Secular Confession, Conclusion

I'll take the last two commandments as a whole, since they are saying, in essence, the same thing:

Nobody has the right to tell anyone what is right for him or her.

 You should be free to live any way you want so long as you’re not  harming other people.

The first is very sloppily formulated, and if  the author of this confession, whichever side he is on, had a clear head, he would have made his meaning plainer.  Notice the overlapping meanings of the word "right."  What else is a supposed "right" but the obligation to do that which is right?  Obviously, we should admit that a doctor has the duty to tell his patients what he thinks is good for them, but does he have the power to compel them to quit smoking, drinking, and roistering?  Most of us would say "No."  So, a clearer statement would be be something like,   "I think  no one should have the power to force other people to do what he thinks or knows is best for them."

Aren't there exceptions, such as young children--or even teenagers and one's grown but not mature offspring?  What about schizophrenics who have delusions which, if they acted on them, could cause the death of the schizophrenic or of other people?  Now if we admit that children, dependents, and the insane require guidance, whether they wish to accept it or not, what about other people, whose lack of judgment, while it may be less obvious, may lead to harm?

In fact, friends, relations, colleagues, teachers, pastors, and a host of others have the obligation to admonish us when we go astray, and in some cases--in the military, in the church hierarchy, within a family--those with superior authority may and should compel obedience.

What about government authorities?  The simple answer is that governments can punish people who commit crimes.  Should they also have the power to punish various forms of moral and social "deviance"?   There is no simple affirmative or negative answer.  Much depends on the values of the society.  What they punish in Singapore may be considered worthy of praise in Paris.  In general, though, it has been more or less standard opinion (though not universal) in the West that governments should not assume the power to force people to be virtuous but only, as Saint Thomas argues, to establish conditions propitious to virtue.  Thus, while it is probably a mistake to forbid or punish alcohol consumption, fornication, drug use, sodomy, such behaviors should be stigmatized and exposed to ridicule and never never never given "rights."

Prohibition of alcohol was a bad idea and it is still stupid to forbid children to drink alcohol in their parents' presence with their parents' permission.  In France and Italy, there are laws, but generally it is perfectly legal and acceptable for a underage people to drink wine in a restaurant with their parents or guardians.  Last year in Wisconsin, I was asking a waiter about beer choices.  He said he had limited experience because, as someone underage, he only drank beer in this joint when his parents were around.

As for the last commandment,

You should be free to live any way you want so long as you’re not  harming other people.

much depends on our notion of harm.  Most people who say this believe only physical harm is significant.  Thus, seducing a married woman or a virgin does no harm, so long as the female gives her consent.  Again, at what age can she give consent?  With what mental development?  Is an 18 year old female with an IQ of 60 capable of giving rational consent?  What if her IQ is 90 but she is intoxicated?  The harm of adultery may damage the life chances of the injured spouse and the children, but presumably that counts for nothing.

This is, of course, the non-aggression rule so highly esteemed by Libertarians, but none of them with whom I have discussed this, neither the acutely rational David Gordon nor the brilliant Rothbard, were able to make a convincing case.  Obviously, we are in the realm of subjective value so beloved by Libertarians, but, I have argued, what if my subjective valuation of my children's innocence perceives harm in a work of pornography furnished to them?  What recourse do I have?

I once had a friendly discussion with  Walter Block, a very amiable man who takes the argument of victimless crimes to the ultimate.  I proposed to shake hands on  an agreement to take these questions out of the legal arena:  He could open up a porno shop across from my children's elementary school, but I and the neighbors would be free to burn him out, if we could.  Of course, he would be free to defend his property.  But, he complained, that's like dueling.  Right, another victimless crime.  Attempted homicide by mutual consent.  But that's aggression, he protested.  It's no more an act of aggression than his assault on my children's moral imagination.

Essentially, both of these commandments rest on entirely false or at least unprovable Liberal assumptions about human rights.  A more realistic assessment was offered by Dr. Johnson, who told Boswell that every man has the right to say what he likes. and every other man has the right to knock him down for it.



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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina