Moral Argument and Political Force

I agree heartily with this from Wendy McElroy:

One danger of arguing for or against a position is that everyone thinks you are saying, “there ought to be a law.”

Take the issue of discrimination on the basis of sex or gender as an example. If you argue against it, people assume you want to prohibit discrimination. If you argue for the right to discriminate, they assume you want to return to Jim Crow laws and force women back to the kitchen.

“There ought to be a law” is the unspoken message underlying much of public discourse. And that message makes people reluctant to listen impartially because agreement might lead to yet another regulation.

On most of the issues I address, my underlying message is “there ought not to be a law.” This is because the issues involve personal ethics, not public policy. The difference: Personal ethics involve moral decisions concerning the use of your own body and property — that is, virtue and vice. Public policy involves those actions that threaten or violate the rights of others — that is, crime.

The problem with politics, of course, is that people use it to express moral distaste, even if they don’t really think the activity they wish to ban should be punishable. When someone says ‘there ought to be a law’ they often don’t mean to say ‘there ought to be a punishment,’ but a punishment is what the political system produces anyway. Democracy, sheesh!

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