This is really an Ethics Question and Answer of the Day.
Steve Witherspoon [ Notice of Correction: I erroneously attributed this to the wrong Steve, not that Steve-O-in NJ doesn’t also ask provocative questions. I apologize to Steve W, and thank Other Bill for the correction…] asked a provocative question in our last Open Forum, which is what the Ethics Alarms open forums are for:
When a large segment of a society wants to shift their culture in a very major way and in a way that has historically been widely opposed, is using propaganda and intimidation to “force” the desired cultural shift on a population ethical, in other words, when trying to shift culture does the ends justify the means?
Before answering, think about major cultural shifts in the USA’s history. A few examples of major cultural shift are when the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and the Constitution were written or when slavery was abolished or when electricity and phone lines were wired across the USA or when automobiles began to gradually take over the streets across the USA or when airplanes became common place or when the population began to shift from print media and word of mouth as their only sources of information to radios and then to televisions or the civil rights marches in the 1960’s. There are a multitude of examples of major cultural shifts in the United States.
When trying to shift culture, does the ends justify the means?
Commenter Ryan Harkins provided an excellent and thought-provoking answer:
Let me answer your question with another question: When did Christians acquire the most sincere converts?
When they lived a solid Christian life and were willing to die (peacefully) for their ideals, or when the Christians held the reins of government and could force conversions? As an anecdote to that, consider the problems that arose due to forced conversions of Jews in Spain. At a point in time when religious tensions wavered between tolerance and intolerance, when any district might see either Christian or Muslim rulers, depending on the year, Jews were pretty much tolerated. Once the Christians gained ascendancy in the mid-fifteenth century, with the Muslims mostly defeated (though the last Muslim stronghold would endure in Granada until 1492), sentiments turned against the Jews, and they were given the choice to convert or leave. Many Jews chose to convert, and gave rise to a body of Christians called Conversos.
The Conversos ended up holding much wealth, many high offices, and aroused a great deal of resent from “true” Christians. It did not help that the Conversos both retained many Jewish practices, and spoke of their own superiority because they were “blood brethren” to Jesus. And so sentiment turned against the Conversos. Local mob violence started to broil against the Conversos, and many were accused of heresy. The accusations and vigilantism grew to such a proportion that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella petition Rome to form an Inquisition. This Inquisition had the purpose of sifting out the falsely accused from the true heretics.
In a very real sense, the Spanish Inquisition started in the defense of the Conversos. But the Inquisition brought with it its own problems. While the Catholic Inquisitions were considered far more just and fair than secular courts, the accused often faced exceedingly long waits for their trial, and they could face torture to extract their confessions. The vast majority of the accused were acquitted, but again, the process could take years as the Inquisitors accumulated evidence, conducted interviews and interrogations, and finally assembled court for the accused to make a defense.
What can we make of this? I think the obvious conclusion is that when a party attempts to force a major cultural shift even on a minority population, it will breed a great many more issues than if the culture was allowed to shift based on good will, reasonable argument, and the willingness to walk the walk.
Forcing a change down the throats of the unwilling and recalcitrant will create a subculture of distrust. Can you really believe that someone has had a change in heart if they only profess the creed at gunpoint? The conversions could be real, but those who forced the conversion will always have to struggle with the grain of doubt, and in seeking for continual affirmation will likely drive wedges further until the culture breaks apart in violence.The only alternative is to suppress the dissidents, relegating them to second-class citizenry, shunned from all social places, or liquidating them as enemies of the state.