First published at Between the Lines News on September 3, 2009
“You don’t just want us to tolerate what you gay people do,” my skeptical questioner announced, “you want us to think that it’s RIGHT.”
Whenever I hear this point–and it’s pretty often–I always think to myself, “Duh.” Of course I want that. Why would anyone think otherwise?
Actually, the latter question is not entirely rhetorical. Even my fellow gays ask me why we should care about other people’s moral approval. Beyond the obvious pragmatic advantages–for example, more moral approval means more favorable voting attitudes, means more legal rights, means an easier life–why should we give a damn what other people think? And while we’re on the subject, why should THEY care? Why are our lives any of their business?
There’s a myth circulating among well-meaning people that “morality is a private matter,” and that therefore “we shouldn’t judge other people.” This is nonsense of the highest order. Morality is about how we treat one another. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what we as a society are willing to tolerate, what we positively encourage, and what we absolutely forbid. It is the furthest thing from a private matter.
There’s a (wholly fictional) story I tell in my introductory ethics classes about a freshman who wrote a paper defending moral relativism. His paper was laden with references to what’s “true for you” versus what’s “true for me,” what’s “right for you” versus what’s “right for me” and so on. The professor gave the paper an F. Surprised and angry, the student went to the professor’s office demanding a justification.
“Well,” the professor carefully explained, “I graded your paper the way I grade all papers. I stood at the top of a staircase and threw a batch of papers down the stairs. Those that landed on the first few stairs got A’s…then B’s, C’s and so on. You wrote a long, heavy paper. It went to the bottom of the stairs. It got an F.”
“That’s not right!” the student blurted out.
“You mean, that’s not right…FOR YOU,” the professor responded, grinning.
The moral of the story (aside from, tenured professors do the darndest things) is this: despite all of our talk of “right for you,” deep down we believe in public moral standards. We may disagree about what those are, and about what actions fall under their purview–but we still believe that right and wrong aren’t entirely relative.
One might object that grading affects other, non-consenting people, whereas relationships affect only the people involved. There are two problems with this objection. The main one is that the latter point is just false. Unless one endorses a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” secrecy, relationships have a public presence and thus public consequences. Gays aren’t waging the marriage battle just so we can all go back in the closet. Like most people, we want to stand up before family and friends, proclaim our love, have it celebrated for the beautiful thing that it is. (At least, that’s what many of us want.) We want to send the message to young gays and lesbians that there’s nothing wrong with them; that they, too, deserve to love and be loved, and that there’s nothing sinful or wrong about that. We want to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. All of these aims affect other people in various ways.
Second, the objection invites the response, “Says who?” Who decides that only actions affecting other people are appropriate targets of moral scrutiny? Who determines that that’s the right way to look at morality? And there’s no way to answer such questions without engaging in a bit of moralizing. Value judgments are inescapable that way. Those who claim that they’re not taking any moral stances about other people’s lives are, by that very claim, taking a moral stance about other people’s lives–a “tolerant’ one, though not necessarily a very admirable one. Sometimes, other people’s behavior is horrific, and we should say so.
“Saying so” is part of the confusion here. There’s a difference between MAKING moral judgments and OFFERING them, not to mention a difference between offering them respectfully and wagging your finger in people’s faces. The latter is not just self-righteous; it’s generally counterproductive. I suspect when people say that “we shouldn’t judge other people,” it’s really the latter, pompous kind of moralizing they’re concerned to avoid. But we shouldn’t confuse the rejection of bad moralizing with the rejection of moralizing altogether.
In short, we should care what other people think and do, because the moral fabric touches us all.