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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.]

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