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Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Dr. Tom Palmer: We must end the culture war

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Do you sometimes feel like you’re being squeezed by ideologues to the left and right, each with an ideology that dictates how you should think, feel, speak, and live? Tired of speech police, morality police, people telling you you’re evil and the enemy of the people when you disagree, or even when you just peacefully go about your own business? 

If so, then you’re not alone. Most Americans want no part of the culture war being pushed on us by the extremes. But very loud voices on each side are squeezing the middle, making people choose what should be imposed on others, if only to avoid having something imposed on them.

We face a choice. We can either all live the way the ideologues demand, or each of us can choose to live as she or he chooses. We may have our own ideas of the best ways to live, but they can’t all be right for everyone all the time. The result of others trying to tell everyone how to live means people are forced to choose sides. It’s oppress or be oppressed.

But there is another option: live and let live.

The culture war is based on the presumption of power. It’s presumed that government has the authority to tell us how to live, so we’re forced to fight to get control of the machinery of government. That game pulls in not only the arrogant, who think their own plan will win, but it forces even otherwise tolerant bystanders to choose sides.  

The presumption of power says that government has the authority to coerce, and if you want to live as you wish, you have to request permission. The presumption of power puts the burden of proof on you to justify living as you see fit, and not as others want you to live.

The alternative is the presumption of liberty. Everyone is presumed to have the liberty – the pre-permission – to live as she or he wants, unless doing so is somehow demonstrably harmful to others. The burden of proof is on the state to justify restricting your freedom. 

Under the power principle, it’s forbidden, unless you manage to get permission. Under the liberty principle, it’s allowed, unless it’s clear that it’s forbidden, and forbidding something requires justification, namely, that it’s harmful to the enjoyment of life and liberty by others. 

There is no liberty to kill, rape, rob, defraud, or harm others, because one “liberty” would contradict another. (That’s what they used to call “license,” as opposed to liberty.) But your enjoyment of your own liberty over your life doesn’t contradict the liberty of others. In a free society, you can go to one religious service and your neighbor to another, or to none at all, without making you enemies. Not so when people fight over what will be the religion of the state.

In a free society, as Benedict Spinoza observed, one’s “religion and sect are considered of no importance; for it has no effect before the judges in gaining or losing a cause, and there is no sect so despised that its followers, provided that they harm no one, pay every man his due, and live uprightly, are deprived of the protection of the magisterial authority.” It’s an old ideal, but worth defending. And we’re in danger of losing it. 

We have to choose: Presumption of Power or Presumption of Liberty. 

Live. And let live.

To find out how you can help make a difference, be sure to check out Students For Liberty’s Not My Culture War campaign.



This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, send your piece to [email protected], and mention SFL Blog in the email subject line for your chance to be published and be seen!

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