Perspectives: The relationship between character and self-determination

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OPINION — One of the biggest mistakes we make is when we seek to control others through the use of state force.

A prime example of this can be seen in the feverish opposition to a medicinal cannabis initiative that Utah voters will consider this fall. Concerns over medical safety are a red herring, considering the amount of authentic research that has been done over the years.

Ultimately, it comes down to modern-day prohibitionists advocating the use of state force to criminalize and punish patients who wish to use a naturally occurring substance. Ostensibly, the larger message they wish to send is a moral one about the evils of substance abuse.

They’re failing to distinguish between peaceful patients who have harmed no one and users who engage in criminal behavior to fund their addiction. They fail to realize that the virtuous society they wish to promote cannot exist where submissive people are not free to choose and free to act for themselves.

Put another way, there can be no true moral qualities where there is not respect for the free choices and actions of others. Virtue is not virtue if it is not freely chosen.

This same argument can be applied to the gun control debate.

When a shooting takes place, too many people have been conditioned to focus on the tool that was used rather than the attacker’s choice to commit violence. Attempting to restrict the public from owning a particular weapon does nothing to address the larger question of how someone can give in to the darkness of which each of us is capable.

In other nations where strict limits on gun ownership have been imposed, those who give in to evil have simply chosen other weapons.

Tricia Beck-Peter has made a powerful case that our personal character is a more effective antidote to evil than the oppressive control of others. She reminds us that “every individual with the capacity for heroism is a potential villain who chose differently.”

Beck-Peter starts with the premise that violence can be prevented through either oppression or character. Clearly, a lot of people have bought into the notion that we should cry out to government to oppress us for our own good.

But this would be a mistake in that it robs us of our ability to choose to be good people.

Beck-Peter writes:

It’s frightening, but it’s necessary for us as individuals of strong character to face our capacity for evil. Otherwise, we could not choose goodness. And if we can’t choose goodness, we float powerlessly in a vacuum of moral impotence, unable to hone the swords of our character on the whetstone of difficult choices. We have to be able to choose goodness to be good. Because you could do that, but you don’t. You have chosen not to.

This approach recognizes that personal character is a far more effective deterrent to evil than simplistic outward exertions of official coercion.

There are other benefits as well.

We all know individuals of strong character. Do they not serve as a clear source of goodness, courage and inspiration to everyone around them?

If we’re serious about making the right kind of difference, our personal character is an area where we each have complete control. That is where our time and efforts would be best spent.

Each of us has daily opportunities to exert influence on the world around us. One of the biggest challenges a person can face is choosing how best to use his or her energy in ways that are positive.

Unfortunately, our personal energies are not limitless, and that means we have to consciously focus them where they are likely to do the most good. This is particularly true when it comes to our moral energy.

Paul Rosenberg described a perfect example of how moral energy can be wasted when he wrote the following:

The internal energies of a mainstream, respectable couple, for example, are almost fully directed away from serious moral issues. This couple likely devotes extreme levels of emotion (drawn from the same energy pool as moral energy) to harmless diversions: the environment, their pets, hating one or the other political party, office politics, complaining about all the small moral failures they see, and so on.

For instance, how many people spend time consuming political mass media content that’s designed to keep them fearful and angry? How many divert hours of their attention to social media, sports and gossip?

Some focus their moral energy exclusively on trying to control other people. Others seem to find purpose in reflexively tearing down what others are doing without ever actually contributing anything of value themselves.

Such distractions keep us mired in the status quo and can prevent us from having the sort of meaningful impact that genuinely improves the world. Sound character establishes greater authentic morality than force ever will.

Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events and liberty viewed through what he calls the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: bryanh@stgnews.com

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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3 Comments

  • Scott April 23, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    Interesting…conflating non-violent medical marijuana use with AR-15 ownership. That’s a bold strategy, we’ll see how it plays out. In this case, you can make a clear argument the medical marijuana, as a tool, offers more benefit to the individual than it does harm. Its safety profile is well-established. High-capacity guns offer some benefit to the user– perhaps he’s a somali pirate who is fighting to eke out a living. Or a member of the military fighting this same somali pirate. Perhaps he’s trying to fight many opponents at once. There’s some benefit there. But a very few individuals have ruined it for the rest of us! I’d like to shoot machine guns in the desert on the weekend, but I can’t. I’d love to walk around naked all day around my neighborhood, but I can’t. The point is, there must be some limits.

  • Snarkles April 23, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    People who aren’t taught right and wrong and how to co-exist together peacefully can’t make a moral choice. And few will make a moral choice over selfishness. It is the way people are. That is why we have laws, because not many care that their rights stop when they affect others or even when they destroy their own health. Saying we all deserve to have access to anything we want to promote moral character is as ridiculous as saying the end of prohibition got rid of drunk drivers and substance induced violence, or allowing abortion got rid of women murdering their unborn. At least with laws we know when we are doing something wrong and that there are consequences. Consequences at least deter some people.

    • comments April 23, 2018 at 11:40 pm

      both you and scott have made good points here. Libertarians often tend to drift off into the land of loony fantasy and nuttery. The mass population of people really are too dumb or evil to live in what folks like Hyde would consider a “libertarian dreamworld”. It just doesn’t fit well with human nature. Laws, gov’t, and our political rulers do serve a purpose even if we often times don’t like it. Yes, they have to be kept in check, but they are mostly necessary. When gov’t is tiny and limited you often see private corporations form systems that function as “mini gov’ts”, and these are often very nefarious. I’ve never heard any practical ideas from liberty loons as to how that sort of problem can be contained with a tiny and mostly impotent central gov’t. I havn’t read the above Hyde article yet, and I might not, maybe tomorrow…

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