The Ethics Of… Telling People What To Do

Second last post for the year, last non-Christmas-themed post for the year, so I’m going to take a bit of a break from the ‘ripped from the headlines’ shtick I’ve been using a lot here recently and write about something very close to my heart: telling people what to do.

As anyone who’s ever gotten really into something can tell you, there’s a bit of a risk of forgetting that other people aren’t quite as familiar with (or interested in) your passions as you are. You’ve all been there; one minute you’re getting an introduction into an interesting new topic, next minute you’re drowning in a sea of jargon, in-jokes and technical data that would put a philosopher to shame. Much as I’d like to deny it, I am no exception to this and sometime I forget that A. not everyone is as familiar with the field of ethics as I am, and B. very very few people find it as fascinating as I do. Imagine my surprise then when I drop a bit of ethics into a conversation and get this as a response:

Since by this point I’ll usually just be getting really enthusiastic about how oh so very clever I am, this kind of blunt and usually quite angry shut-down really catches me by surprise. Don’t tell you what to do? But… but… I’m an ethicist! That’s literally all I’m good for! Practical application is what separates ethics from philosophy – take that away and I’m just some wanker asking theoretical questions that I have no intention of trying to answer. Might as well strap on a beret and get it over with.

Smug beret

“I’m sorry but this quasi-normative methodology you insist upon is fallaciously based on a very post-colonial western prejudice that metaphysics have any validity whatsoever, which the continental school of thought clearly rejects. It’s quite elementary really. *snark snark*”

On the face of it, ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ is a pretty massive barrier to get past when it comes to a discussion about right and wrong. You can yack on all you like about how we know what is true, the best methods for making good decisions, and the relevant evidence we need to consider for a given situation, but if party B smacks down that trump card then all those words don’t count for much, do they?

Oh you think that failing to vaccinate my kids puts them into serious danger for absolutely no reason? Screw you buddy, don’t tell me what to do.

You reckon we should boycott watching the FIFA World Cup in Qatar to help fix their horrendous human rights record? Well I still want to watch it and don’t tell me what to do.

What’s that? The sheer existence of the private school system spits in the face of merit and is toxic to a successful society? That’s nice dear but my children deserve the best and guess what, don’t tell me what to do.

It a tough argument to crack because it isn’t really an argument at all; it’s the rejection of the discussion as a whole. So what if you disagree with me, or if your arguments make sense, or even if it is backed up with a mountain of evidence, if I don’t recognize your right to influence my opinion in the first place then none of that matters – all that matters is what I think.

At its core this is very much a matter of Liberty; no person has the right to tell me what to do because it would infringe on the most sacred of human rights – my right to make my own decisions for myself, free from duress or threat. This is the essence of a free man, the thing that distinguishes him from a slave. To allow others to dictate your thoughts, beliefs and action is to surrender your humanity and willing sell yourself into bondage. To quote the great USA statesman Patrick Henry;

It’s a powerful sentiment and one not without merit – if history teaches us anything it’s that those who seek to take away our right to make decisions usually aren’t wonderful people. But more than that, it’s also a factually true statement that the right to make our own decisions is something that literally can’t be taken from us, at least not without our consent (which is still making a decision if you think about it). If I disagree with a decision you make then there is really only so much I can do to stop you. I can reason with you, but you can ignore me. I can disprove you, but ditto. I can try to stop you physically, but you can fight me, avoid me or just ignore me. And even if I go out and get the thing you want to do banned, odds are that a determined person will find a way of doing what they want (if only briefly). So in way you could say that ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ isn’t just a powerful argument, it’s part of what makes a human being.


But before I go ahead and delete this site in shame, there’s a distinction we need to make here: the distinction between ‘should’ and ‘must’. If I turned up on your front doorstep, told you what to do and then either demanded you comply or forced you to then yeah, we have a pretty clear transgression against your personal liberties and you’d be well within your rights to tell me to piss off. But with the exception of behaviour that infringes on the rights of others, this is rarely what ethics is all about (don’t worry, we’ll get into the ethics of Freedom early next year). When I write about a topic here I have absolutely no power to compel you to agree with me or even listen to me, much less comply with my ideas. No, when I write about a topic here I’m not talking about ‘must’, I’m talking about ‘should’ and that’s a very different thing.

Good ethical judgements are based on solid logic and relevant evidence. Consideration of this evidence through logic allows us to draw conclusions about the best decisions to make. If we do this process as well as we can (and I like to think that I do) then the conclusions we draw aren’t a matter of opinion, they’re unambiguous facts – this is the decision we should make. Any other decision we make is going to lead to worse outcomes; more costs for less benefits. To put it simply, any other decision will be a mistake. To put it a little more emotively, any other decision would be a bloody stupid unjustifiable idea, which in the right circumstances could lead to serious harm for those involved. You fucking idiot.

This is a sub-optimal solution to this situation. You dolt.

Before my ego blows my head clean off, lets acknowledge that ethics can only hand us perfect answers when we have absolutely all the facts and process it with perfect logic – two things it is literally impossible for a human being to do. In practice good ethics is a constant process of checking and re-checking our aims and methods, making a ton of mistakes and improving as we learn more. As such anyone who tells you they know exactly how you should behave is probably full of crap to some degree or another. But when an honest assessment of the best facts we have available leads us to an answer, then the fact remains that ignoring that answer and doing something else is a bloody stupid thing to do – at least until a better answer comes around.

Look at ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ with this distinction in mind and suddenly it’s less of a ‘bold declaration of my essential human freedom’, and more ‘LALALALA CAN’T HEAR YOU!’. Nearly every time I’ve heard this argument the context for it has been daft:

Remember this character from the TV show Lost? Yeah well the context for him saying this was when he tried to go on an outback walkabout tour “trekking across vast stretches of desert”… in a wheelchair. Sorry Johnny-boy but I’m pretty confident that’s something that you physically cannot do.

Here we have Robert Downey Junior, telling us to ignore the opinions of others. Quite a high opinion of his own judgement for someone who nearly killed himself with drug and alcohol addiction.

What do we have here? A bold feminist statement, dismissing patriarchal control over women’s lives? But cringe-inducing as space-boy’s presentation may be, what is actually wrong with the sentiment here? It might seem on first read that it’s just another case of men telling women how to behave, but read it again – he’s specifically rejecting the idea that women should dress in a particular way. Which if I am up to date with my theory, makes him a feminist (in this at least). Meanwhile what does Indi-girl add to this conversation? Does she address his point at all, explain what is wrong with it? Maybe embrace the spirit of it and correct the execution? Or does she just attack him personally and contribute absolutely nothing positive to the situation?

And remember that image I used at the start of the article? Here’s the full context:

Yay, now everybody is as miserable as me! What a positive outcome.

Robbed of its liberty-or-death, fight-the-power edginess, ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ is an argument used nearly exclusively by those who have backed themselves into an ideological corner, realized they haven’t got a leg to stand on, and have decided to take their bat and ball and storm off home rather than accept the facts.

Am I suggesting that anyone who disagrees with me is wrong? Of course not – criticism is a powerful tool for refining our ideas. But ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ isn’t criticism, it isn’t opposition, it’s a denial that either of those things even exist so that your comfy idea of how things work doesn’t get upset. And since refusing to acknowledge the consequences of our decision doesn’t magically make them go away, what we’re really talking about here isn’t the right to make your own decisions – it’s the right to inflict your stupid, ignorant, head-in-the-sand decisions on everyone else around you. This isn’t a brave defence of human liberty, it’s the cowardly protection of ignorance and it hurts people.

On the face of it ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ may indeed seem a pretty massive barrier to get past, but next time you run into someone who think liberty means ignorance, bear this in mind:


One thought on “The Ethics Of… Telling People What To Do

  1. Pingback: The Ethics Of… The War on Christmas | The Ethics Of

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