Ethical Dreaming

Ethical Dreaming December 10, 2020

I know I’ve felt that dreams I’ve had in the past have conveyed other kinds of insights before. But I think a dream I had recently may be the first that I felt I learned something from about a contemporary ethical debate.

In the dream I was a person who owned a boat. In real life, I’ve never owned a boat and have rarely been on one. In the dream, someone approached me to transport something for them, essentially to smuggle something, and it was something that I considered it highly unethical to do.

I awoke with an awareness that the situation I was being put in was, from my subjective perspective, the same one confronted by those asked to bake a cake or make floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding.

Now, I know that from the perspective of most readers, as from my own, these things are not at all the same from a moral standpoint. But at the heart of it is a common question, the question of whether one should be able to refuse to provide a service because doing so would involve you in an activity that violates your own conscience.

Pretty much as soon as I awoke from the dream I realized that there were several solutions that helped address this:

  1. If you are required legally to perform actions that go against your conscience, you can refuse to perform them and pay the fine imposed as a penalty for disobeying the law. If you follow this course of action, do it without whining. If you do this because of the motivation of Christian faith, do it in that spirit without complaining. If you’re going to ignore the explicit teaching as well as the example of Jesus and the apostles then don’t make a pretense of being a faithful follower who is being persecuted for it.
  2. The law must also protect people against discrimination. Only protecting the freedom to follow the dictates of your conscience is not enough. Wanting to be able to organize your wedding to someone that you are allowed by law to marry is not the same as wanting to smuggle something. However, even though the dream quickly faded into obscurity so that I could not remember all the details, I feel as though the request was one that I objected to but was not something illegal. Even when something is illegal, as in the case of those who smuggled Bibles and Christian literature into Eastern Europe, one may feel that it is the right thing to do. If someone refused to be involved in transporting such materials, the law would be on their side but that would not necessarily make it right. Such laws were discriminatory, part of an effort to curtail religious activity and proselytization in Communist countries. That isn’t what the United States aspires to. On the contrary, our approach emphasizes the right of people to follow their conscience in most matters. We emphasize liberty, and that’s the source of the problem. What happens if my right to marry bumps up against your right to disapprove of my marriage, or vice versa? One approach would be to require that communities provide services to all without requiring every franchise, facility, or service provider to do so. This is extremely challenging logistically, but it would have the advantage of making Americans aware that there are moral issues at the level of society and not merely in what individuals do. If no one will provide a service for you, you are not free, and in that case the freedom of the community to discriminate is depriving you of basic rights in a manner that is contrary to the principle of maximizing freedom for all. In trying to make everyone as free as possible, that by definition simultaneously restricts the freedom of everyone. If you are free to do whatever you like without any restrictions, you can choose to do things that deprive me of my freedoms and rights. This too is something that far too many Americans seem not to understand. We see it in the case of the rejection of mask-wearing as well. But we already saw it long before that in the libertarian approach to driving that leads some to feel that ignoring traffic lights, stop signs, and speed limits is fine if they are in a hurry, not to mention basic forms of courtesy like using a turn signal or dealing with a lane closure by everyone using the zipper merge technique. (If you don’t live in the midwestern United States you might be surprised to discover that that is an issue – ironically, people where I live think that everyone getting in one lane as soon as possible is the polite thing to do. Presumably the underlying reason, however, is an inability to cope with a social approach to situations in which people take turns. That would explain issues that come up at 4-way stop signs in this part of the world as well.)

I wrote this almost as soon as I awoke, and feel like I had more insight then than I can recover. Moments of insight, like dreams, can be fleeting.

If I had been asked what a dream might be like in which I was approached as a potential smuggler, I would have assumed that it would involve the Millennium Falcon. This dream was surprising to me in more ways than one.

Have you had a dream from which you awoke feeling as though you had caught a glimpse of something important? Did that impression stay with you? Thinking back a few days later, the dream and its insight would probably have faded entirely, had it not been for blogging…

Of related interest:

The Equality Act

Discrimination in the name of “Religious Freedom”

"I thought the one of the points of the incarnation was that Jesus became fully ..."

Divinity and the Learning Jesus
"More information than we have ever needed or wanted. None the wiser."

Christians and Internet Rumors
"I'm not sure what led you to this bit of satire from almost 13 years ..."

Obama Confesses To Being Hindu Muslim ..."

Browse Our Archives