Friday, August 11, 2017

A hierarchy of moral choices and actions

What is the relationship between personal moral convictions and public policy?
These days public debate is often acrimonious as different groups try to "impose" their views on one another. People on both the left and the right do it.
The issue could be tax evasion, human rights, sexual harassment, abortion, swearing, smoking, hate speech, substance abuse, religious discrimination, gambling, pornography, ...

Suppose I believe that action X is morally wrong. Then I think there is a whole range of possible responses and actions I can take, moving from the private to the public.

I decide that it is my goal to personally not do X.

I tell people I am in close relationship with (e.g. family members) that I believe they should not do X.

Although I believe that X is wrong I do not publically tell others they should not do X.
This might be because I don't think I have the right or because of the relational breakdown that may occur or public ridicule or I don't think people will actually listen.

I publically state that people should not do X.

I take an activist role to raise public awareness that X is wrong.

I advocate that the government should make action X illegal.

I vote at an election solely for candidates or politics parties that want to make X illegal.

I undertake civil disobedience to try and stop people performing X. I am willing to go to jail.

I am willing to use physical force (violence) to stop people doing X. [For example, subduing a rapist].

I find this hierarchy helpful because I think it is actually what most people do, although subconsciously.

What do you think?


  1. I think this escalating list is a proper description of what can happen.

    I would draw the line at making action X illegal. In my view the moral framework of laws should not be put down in the laws themselves, but in the underlying law. I.e. the constitution.
    And if things are not clear in the constitution with regard to specific action X, I'd draw the line for trying to make it illegal using the criterion that "if action X does not infringe on other people's rights, then it does not warrant making it illegal" (noting that if it does infringe it likely already is implicitly made illegal by current law, in which case jurisprudence is likely able to more explicitly solve the question).

    Obviously things get hard when the rights of others are not well-defined - see abortion.

  2. That’s the way how – step by step – “pseudo fundamentalist” will act in course of time. “Authentic fundamentalists” – maybe the Amish in the United States – are characterized by the absence of resentment and envy and by the deep indifference to the way of life of the "unbelievers".

  3. Perhaps at some point in the hierarchy opposing action X conflicts with another action Y also considered immoral. e.g., if opposing the rapist requires potentially lethal force which I also oppose. Or participating in the plan to assassinate Hitler in WWII conflicts with the mandate to respect authorities (Bonhoffer).