Ethics Requires Freedom
Perhaps the most important freedom is the freedom to live according to one’s own moral principles. If a person is forced to participate in a system that they consider evil, then they are a prisoner.
In contrast, if a system that someone disagrees with on ethical grounds exists, but they’re free to refrain from participation in it, then they might not be happy about the state of the world, but at least they’ll be able to have a clear conscience knowing that they personally are living according to their principles.
Now it may seem like, at least technically, we are free to live according to our principles. People who disagree with individual actions like stealing or lying can simply choose to not do those things, even though the price they pay may be high.
People who oppose the meat industry can become vegetarian. People who oppose burning fossil fuels can ride a bike. People who oppose abortion can not get an abortion. People who oppose the treatment of workers by mining companies can refrain from buying stocks in those companies. Even people who oppose fighting in wars can, in some countries, avoid being drafted in the military by becoming conscientious objectors.
But in other cases, it’s not so clear that we’re free to refrain from participation.
If there’s a war that someone considers unjust, they may not be forced to fight in it personally, but they may still be forced to support it financially through taxes. Other examples include government funding for research that involves animal testing, or government funding for abortions. Technically, if taxpayer money is being used for something that someone considers unethical, they can always avoid supporting it by not working, or by working little enough to pay no taxes. But I’d argue that at that point a person’s freedom is being severely compromised, and, especially if they have dependents to support, it might not be feasible to survive on a salary that low.
Importantly, the question of whether particular evils are actually evil or not is totally irrelevant. The point is that, if someone is forced to participate in something that’s unethical according to them, we then have a failure of democracy. It’s unethical to force a person to support something that they consider unethical, because it makes them a prisoner of the majority (or “majority”) simply for holding a particular belief.
Democracy may be fine for determining what kind of world people generally want to live in and ensuring that everyone’s voice is considered in the determination of that world, but it should never be used as a way to force people to help build a world that they have ethical objections to.
For questionable tax-funded activities, there’s a simple solution. Allow people to opt-out of funding particular causes with their tax dollars and designate a registered charity or alternative approved cause for their money to go to instead.
The funding for that activity would then be reduced according to the percentage of people who opt-out.
This may not make a lot of practical difference in all cases – the things that some people consider unjust might still happen – but it could make a world of difference to those people who would no longer feel responsible for what they consider to be injustices.
It may not be feasible to do this for everything that our taxes are used for, but it should be quite possible to do it for a few of the most controversial issues, or for issues which are considered controversial among established groups.
Of course, someone being required by law to fund something that they consider unethical is an extreme case. There are lesser ways in which we can be pressured to participate in something we consider unethical, even if we aren’t technically forced.
The cost of non-participation can be high and can require you to avoid participation in a whole system in order to avoid being the cause of a single injustice.
If you invest in a company or an investment fund which itself invests in companies that do something you don’t want to participate in, is it necessary to withdraw from the entire investment? And, of course, it’s easy to imagine ways in which children are required to participate in things they object to by parents, teachers or caregivers, or ways that someone in a nursing home is forced to betray their ethics.
The solution, as always, is freedom and choice.
Companies, governments, families, peer groups, and other organizations can look for simple changes that would accommodate people who object to particular things and would give them the freedom to avoid participation in only those things.
People don’t usually want to do that because it means making an effort to allow others to live according to principles they don’t themselves believe in. It can feel like the effort should be on the shoulders of the ones with the principles. But we need to remember, or at least imagine, what it’s like to be forced (at least practically, if not technically) to act against one’s own principles.
If you were the moral prisoner, wouldn’t you want others to make accommodations for you? Is it worth making accommodations for those whose morals happen to be overlooked by our present society, in exchange for others making accommodations for your morals when the tables are turned and it’s yours which get overlooked?
* Adam Richard is an educator and math tutor and former computer programmer. He enjoys philosophy in his spare time.