Who defines what is right?

Bonnie Willis's picture

Sometimes there are seemingly insignificant moments in our lives that mark themselves in our memory because they raise questions that to some degree orient us in life.

Such a moment happened to me over 20 years ago during a moral reasoning lecture when I was a freshman at Harvard University. I distinctly recall the professor skillfully surveying the writings of Socrates in order to discuss how to build a moral state.

For Socrates, it seemed obvious that in order to have a moral society, a moral governing body is needed. However, the role of that the governing body, relative to families, and individuals, in the formation of that moral state was unclear.

As I recall, the prevailing sentiment in my class seemed to be that a governing body had the authority, and even the obligation to set moral standards for people. This bothered me.

After class several students, including myself, approached the professor, and I raised my concern that such a point of view would override, for example, the will of parents in how they raised their children.

At that point, another student sought to defend the class position with an example of her own and stated that she thought this was a good thing because in her Asian culture there is strict upbringing of children.

She then explained that her grandmother was racist, and seemed to challenge me by asking what would have happened to her if she had been raised by her grandmother. She played the race card, and at 18 years old, I did not know how to respond.

So, I left the lecture feeling like no one understood my point. No one felt the sense of trepidation that somehow giving a governing body such moral license was unwise, if not precarious.

Jump forward to 2014. I find myself feeling the same sense of dread every time I hear a story about a parent accused of abusing a child. Certainly, such immoral behavior causes the mother in me to be angry, for immoral behavior, or rationale, should not be inflicted upon anyone, especially not children.

Still, I continue to feel that sense of trepidation when leaders desire to use abuse accusations as a point of legislative response. Such a knee-jerk reaction inevitably makes the governing body increasingly powerful, while individual rights are diminished.

Consider, for example, the case of the Pelletier family. They have essentially lost custody of their 16-year-old daughter, Justina, and are only allowed visitation and could not even celebrate Easter with her because of conflicting medical opinions between two well-established medical institutions — Tufts Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH).

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (MDCF) accepted the medical diagnosis of the latter and determined that medical advice given to the Pelletier family by Tufts was invalid, and assumed custody of Justina, citing psychological abuse.

I cannot help but cringe in fear that this could happen to any parent. I find myself re-visiting the question posed in my moral reasoning class: to what extent does a governing body have the power to impose its morality on its citizenry?

To raise such a question should be part of our American DNA. After all, our nation was born out of recognition that the State — England — did not have the right to impose a religion/morality, or taxes on the settlers. To the contrary, our democratic republic was designed to be accountable to its citizenry, not the other way around.

Ironically, today it seems that individuals, or groups, like the Tea Party, that would dare question the accountability of the government, particularly when it comes to taxes and constitutional rights, are ridiculed and mocked — as if we are a socialist or communist nation.

Unfortunately, this response is not surprising, because students like the Asian young woman in my moral reasoning class are now holding government positions, ruling in our courts, and making decisions in our media centers.

But I firmly believe that there are also students, like me, who did or now do, recognize the inherent dangers of a government-controlled society, and we will continue to lend our voice to helping others recognize these dangers as well.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]

JeraldR's picture
Joined: 03/06/2014
I would have told your friend

I would have told your friend we don't live in bubbles. I was raised in a racist family and area but by the time I entered high school I knew right from wrong. There comes a point when you are old enough to listen to everyone around you and not just those close to you. Government shouldn't dictate morals because at that point our morals depend on who is in power at that time and is subject to change at each election. Our government passed and defended Jim Crow laws for decades. It took the courts and the will of the people to change that.

As for the Pelletier family we just don't have enough facts. The privacy laws keep information from being released and so do court gag orders. If this is really about one hospital saying the other is wrong then we need to ask a group of doctors to review the case and give the parents a chance to see the facts. To just remove a child based on the facts we do know seems insane. It's the role of the government to pass laws protecting our children. Even from parents at times. But it's not the role of government to raise our children and the very thought scares me.

Davids mom
Davids mom's picture
Joined: 10/30/2005
Of the people, by the people, for the people

Somewhere in the teaching of the Constitution, we have forgotten what our government should be. Our Congress supposedly is made up of elected representatives of the people. In the last decade or longer, it has been corporations and organizations that have dictated to our elected representatives. Today, according to some polls on certain issues, the will of the people is not being represented by our elected officials . . . .yet we continue to elect them to responsible leadership positions. The will of the people to have a responsible budget plan; to provide our children an education that will prepare them to compete; honor the American work effort with respect and dignity should be the goal of our leaders. Americans in 2014 have difficulty working together to achieve these goals. A student in one our high schools made a statement that makes a lot of common sense. Today's adults appear more eager to find problems than to seek solutions.
The younger generation seems to be on the right track in following the command, love your neighbor as yourself. The stipulation of gender, class, belief system seems to be fading. These young people seem to know right from wrong. Parents, teachers, religious leaders in FC are doing a good job in setting a strong moral model for our future. To think that Districtwide or District organization trumps parent, teacher, or community morality is foolish IMO.

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