Saturday, February 18, 2017

Liberalism and Morality

Conservative propaganda loves to paint liberals as "moral relativists" and hostile to Christian values.  It's the pretext for a lot of the uglier, more hateful sentiments harbored by people on the deep hard-right.  If you claim a superior morality, then everything you disagree with becomes "wrong" in the eyes of God.  (Sharia much?)

So let me just say it now: the idea that my morality is inferior to yours - is - horrifically - offensive.  In fact, it's hard for me to even continue writing with that sentiment in my head.  But this is important.  So, onward!

I'm not going to comment much about what the Liberal version of morality is.  Not least of which, because I don't presume to speak for anybody beyond myself, let alone a vast wedge of political and social ideology.  Instead, I'm going to examine morality itself and its role in government and society.

Point One: You can't legislate morality; only societal norms.
Human nature is a kooky thing.  If you want to get people to do or think something, pretty much all you have to do is tell them they can't.  And, if you try telling everyone that they must believe a certain set of things as "right" they'll work awfully hard at proving you wrong.  That's why, more than anything, the whole concept of a "Christian-based nation" is critically flawed.  You just can't tell human beings what to believe with the force of law.

Furthermore, there's this little issue of picking which version of religious morality you're going to use. Because, as much as some would refute it, religious doctrine is pretty malleable.  According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, there are 217 Christian denominations in the US alone.  Some are strict interpretationists, while others are more broadly open to ideas.  Which one would you pick?  Think about divorce.  In the mid-20th century, divorce was considered essentially invalid across most mainstream faiths.  People were not allowed to re-marry.  Even the Princess Margaret of Great Britain was prevented from marrying a divorced man.  Where is that hard and fast doctrine today?  See, laws are a bit more rigid.  Would you jail someone simply because they remarried outside the church?  Would you punish people who dispute the age of the earth?  Because that seems to be open to some debate, even among Christians.

Point Two: Everyone has got a little "relativism" in them
Take something as prosaic as traffic violations.  It's the law, right?  Yet, here in Phoenix, the common joke on the loop around the city is that "101" is the speed limit, not the name of the freeway.  People take liberties where they feel comfortable and safe doing so.  Good people, bad hombres.  All of us. So why do we get super-sanctimonious on some things and not others?  Remember, if you want the law based on "Christian principles" that means you plan to obey them fully and without exception.

The binary idea of "right" and "wrong" is a child-like approach to the world.  Sure, there are some things we can all agree are pretty universally wrong: killing or hurting someone who isn't threatening you; taking things that don't belong to you.  We can all get behind those.  But, for most of life, a mature thinking person recognizes that there's a spectrum of "better" and "worse" and that context is everything.  And anybody that refuses to acknowledge that is simply not being honest with themselves.

Point Three: A lot of this is about "the yucky sex stuff"
This country was founded by Puritans.  And we've retained a lot of that puritanical streak in the American nature.  It's important to acknowledge that we are straight-up prudish about sexuality as a society, and that much of the anti-liberal "moral-cesspool" stuff can be traced straight back to S-E-X.  I don't know when we, as a society, are going to finally graduate the 8th grade, but if this is your hang-up and basis for rejecting me as a person, then we're just going to have to continue to disagree.  How about this?  I promise not to flaunt my sexuality in your living room if you promise not to flaunt yours in mine.

Point Four:  Religion can be an easy cover for hatred
From slavery to segregation through to the AIDS epidemic and today, being able to declare an entire class of people as inferior or deviant gave cover to countless atrocities.  Prominent mainstream figures, citing religious mandates have condemned people to death and damnation and excused those fearful, hateful practitioners that dealt out God's wrath on earth.  So what is to say that somebody's moral imperative tomorrow won't deliver some similar atrocity?  Nothing, actually.  Nothing at all.

So, where does that leave us.
The Constitution is truly an amazing document.  Virtually all laws are designed to limit.  But the Constitution is a set of laws designed solely to preserve.  Our nation is founded in Liberty.  And the principles of liberty dictate that I have a fundamental right to believe and live whatever way I choose as long as I don't use those beliefs to directly prevent you from doing the same thing.  You don't have to like my choices; I don't have to like yours.  But as long as we can conduct our lives in the same society without one trampling the other, we're good.  If we all spent a lot less time grading other people's lives than focusing on our own, we'd be a much happier place.


  1. Point Five: A lot of this is more complex than we want it to be. And if there's one thing that American society writ large despises, it's something that can't be reduced to a simple black/white narrative. Good vs bad. Us vs them. (Noto bene: It just isn't that simple.) And heaven forbid we have a lawmaker who understands that there is a lot of complexity and actually TAKES THE TIME TO CONSIDER IT ALL. Because that's wishy washy. Shoot first, ask questions later.

    1. Well said, sir! Nuance is not a prized quality and we have little appetite for complexity. We want people to just "get to the point". Even in my work, I get frequent eye rolls when I say "it's not that simple." Binary decisions make life simple and choices clear. They also, more often than not, lead us to a less desirable outcome.