Along with the electoral season comes the inevitable “I am opposed to […], but it is a personal decision.” Just fill in the blank with abortion, euthanasia, surrogacy, or any morally contentious matter. The rhetorical finesse quenches the debate, bypassing the polemical minefield. As a media and public silencer, to save face and buy time, it is a mediocre but successful technique. As a meaningful proposition, however, it fails.
“I am opposed to […], but do not believe it my role to impose my personal views on others” is a kindred statement. The first clause appeals to the party base; the second, to the rest. With one stroke, candidates thus persuade the rank and file that their values are safely aligned, while appeasing the opponents’ concerns.
Besides, we would not want our political leaders to impose anything, would we?
Their affirmative counterparts run on similar linguistic tracks: “I favor [outlawing abortion, curtailing euthanasia, banning surrogacy,…], but will not impose my personal views.” The ostrich maneuver. Label it personal and the interrogation halts to an end. Yet, as with the ostriches’ legend, the rhetorical move escapes reality.
Momentarily imagine a candidate professing the following: “I am opposed to [incest, domestic violence, racism, sexism, human exploitation, ethnic cleansing, rape, bribery], but it is a personal decision.” No chance. The candidate would be (justly) booed all the way to oblivion and shame.
The difference lies in the object. When the issue is thought to be morally controversial (politically sensitive), it is labeled “personal”, as if personal simply meant subjective, private, or to be resolved by sheer individual preference. When its moral nature is socially settled (politically safe), the “but it is personal” defense is not invoked.
Why should contentiousness define what a personal decision is?
What is, then, a personal decision? Non-moral and moral decisions are both “personal” insofar as they are a human individual’s, and not a human collective’s. Decisions of a non-moral nature, having nothing to do with ethics or morality, are individual or “personal” in the lowercase letter sense, so to speak. For instance, whether to go shopping or to the cinema tonight, and whether to choose vanilla or chocolate, are matters of individual choice such as preferences, interests, and tastes.
Personal (individual) decisions may also involve issues of more consequence, such as whether to study economics or finance. They are, generally speaking, decisions relative to particular circumstances. The choices are based on conditions specific to the individual. “Personal” may also signify private reasons the person legitimately chooses to keep secret, such as when someone retires for “personal” reasons.
Moral decisions, on the other hand, are personal. They are not simply matters of individual (relative to oneself) choice, but spring from the very core of human personality: human intellect and free will. They are personal for they entail universal and objective normative principles linked to properly human goods. Individual circumstances may influence the degree of moral responsibility in specific cases. An ethical conclusion, however, is not merely a subjective “personal view” but a personal judgment stemming from right reason and free will.
G. K. Chesterton wrote in What’s wrong with the world, “most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules: it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.” Candidates must boldly stand for something; we must responsibly learn. Just as they do not confound as impositions their positions on economic affairs, their stances on major moral issues should not be thus construed.
These matters are not solely private or relative, but hold wide public repercussions, in terms of human dignity and the common good. That they are contentious does not preclude their discussion, but beckons it. Far from imposition, their responsible and reasonable discussion enhances free civic discourse and action. Conversely, the candidate’s reticence imposes an impoverished public debate, thus undermining the conditions necessary for a democratic society. Rather than tolerance, this silence may signal indifference, hesitation, deceit, or cowardice.
The “but it is personal” linguistic maneuver must be exposed for what it really is: a cheap electoral season pass whose political currency has expired. Because moral decisions are personal, candidates ought to tell us what and why. Because they are personal, we, the citizens, ought to ask and to know.
Alma Acevedo, PhD, teaches courses in applied ethics and conducts research in this field.