Freedom lets us act morally wrong

By Tibor Machan

At a recent demonstration outside the Earl Warren Building in San Francisco, someone was waiving 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.

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.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: