Banning Straws Doesn’t Make For A More Virtuous World

Individuals should be secure in their beliefs, but certainty in the virtue of one’s conclusions is not sanction to impose belief upon another.

Certainty of belief is a biological imperative. An individual in a state of nature needs to be able to rely on his judgment; survival depends on not second-guessing whether a particular species of mushroom is poisonous or whether the clouds on the horizon are a harbinger of foul weather. Ignorance — and the precious seconds wasted in wavering between competing conclusions–can prove fatal.

On a more abstract level, certainty of belief is a moral imperative. After all, why believe in something you are not confident is true? For honest actors, truth makes morality.

But belief is the product of an individual’s analytic process. It requires careful scrutiny: the consideration of one fact against another, the ability to integrate complimentary values into a broader context. There is no substitute for this process, at least not so far as certainty is concerned.

There is a fine line between certainty of belief and dogma; this line is reason, which is employed by individuals, not organs of society or the government. Dogma is an attempt by confident actors to force others to live according to their convictions, robbing those over whom they impose their morality of the ability to determine for themselves exactly where truthfulness is to be found.

Such an action is predicated on force, if only on an abstract level. No physical imposition is involved, but freedom of conscience is abrogated by the creating of a social hierarchy of views and beliefs that cannot be challenged.

Force becomes less abstract, however, when government fancies itself a modern-day Don Quixote and embarks on a misguided but well-intentioned quest to fight for the cause of some virtue. The good-intentions of regulatory action are usually enough to mitigate the harm done to individual freedom to choose; not only are verifiable facts on the side of the moralistic crusaders, but that halcyon of democratic virtues — the voice of the people — augments the incontrovertibility of empirical proof.

The latest example of this social quixotism is the attempt by certain municipal governments, including Santa Barbara and Seattle, to ban plastic straws. To be clear, government laws that assess fines and impose jail sentences against those who illegally distribute plastic straws are a separate issue from private corporations ceasing to offer the drinking aid to customers. There is no force involved in the private sector; any would-be consumer can simply walk away, money securely in pocket, from an establishment that adopts a policy he or she finds personally distasteful.

But the same cannot be said for government. It is often said that government is not a creator; this is true, but neither is it a thinker. Morality is not inherent to government action; it must originate in the hearts and minds of particular officials who then meld their personal convictions with force of law, turning government into a living organism. It has the same instincts as a human being, particularly where self-preservation is concerned.

And here the certainty of belief that is crucial to individuals goes off the rails. The physical limitations imposed upon individuals by nature and by the intricate web of interpersonal relationships upon which society is built are not a check upon government as they are upon human beings. When government takes an action it claims is moral, it is merely unleashing the viewpoint of an individual and impressing it upon the rest of the populace. This is not certainty of belief — the product of a rational process — but dogma. The temptation to ban certain products and activities in the name of the “greater good” is justified by morality, by the fact that the burden of proof supports a particular conviction.

But the ultimate truth of that conviction is irrelevant. Morality cannot be advanced through choice. Virtue, as Aristotle teaches, requires choosing to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. Virtue has the force of reason behind it.

Restricting the choices available to an individual by banning items like straws does not cement society in virtue; it cements it in fear: fear of prosecution from a government agency or from members of the communal mob. The offending actor does not avoid a social taboo because they agree with the presiding conviction that a given action is illegitimate (i.e., the plastic in straws is a detriment to the environment), but because they fear for their welfare and livelihood. Such action subverts the individual and renders free action truly impossible.

And since reason is a process of the individual, there can be no real certainty of belief in a society that makes certain ideas or objects taboo. Those who are truly certain of the strength of their convictions welcome scrutiny with open arms because they know the facts are on their side and believe that others are rational and honest actors who will be moved in accordance with truth. But discovering truth requires the freedom to explore falsities too.

Also published on Medium.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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