I am a demi-vegetarian. If you want to know more about it, read my previous post here. When I go out to eat, I try to find something that’s vegetarian or something as close as I can based on my personal beliefs. When I’m with a group of people, they can get what they want. I don’t look down on them for ordering something with meat. I’m totally ok with them getting what they want. For me, my vegetarian beliefs are personalized for me and I feel it works for me because it coheres with the rest of my attitude about the world. Thus, demi-vegetarianism is something that’s part of my personal morality.
On the other hand, there are ethical considerations that I think shouldn’t just be personal, but should apply to everyone. I’ll call this public morality. With public morality, since it’s based on the community, it’s more universal. Thus, not only should you want people to believe in this type of morality, but you should somehow persuade or at least show them why they’re wrong if they don’t follow this type of morality. A good example is murder. I don’t know anyone who holds the attitude this:
Person A: Murder is wrong.
Person B: Murder is ok.
Person A: Well, then we just have a matter of difference.
If it were me, I would want to tell Person B that s/he is wrong in believing in that and that Person A is wrong for being too tolerant of Person B. So public morality is more enforcable to everyone and you want to engulf the other person to join in on that morality.
Things get tricky when you can’t tell if it’s a personal or public morality. Take abortion for example. I’ve had many students that have thought abortion should be personal or public.
On the personal side: I’ve had students who’ve said that they personally don’t think abortion is moral, but they still want to allow other people to have that choice, or at least make it legal.
On the public side: there are many cases where people think abortion is immoral and they want to influence you into thinking that’s also immoral. And if you still think there’s nothing wrong with abortion, that person simply thinks you’re not rational. In this case, the having a belief isn’t something personal (like ice cream flavors), but it’s more outreaching for all of humanity (much like the murder example).
Let me give another example: go back to vegetarianism. For me, my vegetarianism is a personal thing. I don’t care if others eat meat or not. However, there are others who think vegetarianism should belong in the domain of public morality. PETA is a good example of this. PETA really encourages people to be vegetarians and they feel that vegetarianism should be pubically moral.
A really good example that doesn’t deal with morality, per se, is politics. There are a lot of people who are liberal or conservative and they take on those beliefs and philosophes as personal. It’s the attitude of “I’m liberal/conservative, and if you’re not, that’s fine.” There are those who feel that it should be a public thing: “I’m liberal/conservative, and you should be one too, and if you don’t believe what I believe, then you’re simply wrong, irrational, or you just don’t get it.”
Religion is a good example too.
Personal morality: I’m (fill in blank), and if you’re not, that’s ok. I believe in what I believe and that’s a personal choice.
Public morality: I’m (fill in blank), and if you’re not, that’s not ok. You should believe in what I believe because that’s the proper thing to believe.
So why do some people feel that issues should be public or private? I think one characteristic is tolerance. I’m tolerant of meat-eaters and people from different political perspectives, but I’m not tolerant of people who thing murder is generally ok. People in PETA aren’t tolerant of meat-eaters. Ann Colter isn’t tolerant of liberals. Extreme Fundamentalists aren’t tolerant of people who are or believe in pro-choice.
Now I’m not saying we should be tolerant on everything. After all, I don’t think we should be tolerant to people who believe murder is ok. I think we should convince them and show them that they’re wrong. But it gets tricky to other issues because it’s hard to find a good level of tolerance. How much tolerance is needed?
I’m sure there are other characteristics besides tolerance, but I can’t think of any at the moment.