Column on One’s Right to be Wrong

One’s Right to be Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent demonstration outside the Earl Warren Bldg in San
Francisco someone was waiving around 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. 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 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 violation.

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. For
example, all the so called compassion that governments engage in involves
forcing citizens to part with their resources so governments then can do
with them as they see fit, which sometimes amounts to helping certain
citizens but more often comes to supporting some favorite project of the
politicians and bureaucrats. The same with forcing people to be prudent
about their use of drugs or alcohol! These are all challenges individuals
must face on their own or with the help of family and friends.

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 praise 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. But that also means they might fail, as many of
us do quite often. By not permitting one to fail at living a morally good
life, one also robs him or her of the chance to succeed! And that
basically amounts to undermining their very humanity, the thing that makes
them human–their moral nature.

What many folks even in America do not grasp is that the most
important aspect of the American political tradition, including the
revolution that got it more or less fully implemented in the country, is
this establishment of the regime of individual sovereignty, of demoting
the king and governments in general from their pretense of being in charge
of the lives of their so called subjects. Government was identified, for
example in the Declaration of Independence, as existing only to protect
the rights of the citizenry not to run those lives.

Indeed, president Barack Obama would do well to keep this in mind
as he talks of laying out grand plans for the country, plans that
inevitably intrude on the personal projects of the citizenry. A free
country isn’t about such plans but about making it possible for all
citizens to embark upon their own peaceful plans and projects, grand or

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