to show the person that, as the objection stands, it defeats itself.

I think there is a legitimate way to raise the question, but this isn’t it. I think the legitimate way to raise the question is to acknowledge that all of us have a moral point of view that we are seeking to have believed and acted upon in society, and we are seeking to do that by some measures. It may be through very forceful measures—by the force of law—and it may be through less forceful measures. But one way or another, we have our moral point of view. Why don’t we all agree that we each have a point of moral view that we are seeking to have enforced in some fashion in society, and we are seeking to compel other people to believe. Then the question becomes, “Is our moral point of view legitimate? Is it appropriate to have this forced?” This, I think, is at the heart of the question from our caller right at the end of the day yesterday.

I want to give you a couple of tools to answer that question. Given the fact that all of us have a moral point of view that we are seeking to impact our society with in some way or another, the question then becomes, “How legitimate is that moral point of view?” And beyond that, even if it is legitimate, we have to ask, “How weighty is the moral concept?”, before we can know how much force we need to apply in enforcing this moral concept.

I am going to give you four concepts here—two categories with two things in each category to make it simple.

The first has to do with the nature of forcing morality. What do we mean by forcing our beliefs? In other words, what do we mean when we talk about compelling others to act in a way that we think is right? There are two things that we can do or two ways that we can force our beliefs. One would be the strong way and the other you might say is the weak way of enforcing it. A strong way of forcing morality would be law enforcement. Laws that are enforced by a threat of punishment.

The second way would be compelling people to act in the way that you think is right in a less forceful way. We do that by encouraging or discouraging patterns of behavior by using social approval or disapproval.

How do we force our view? Well, we could use the strong arm of the law to force our view, and the second way is we can just kind of frown and scowl at people and use social means of approval and disapproval to get people to do what we want. There may be things that we don’t think are morally weighty enough that we would throw somebody in jail for doing, but we do think are valuable enough that we would frown at them and be disgruntled or exert peer pressure on people in order to get them to comply with our wishes. Call it peer pressure or social approval or disapproval. Do you see the difference? Both of these things are in use in our society.

What’s curious about the nature of the moral climate today is the kinds of things that are enforced nowadays and the kinds of things in which people are allowed to have liberty. Since we have two different strengths of enforcement, we have to make a decision in our culture which strength we use to enforce a moral point of view and it all depends on the moral weight.

The first concept has these two qualities: the strong enforcement (punishment) and the weak enforcement (disapproval).

The second category has to do with moral weight. In other words, we have some things that I would call, for the sake of cultural order, high morality, and then we have other things, in the context of cultural order, that we would call low morality. What is high morality? High morality is those kinds of things that are so critical to the common good, to the notion of fundamental rights—rights like life, liberty and property—that society must demand their adherence under penalty of severe punishment. For example, it is absolutely critical that property is protected, therefore if someone steal somebody’s property, we use the law to punish them. If someone take somebody’s life, we use the law to punish them. There are issues related to the common good that are so morally weighty that we have to use the force of law in order to get compliance. That’s what I call high morality.

You have a whole lot of other things that relate to the common good on a lower order of morality of sorts, things that are not so critical to the common good that the society must demand their adherence under penalty of severe punishment, but are still things that are morally good and good for society at the same time. In those circumstances we don’t use the force of law, we generally use a different force—the force of social approval and disapproval. We use peer pressure.

By the way, peer pressure is very effective. We could make better use of peer pressure in a lot of issues we are facing right now than we have. Some people might consider some things so morally critical that we should have the force of law governing them and others wouldn’t. I personally consider that most of sexual behavior is of the low morality type. In other words, righteous sexual behavior ought to be encouraged and immoral sexual behavior ought to be discouraged by using the softer enforcement of peer pressure, social disapproval, and shame, rather than by passing laws about certain behavior.

This issue comes up sometimes regarding homosexuality. People ask me if I believe that homosexuality ought to be made illegal. My personal opinion is no. I don’t think that homosexuality ought to be made illegal, though I think it is immoral—in the same vein that I don’t think that heterosexual premarital sex ought to be made illegal, though I think that is immoral, or adultery ought to be made illegal, though I think that is immoral. I don’t think that all immoral things ought to be made illegal because you would have a society that becomes impossible to manage.

I think the things that ought to be made illegal are the things of the highest social concern for the stability of the common good of society and to insure the basic inalienable rights, like liberty, life, and property. The reason I say property there instead of the pursuit of happiness is that the phrase “pursuit of happiness” is just too vague and misunderstood in our modern perspective. Incidentally, in the first drafts the Declaration of Independence the phrase “life, liberty, and property” was there instead of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In any event, there is a judgment call in low morality, and in my particular opinion, I think that sexual morality is of the second order and we should use social mores and peer pressure and notions like shame, for example, to keep people in line, rather than using the force of law to get people to conform to sexual morality. When I say keep them in line, I mean encouraging people to pursue behavior that is helpful for the common good.

What’s curious about the point of view nowadays is the kinds of things that are, in a sense, enforced by this soft type of enforcement—disapproval. Society has gone topsy-turvey. When was the last time you ever heard someone talk about something they ought to be ashamed of? It is almost like we have this phobia against people feeling ashamed. I understand that if you want to hire somebody, you can’t ask them about their criminal record. You can’t ask them about their sexual habits. These things fall under the issue of privacy, but there is also a suggestion that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

If people are on welfare, they can’t be made to feel bad for being on welfare. In the past that used to be one of the things that really helped us because welfare was considered a shameful thing. People got on it when they had to be on it and got off it as fast as possible so they weren’t a burden on society. Instead, they were encouraged by the mores of society to make a contribution rather than just draw from society and do nothing. You don’t see too many situations nowadays where people cast shameful aspersions on particular behavior, at least not on the kinds of behavior that they used to in the past.

However, we do see a kind of shame being cast, but now the shame is upon those who still hold to a traditional morality and believe in things like hard work, making a contribution, and sexual purity and express those views in the public square. When they do they are faulted for “forcing their morality on other people.” In other words, what’s being shamed nowadays are people who would like to use the notion of shame to apply to common moral principles. It is shameful to find something wrong with homosexuality as a lifestyle. It is shameful to make someone feel badly for their sexual behavior. It is shameful to make someone feel badly because they are on welfare.

Both of these things are still happening nowadays, but the things are all twisted up. We still use the law to enforce the common good when we have a high moral issue in question. How do we decide that? Frankly, it is a matter of cultural consensus.

But the cultural consensus has changed in the area of using social approval and disapproval, though it is very effective. Those things that were considered virtuous in the past are now considered vices and visa-versa. Those things that were considered vices in the past have now become virtues. The vices are now being encouraged by social approval, and the virtues are being discouraged by disapproval.

If you are a moralistic person, shame on you.