I have long planned to write a post on how there can be no moral integrity without freedom. I was procrastinating: I was forever waiting for the “proper” occasion and the “proper” words. And in the aftermath of Easter, I end up sharing a silly and naïve story – which happens to provide just the perfect example for what I have to say.
I thought I’d stand up for the liberty to keep pet rabbits in our homes – and, on a more serious note, I plan to criticize prohibitions in general. There were plenty of advertisements – very rightfully – discouraging the traffic of rabbits, first sold as Easter presents for kids, and then thrown out, set loose, or killed when the kids no longer find enjoyment in them. Yet I have a point or two to add to that argument.
Spotty is a 30-month-old female French lop rabbit, first brought into our home by my daughter. The rabbit was six months old back then; the previous owner had taken her back to the pet store because, allegedly, she had been an ill fit with the other rabbits at that place. So Spotty was already a discarded bunny, a healthy and rather beautiful one though.
We had allowed our daughter to take a rabbit home after a year of resistance on our part. Even then, we were extremely wary that she would quickly lose her excitement with the animal, so we only allowed the girl to “rent out” the bunny for two weeks, starting Good Friday. The owner of the pet store agreed to take Spotty back and find another place for her – and we were also furnished with all sorts of necessary equipment.
My daughter turned out to be cut out of an entirely different material: she has been diligently looking after Spotty for two years now. As it happens, other family members grew quite fond of the little animal, so Spotty was allowed to stay on.
This is not to elicit tears, raptures, or criticism from animal lovers. This is not to ridicule tragic and much more serious issues that we need to be mindful of. But it’s a very simple and powerful example of the responsibility that goes hand in hand with freedom.
Keeping a pet is good for people, children and adults alike. Animals are widely employed in therapy. For example, in my country, and probably others too, Leonberger dogs are part of the treatment of autistic children. And a pet can significantly contribute to the emotional development of a healthy child, too.
The problem with a pet is that animals, especially mammals, can feel and express affection and happiness – and loneliness and suffering, too. No wonder why several countries, including mine, have laws that make the torture of animals a criminal offense. So it is essential that everyone keeps the animals’ long-term well-being in mind – and respects it – when they decide to take a pet home.
When you, as a parent, allow your child to take a pet home, the animal becomes your responsibility: you cannot expect children to be fully prepared when they first encounter a pet. It is first and foremost the parent who fails when an animal is discarded – and exposed to suffering, torture, or death – after it ceases to be daily entertainment. (For that matter, it’s also a legitimate question to ask what one has done for the entertainment of the animal.)
For the sake of argument, let’s look at moral integrity like this: Freedom gives you power to do things to others, human beings and animals alike. Power brings responsibility. I cannot put it more clearly than Jesus did all those centuries ago: “In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you” [Matthew 7:12]. You have moral integrity if you freely, voluntarily and consciously refrain from harming others, or save others from harm, whenever you have the choice, or you are tempted, or even forced, to do, or at least allow harm.
For now, I will conveniently ignore the interpretations, paradoxes, and contradictions of morality – that is the terrain of moral philosophy (if you don’t want to go deep, here is an excellent summary, tailored to my original trade). But I do plan to support my – for the time being – naïve argumentation with more references in a follow-up post.
Moral integrity comes in variable dosage for each and every one of us. But it can be greatly improved in healthy minds. Not everyone can, that is, not everyone will be willing to refrain from harm when forced – not at the cost of their own safety, health, or life. (We look to such behavior as desirable, though.) As it happens, it’s easier to learn integrity when we get the power to do harm, and the freedom to refrain from it. If we’re allowed to take home pets and treat them well or treat them ill – then we can learn, and teach kids, to choose to treat them well. If it’s prohibited – the situation remains unknown, and when we need to decide, it will catch us unprepared.
My daughter could learn to look after Spotty – because Spotty was there and she had to make a decision. She gets to make this decision every day. And now she’s quite good at caring for animals in general. If we hadn’t allowed her to take in her bunny, she wouldn’t have been able to learn all that.
Advocates of law and order are eager to prohibit. They say that people inevitably do bad things, so let’s limit freedom. Of course they advertise their commitment of freedom, but a peculiar pretense freedom that will be: curbed by prohibitions of all sorts, people are often living a lie.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating the sort of unlimited freedom that includes legalizing murder, for example. One has to draw the line somewhere: unlimited freedom works only if people could be trusted never to do destructive things. But then we wouldn’t need to think of all this, right?
But people can learn. Through experience much better than from explanations and declarations. Yet authorities, more often than not, resort to the easy way: prohibit and enforce rather than expose and educate. Our life becomes a labyrinth of haphazard prohibitions and limitations, which do not always serve their intended purpose. Like the locked cockpit doors on airplanes when it’s the pilot who hijacks and destroys the plane.
It’s best to draw the line where the general consensus ends. Nothing beyond that should be prohibited. This assumes that people, by and large, are moral beings: know right from wrong. When something is prohibited without general agreement throughout society, dissent and illegal practices will spring up. Probably the best example is abortion, which is much more dangerous when it is made illegal. (The biggest problem with abortion is that it’s disputed whether sentient human life starts at the time of conception or at birth; on the other hand, there is consensus that murder is never right. But abortion deserves a separate post, so I’d better stop here.)
My point is that you get nowhere if you try to impose your moral convictions. If you have a moral message to get through; or, if you are authority, and want to prevent bad things from happening: do your work and find out what really helps before you deal out blunt legislation. That is hard work indeed: to cut back on unnecessary abortions without prohibitions; to prevent the use of some drugs without making them illegal; and the list goes on.