Imposing Values and Ideas: When and Why – An Armchair Ethics Post

The idea or desire to have everyone behave and act as you do is common and an underlying part of the human elements that make up who we are and how we interact. It is far easier to understand someone if they are “just like you” rather than something that is other or different. There is little effort needed to understand what motivates the person, what their needs and wants are, and what they are striving for in this life. Often today and especially more pronounced in the past, there has been an understanding that we should try and teach others to be more like us. To become “smarter” and behave the way we do which was seen as the best way to live and most advanced. Slowly in the late 20th century and into the 21st this idea that we should impose our values upon others to better them, has lost some prominence in the way people and nations interact. Now, common thinking is to learn about the other person and engage in a manner that values their unique identity.

At the same time as we can appreciate the other person or government as unique and from which lessons can be drawn, there are other times when the difference cannot be accepted. This is due to objective harms both major and minor that are caused by a particular behaviour, value, or idea. On the individual level, these behaviours can range from a generally rude and surly individual who puts down people that he comes across, to a husband who physically abuses his wife and bullies her into submission and servitude. At the national level, values and ideas that cannot be accepted are widely recognized as those which go against our fundamental human rights, cause harm to innocent citizens, and causes deadly international conflict.

With both a strong idea to allow for individuality and sovereignty and yet a desire to avoid harm and protect people from harm regardless of location, the question arises when can we impose our values and ideas on what is right and just. Knowing that such imposition requires justification, the reasons for why there can be this imposing upon another person should also be known. In the few paragraphs that follow, the example of an individual citizen will be used to explore what should be taken as a first approach when thinking of imposing values and ideas, the reasons for going beyond that first approach, and why it may be needed.

An example for the purposes of this discussion is the following:

Jeremy is a church fairing catholic who very much lives up to the teaching of the church and is steadfast that the word of God is the truth. Knowing the importance of the word of God, he believes it is his mission to spread the teachings to everyone he meets so that as many people can be saved as possible and the greatest good can be achieved. The values and ideas of the church are a part of his identity which he profoundly believes is the right path in life.

Ken is a transitioned man who was kicked out of his household at a young age for his differences in values and ideas from his typical nuclear family that while did not go to church, followed standard Anglo-Saxon values and beliefs. Ken is open to differing opinions, values, and ideas, and started as a hobby a small Not-for-Profit to raise awareness of the barriers and struggle for those in his community. His main job is for the same insurance company as Jeremy and in the same office space. The values and ideas of the LGBTQ2+ are a part of his identity which he profoundly believes should be respected as a fundamental human right.

Jeremy and Ken are both top performers at their jobs. While Ken is apprehensive or Jeremy knowing he follows strictly the teachings of the church, there have been no disagreements and office life has been normal. After a church sermon that asks the congregation to try and save through the teachings of God someone you know, Jeremy asks to meet with Ken after work to talk. When Jeremy and Ken meet, Jeremy has the intention of trying to impose his values and ideas onto Ken. Knowing Jeremy, Ken figures that the point of the talk is to try and convert him, and intends to respond by attempting to impose his values and ideas onto Jeremy.

The first question for discussion is what either intends to do plainly wrong? The concept of negative freedom might lead one to say that it is wrong. Under negative freedom, we are free from others inhibitions on our free will. Jeremy would be attempting to impose his values and ideas onto Ken in a way that would constrain Ken’s way of life. It would also be true, however, that Ken’s attempt to impose his values and ideas onto Jeremy could be seen as inhibiting Jeremy’s free will. Is this taking it too far though? Can we not suggest to other people, perhaps not impose, but suggest and argue for a change in values? Much in the same was as one political party staffer might try and persuade a supporter of the opponent. It seems intuitive that it can be attempted and that this is part of our human nature. Perhaps we can say the discussion itself is not plainly wrong, but at what point should it stop? At what point has it actually constrained an individual’s free will.

When thinking of negative freedoms it cannot be said that merely the attempt to change a person’s values and ideas, and therefore, their way of life, is constraining their free will. It actually must be the case that the imposition was effective and has changed the values and ideas and the person’s free will. There is quite a long way from the discussion to actual realization. In a free society, the imposition should stop when the individual makes it clear no change in values and ideas is desired. This upholds their freedoms. Perhaps, Jeremy makes it clear to Ken that he will not change his Sunday routine of going to church and following its tenants. If Jeremey has his freedom, Ken should not take further action to change the values and ideas of Jeremy. Similarly, if Ken is steadfast with his values and ideas, upon letting it known no change will be made, attempts to do so should be stopped. No measure beyond persuasion through dialogue can rightly be justified and indeed dialogue should be ceased in order to be respectful of the other’s decision.

We each clearly have freedoms from others constraining our free will and what we hold as our values and ideas. Is there, however, times when going beyond just dialogue is justified. Can we say that although the individual wants the imposition to stop, it must continue until there is a change? Arguably it is when there is a known risk of physical or significant emotional harm. If either Jeremy or Ken held values or beliefs that would cause physical or significant emotional harm, it could be said that imposition of values and idea which do not cause those harms can be justified. Since neither Ken nor Jeremy holds values or beliefs that meet that criteria, both should be said to be allowed to live freely from someone imposing their values and ideas onto them. What if, however, there was an individual who if left to their free will, would cause harm to others? Then it would be permissible to impose values and ideas onto them to eliminate those harms.

There are several important necessities in life. At the top is freedom from harm. If there is only one reason why you can impose a change in the values and ideas of another person, the reason to be free from harm must be taken as absolute. If someone’s values and ideas may directly, and arguably even indirectly, cause harm, there is the right to change as best possible those values and ideas that would cause harm. If we think freedoms can be ranked, and perhaps not everyone does, but if we can, then freedom from harm must trump freedoms of belief and the values and ideas that accompany. A belief that causes harm should not be given freedom to propagate. Freedom from harm is a shared necessity as social animals. Those necessary benefits of security and freedom from harm, extend far beyond an individual, to neighborhood, city, country, region, and globally.

Freedom from harm, both physical and significant emotional harm, is such a core human right that all measures to be free from harm can be rightly seen as justified. Those measures include, as a base level, imposing values and ideas which would reduce future harm.