Critical Thinking 18: About Orlando

Philosophers don’t often have much to say about LGBTQ issues. It’s been at least a decade since I addressed homosexuality in writing when a campus group invited a homo-phobic preacher to campus. The reason LGBTQ issues aren’t very high on the agendas of philosophers is that the ethical issues here are too easy. There are no interesting ethical problems raised by people having assorted sexual identities and orientations. Ethically, there just isn’t that much to figure out concerning matters of sexual identity and orientation. So why do some people feel differently? The answer has much to do with the widespread tendency to see morality as entirely a matter of cultural say so or religious authority.

At their best, culture and religion serve as vehicles in the human search for truth and aspiration towards goodness. But for some individuals there is an unfortunate tendency for culture and religion to become ends in themselves and operate as seats of authority rather than sources for inspiration and searching. The problem in this is that there is always the potential for arbitrariness in cultural and religious thinking about morality. Where morality is taken to be a matter of say so or tradition, whether God’s, one’s culture or one’s leader, anything can be deemed morally prohibited or imperative. This is the central objection against making morality a matter of say so or tradition. This is why philosophers unanimously reject both moral relativism and divine command theory.

When morality is reduced to a matter of tradition or authority, there is no rhyme or reason to it, only command and obedience. This is deeply at odds with what seems obvious in our day to day moral lives. Morality isn’t so unhinged from reason. We expect ourselves and others to have reasons for thinking they should or shouldn’t act this way or that. And when we dig at these reasons in a critically minded way, we unearth values that transcend our whims, the authority of others and the traditions of our social groups. Why should I not torture puppies just for fun? Not on account of anyone’s say so or the traditions of my culture, but simply because it hurts the puppy. The badness of pointless suffering and the goodness of happiness don’t require any special cultural or religious stamp of approval. Why is rape morally wrong? Again, the answer is easy. Rape violates the dignity of a person. That people deserve to be treated with respect is obvious enough when it we consider our own case. When we fail to treat others with the sort of respect we recognize that we deserve, we impose a double standard on the world, making a special and unjustifiable exception for ourselves. Understanding the straightforward moral reasons for thinking rape is wrong requires no special appeal to the authority, say so, or traditions of any culture or religion.

When we hold our moral judgments to standards of reasonableness that transcend culture and religion, when we treat morality as a realm of inquiry rather than command or tradition, it quickly becomes clear that there are no ethically defensible reasons for objecting to people loving the sorts of people they love or living in ways that suit their own sexual identities and orientations. The only way these things have ever come to be seen as wrong is as the result of culture or religion betraying our basic human capacities for reason and compassion. We have ample moral and intellectual grounds for objecting to this in the strongest terms possible.

Russ Payne

June 13, 2016

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