I have lots of ideas that I am more than willing to inflict on the world. After spouting these thoughts, I am content to sit back and let them fester where they will. There are those who have ideas, but are not willing to let them rise or fall on their own merits. Once others have discarded their cherished arguments, these diehards are willing to go to any lengths to make people conform to their beliefs. Their ideas must be implemented, because that is the right thing to do. In their world, the ends justify the means. Somehow, though, only their ends are right, and they are the only ones who get to use those means.

I would have a lot more sympathy for those folks who have a good idea, a moral idea, a right-thing-to-do idea, if they were willing to admit that maybe, possibly, not everyone shares their values for a reason. That the right-thing-to-do is not necessarily the right thing to do, and that other people have and follow their own moral code. A different life philosophy. Different ideas about right and wrong. Ideas that may be worthy of debate and discussion. In the end analysis, that we can agree to disagree.

That maybe there is more than one way to view the world. Having an idea does not make it worthy of being the only idea. Once the idea has been aired and dismissed, the next step is not necessarily to implement it through the weight of negative emotion. We should tread lightly when attempting to change others’ behaviors.

This concept was brought home to me the other day. I heard a comment (actually, it was more of a rant–way to go, girl!), about the new anti-smoking ads. The latest ads feature smokers who are now regretting ever having lit their first cigarette. They are currently missing major body parts, or dealing with major bodily malfunctions, due to that habit. I know that there is plenty of scientific evidence to indicate that inhaling tobacco smoke, laden as it is with all kinds of carcinogenic substances, not to mention other bad stuff, is not the ultimate best thing you could possibly do for your body. And I am sure that there are plenty of people who think that no one should smoke.

That is fine as far as it goes. There are plenty of things in this world that some of us think are not wonderful (which also happen to sometimes be the very things that others of us couldn’t live without). On the other hand, we could argue that people have the right to use and abuse their own bodies however they like; the right to choose how to live their own lives. 

But, comes the retort, the smoking habit affects us all. We have to sit by and watch the ruination of the bodies of those we love. We suffer when they suffer. Therefore, we are entitled to stop the carnage at all costs. It’s the right thing to do. The ends justify the means. When reasoned debate doesn’t do the trick, it’s time to implement the emotion-laden appeal.

As thinking creatures we have some responsibility to consider the effects of our actions. So if we assume that it is okay to use any means available to convince people not to smoke, including enlisting other people as persuaders, we need to take into account the potential effect on those persuaders. If we aim these commercials at, not only the smokers themselves, but their families, their children, their neighbors, their co-workers, the people they pass on the street–anyone who would be willing to lend a voice to get smokers to extinguish (sorry, I couldn’t help it) their habit, then we need to understand something of the psychology into which we are delving.

Children exposed to graphic images of the effect of smoking will be be horrified enough to beg their parents, and anyone else they meet, to quit. Great idea! Indoctrinate the children to the dangers of smoking, and not only will they never pick up a cigarette in their lives, except to disdainfully drop it into the nearest waste receptacle, they will also do the heavy lifting in getting their parents to drop the nasty habit. And we’ll all be better off.

But what if, despite their best efforts, despite the pleading voices, the dewy eyes, the gentle hand on the arm, they do not succeed? The parent scolds the audacious child, and continues with the bad habit. The neighbor scowls at the child. The man on the street threatens the child with a lit cigarette. The child is left with an image of these people, terribly scarred, sick, or dying. But the child is helpless. There is nothing the child can do but continue the pleas. The child is reminded of his powerlessness every day, in graphic detail, in thirty-second increments. Relives that failure in nightmares, every night.

Ah, but the ends justify the means. There might be a little scarring of children, but soon enough, everyone will have quit smoking, the world will be perfect, and the children will recover. After all, smoking is merely a choice that the parent has made, and the sooner we rid the world of this affliction, the better off we’ll all be. It is the right thing to do.

Another right thing to do is to convince everyone that abortion is murder. That it snuffs out lives. That it should never occur.  The right-thing-to-do is to make abortion abhorrent to everyone. Plaster graphic pictures of fetuses being sucked out of the womb, vacuumed out of their cozy nests, and torn to shreds, guts and blood scattered everywhere, all over TV. Ensure that horrified children understand that all life is sacred, including that in utero. 

After all, having sex is a lifestyle choice. Having an abortion is a choice. If we must choose between the murderous incubator and an innocent child losing its life before it ever had a chance to live…

If we decide that the ends justify the means for one set of strongly-held opinions, then eventually people with another set of strongly-held opinions will have their turn at the wheel. The means-end equation works both ways. No matter how much you wish that it didn’t. Tread lightly, my friends.

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