The BBC’s Radio 4 has an excellent program, available via podcast, called Moral Maze, which explores the morality of various topical issues. In its most recent episode, it tackled the morality of swearing. One particular guest owned a business that produces various paraphernalia (such as coffee mugs and T-shirts) on which certain swear words are emblazoned in large letters.
One of the accusations leveled against this business owner was that his merchandise could make public spaces less suitable for young children. Parents might be wary, for instance, of taking their children to a mall where people are likely to be seen walking about with expletives writ large across their chests.
The business owner got close to what I think was a proper reply when he said that anyone could scrawl expletives on their shirts if they really wanted to. What I think he was trying to get at, and possibly wasn’t able to express under the pressure of the interview, was that he shouldn’t be held responsible for the words shoppers choose to display on their clothing. And I think he’s right: a visitor to a mall is responsible for looking respectable – for knowing that he will be in view of the public, including children of all ages.
In the same way, a visitor to a bar is responsible for tempering his alcohol consumption if he plans on driving. We don’t blame bar tenders for drunk driving accidents, and rightly so. Similarly, we shouldn’t blame a T-shirt manufacturer for a customer’s decision to wear his T-shirts in a disrespectful manner.
Moral responsibility, in other words, is up to the individual.
This idea follows closely on the heels of the annual debate about Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving in the U.S.), when many stores offer extraordinarily deep discounts.
Traditionally, stores open very early on Friday morning, but this year many stores opened at midnight on Thursday, or even as early as nine o’clock that evening. This triggered an uproar in the media about the sanctity of Thanksgiving being trampled by the commercial juggernaut of American capitalism.
But this uproar is, I believe, misplaced, for the same reason that judgment against the T-shirt salesman is misplaced. It simply does not make sense to hold store owners responsible for the preservation of a family-oriented Thanksgiving. That responsibility lies with no one but the families themselves. Thus, if a family sincerely believes that it is better to spend quality time together at home on Thanksgiving, then that family should simply avoid the stores, and sacrifice the discounts offered. No one is forcing them to go shopping.
There is only one exception I see to this rule. If we, as individuals, do not actually live up to decent moral standards, and continually harm others as a result of this failure, then someone – usually government – has a duty to step in and protect the innocent. Drunk driving provides a good example again: much as we would like people to take personal responsibility for their blood alcohol level, in practice not enough drinkers do, and a large number of people are harmed or even killed as a result. Government therefore steps in to provide strong disincentives for drunk driving.
Similarly, government may have a role to play in Black Friday sales. Not because retail infringes on family values, but because people quite often get physically hurt during these sales. This year, a shopper actually used pepper spray to fend off competitors for a particular item. This, clearly, is a case in which individuals are not being morally responsible, and are causing harm to others as a result. And, if the problem becomes more widespread, it might behoove the government to introduce regulations regarding the logistics behind such sales, in order to reduce the likelihood of harm being done. But if no one’s well-being is on the line, then no intervention is warranted, and people are free to uphold their own personal moral values. If that means store owners opening their doors at nine pm on Thanksgiving, so be it.