Ethics: December 2008 Archives

I recently found this interview with Richard Rodriguez, which raises some interesting suppositions about why social conservatives oppose same-sex marriage, tying it to a desire to maintain a traditional view of the family. On one level, this seems right. Much of the actual rhetoric from socially conservative groups, e.g. the Family Research Council, links same-sex marriage to the breakdown of the family, a claim that on the face of it seems absurd. How does the ability of two gay men to call their union a marriage somehow make my heterosexual marriage more likely to break down? One common argument for same-sex marriage is that it will actually strength the institution of marriage by promoting long-term relationships among a demographic that has a much higher tendency to avoid them.

In some ways the level of vitriol and forcefulness of resistance to same-sex marriage does seem to me to reflect a misplaced set of priorities when there are much more immediate problems within the very communities that oppose same-sex marriage. Evangelicals (as traditionally defined by the media, anyway) have as much of a problem with divorce as the country at large (although if you look at the stricter criteria of George Barna to define evangelicalism, the gap widens considerably). Roman Catholicism still hasn't responded in a way that has satisfied enough people to the priest sex abuse scandal. Mormons still endorse polygamy as in principle perfectly fine and the right way to do things during certain periods. Given their opposition to same-sex marriage on grounds of supporting the traditional family, black Americans have a  disturbingly high rate of single parenthood and, for that matter, abortion with respect to the general population. While we certainly shouldn't assume individual cases are all a result of hypocrisy, Rodriguez is at least prima facie right to raise that spectre as a worry.

Nevertheless, when it comes down to the details, some of Rodriguez's claims seem to me to be so off-base that I find it amazing that someone could put them forward seriously. Is the resistance to same-sex marriage based fundamentally in a desire to prevent women from becoming too dominant in society? After recognizing that society is now at a place where we hardly even wonder where someone's father is when only his mother shows up at the Olympics to see him win medal after medal, he goes on to offer a sweeping generalization to explain the opposition to same-sex marriage:

The possibility that a whole new generation of American males is being raised by women without men is very challenging for the churches. I think they want to reassert some sort of male authority over the order of things. I think the pro-Proposition 8 movement was really galvanized by an insecurity that churches are feeling now with the rise of women.
It's certainly true that some churches want to reassert the view that authority should be primarily in the hands of men. Some extend this to society as a whole, but far more limit it (as the Bible does) to leadership in the family and authoritative teaching and leading in the church. But is that the explanation for opposition to same-sex marriage? It doesn't have anything to do with the fact that a lot of people think same-sex sexual relationships are morally wrong? Rodriguez just seems to me to be confusing two separate issues that don't actually have much in common theoretically. It's true that one argument against homosexuality has to do with how the Bible treats a marriage relationship as reflective of role relations within the Trinity. But if you listen to Rodriguez, you get the sense that all the outrage against gay couples wanting to call their relationships marriages stems from some visceral desire to prevent women from becoming too uppity, which just sounds crazy. I know several people (although it's actually a pretty small percentage of people I know who think same-sex sexual relationships are wrong) who seem to base their opposition on a visceral disgust at the idea of two men having sex with each other. That has nothing to do with women and authority. The more common reason comes from simple observation of biblical texts as traditionally interpreted, and the basis of those interpretations doesn't lie in one's attitude toward women.

Along the way, he gives a similar argument with respect to abortion:
Monotheistic religions feel threatened by the rise of feminism and the insistence, in many communities, that women take a bigger role in the church. At the same time that women are claiming more responsibility for their religious life, they are also moving out of traditional roles as wife and mother. This is why abortion is so threatening to many religious people -- it represents some rejection of the traditional role of mother.
It's completely crazy to try to explain opposition to abortion entirely in terms of preventing women from being in control. It's certainly true that arguments within pro-choice feminism see the abortion issue that way, but there's no way that's the important issue for pro-lifers. If Rodriguez doesn't understand that the main reason so many people oppose abortion is because they think it's despicable to take an innocent life for reasons that usually amount to lesser importance than the life issue, then he's living in a bubble. Since Rodriguez is Catholic, he should know better.

Bob Jones and Race

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Update: Joseph Celucien has posted this at Christ, My Righteousness as part of a series on racial reconciliation, so it might be worth looking at the comments there as well.

Bob Jones University, founded in 1927 in the nexus of racial segregationism and the religious separatism of the early fundamentalist movement, took until 2000 to revoke their ban on interracial dating. Eight years later, they've issued a Statement about Race at Bob Jones University that reflects a fairly healthy view of race, admits to having based their policies on the surrounding cultural norms rather than the Bible, and admits to the wrongness of their institutional policies on race. I was glad in 2000 when they revoked their ban on interracial dating, and I'm glad to see this statement today.

Not everyone is happy about it, though, and I'm not talking about white supremacists. There are some people who simply refuse to accept this as genuine repentance. See the comments at Justin Taylor's post on this for some examples.

The reactions in that comment thread led me to think about a set of related concepts that people often don't distinguish, sometimes to the point of philosophical confusion on important issues. I've sometimes used a paper by Jeffrie Murphy on forgiveness that draws a four-fold distinction between justification, excuse, mercy, and reconciliation. I would now add to the list mitigating factors, explanations, and what Laurence Thomas calls moral deference. Justification is an an explanation why an action isn't wrong (presumably when someone is assuming or arguing that it is). A justification for killing someone, which is normally wrong, might be that I'm defending my son from a vicious murderer. It's a defense of the rightness of something that would otherwise be wrong. An excuse is an explanation of why we shouldn't blame someone who did something wrong. Someone who does something that's wrong but couldn't understand the relevant moral issues because of a diminished capacity to engage in moral reasoning would be excused. Mercy is the removal or diminishment of punishment. If a judge reduces a sentence or a governor or president commutes a sentence, it's mercy. Reconciliation is the restoration of normal relations, for instance if a divorced couple reinstated their marriage or two estranged friends resumed a relationship of friendship. Murphy distinguishes all of these from forgiveness, which is the willingness to put aside one's resentment.

Two related but yet distinct concepts that occurred to me in reading this discussion are mitigating factors, explanations, and moral deference. Mitigating factors can be the basis for some of the original list. A mitigating factor may explain why something normal wrong is right, or it might explain why someone shouldn't be held responsible for doing the wrong thing. It might make it right to reduce a sentence, or it could be the grounds for forgiveness. But the mitigating factor itself is just a condition that makes it worth considering a situation as more complex than the straightforward case of wrongdoing that deserves a certain simple response. An explanation of someone's behavior is simply an account of what led to it. Sometimes it's helpful to understand what led someone to do something wrong. Sometimes the explanation includes mitigating factors. Sometimes it provides some level of justification or excuse. Sometimes it's an attempt to justify or excuse but one that's not entirely successful. But sometimes when someone offers an explanation all they want is for you to understand how they could have ended up in that position, and it might be useful to know about in order to help prevent the person being in the situation that occasioned their wrong act. So I think this is a distinct category, and it's good to be able to think of it as separate. Someone can offer an explanation without necessarily seeing that explanation as an excuse, justification, or call for mercy. Finally, moral deference is when you admit that you don't have a good grasp of what it's like to be in someone else's situation, which leads you therefore to extend them some level of mercy, forgiveness, excuse, justification, or reconciliation. It's a particular reason for doing one of those things, namely that you can't put yourself in a position to judge as easily because you haven't experienced what they've experienced.


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