We have become a society obsessed with people’s rights.  One very prevalent type of right, is the right to choose.  We have demanded rights to choose many things:

  • Privacy: The government needs to prevent people from snooping in our mail
  • Career Choice: Indentured servitude is not acceptable
  • Our spouse: No one can force us to choose our spouse
  • Watching porn: The government cannot interfere with our choice to watch porn
  • Abortion: The government cannot prevent a woman from choosing to terminate her pregnancy
  • Gender of our spouse: No one can prevent same sex couples from marrying
  • etc.

However, if we have a right to choose, then it is clearly not an issue of morality.

For example, no one has the right to choose:

  • Whether or not to rape.
  • Whether or not to torture a child for fun

When something is in the moral sphere, there is no choice to be had.

Now interestingly, sometimes the existence of a right is considered a moral issue.  If you take away a person’s right to come on a bus because of his skin color, you have limited a freedom in an immoral way.  So we need to carefully distinguish:

  1. A right to choose (and the choice is always between moral options)
  2. A moral
  3. The morality of the existence of a right

Now one thing that should be noted at the outset.  We are increasing the number of rights in society.  Clearly much good has happened as a result.  Let’s list some of the new rights, and regardless of what you think of any particular item on the list, you will likely at least be able to admit that some of the new rights in the list are a good thing:

  • Right to choose your spouse
  • Right for women to vote
  • Right for slaves to live freely
  • Right to have an abortion
  • Right to not be discriminated against based on skin color
  • Right for gay people to marry
  • Right to choose your religion
  • Right to choose whether or not to cover your hair

When a person’s choice is disregarded, it may be because it was mistakenly overlooked (e.g. the management in a corporation forgot to ask the employees to vote on which new office they’d like) or because it was intentionally denied.  If it was intentionally denied it could be for one of a couple of reasons:

  1. It is a moral issue, and therefore not a right for anyone to choose (e.g. you cannot have a right to rape, because it is a moral wrong.)
  2. The denier had some non-moral goal.  The goal could be personal gain or the collective good (e.g. China denies the right of its population to have more than 1 child to avoid economic collapse).  Note this could be interpreted a moral issue, if we said that it was a moral imperative for a government to avoid economic collapse and the only way to achieve this was a 1 child policy.  But we will leave that be.

Generally, as you increase the number of rights, you decrease the number of things you claim to be moral issues.

Now clearly, in providing women the right to vote, you are not decreasing the number of moral issues.  However, when you provide the right of a gay person to marry, you are saying that the choice between heterosexual marriage and homosexual marriage is an amoral decision.  

Next we will dive into how this affects tolerance in a pluralistic society.