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

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: