A Reflection on Confronting Evil

The New York state legislature has nearly approved a bill endorsing same-sex marriage, finally bringing the state in line with such bastions of extravagant liberalism as Argentina, Nepal, and Iowa. Taking to the airwaves in the tradition of Father Charles Coughlin, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan declared the legislation an “ominous threat”. Same-sex marriage is “detrimental for the common good,” said the Archbishop; it violates “the natural law that’s embedded in every man and woman”.

This post is not about gay marriage; I will not present a positive argument for the moral necessity of marriage equality. Similarly, I will not write a post about the moral necessity of racial integration in public education, or about the moral necessity of women’s suffrage. The mere raising of such issues, in a context of argument, implies an open question about the simple human dignity of the people affected. My starting point is that marriage equality is such an issue. My question, instead, is this: how we are we to deal with those among us most responsible for our collective failure to decisively conclude this argument, the very existence of which is morally repugnant?

It is centrally important that Archbishop Dolan himself wields normative vocabulary. Legal recognition of same-sex marriage, it turns out, is “unjust and immoral”. The conjunction is infuriatingly instructive. Not only is it “unjust” to ensure equal treatment before the law to a marginalized minority. It is also “immoral” to extend affirming social sanction to the effort of two vulnerable mortals to create durable meaning in the solemnified commitment of their love and devotion to one another.

When I read that an adult has said such things, especially publicly, especially in the course of trying to influence public policy, I intuitively conclude that this person is lacking in elementary moral sensitivity. I cannot avoid thinking that such disrespect, directed toward some of the most centrally human aspirations of follow citizens, betrays in the speaker a gapingly deficient character. Archbishop Dolan seemingly marks himself as a sad figure, whose contemptible behavior would be worthy of only benign pity, were it not aggressively directed at the lives of innocent others.

But my unbidden reaction is a mistake. Yes, as a matter of practical politics, Archbishop Dolan must be resisted – so long as he busily dispatches underlings to Albany, or anywhere else progress might be transpiring, we should attempt to neutralize his influence. Yet this political aim doesn’t require adopting the attitude I described as my own a moment ago, that simmering fusion of contempt and pity. Our political aim is compatible with a reflective rejection of that attitude; we might resist Archbishop Dolan’s abominable ends without necessarily adopting a dismissive stance toward his person. Indeed, I think this is what we ought to do: I suggest that our (or, anyway, my) intuitive vilification of people like Archbishop Dolan cannot withstand reflective scrutiny.

I assume here that Archbishop Dolan’s assertions about morality are sincere, that he truly does believe marriage equality to be morally wrong and unjust. He would, I assume, ground these views in respect for the millennia of Christian ethical tradition, drawing ultimately from a Levitican abjuring of men lying with men, further grounded in certain tendentious metaphysical speculations (and an intensely selective sort of Bible interpretation, not dwelling on the Good Book’s helpful tips for the proper maintenance of slaves). These are mordantly terrible arguments, but they show a fallible intellect, rather than a flawed character, and we are not justified in morally condemning someone simply for being unequipped to escape a deep cognitive hole.

Perhaps – it is tempting to claim – people like the Archbishop are self-deceived, and culpably so. Their apparent arguments, oh so many finely sharpened apologia and delicately brushed distinctions, are only unconscious techniques for keeping safely from view an outrageously bigoted heart. It is not insincerity, as the deception is not deliberate; it is instead a failure of custodianship for one’s own mind. If this is the true nature of Archbishop Dolan, then we might feel justified in condemning him, if only to issue a call to responsibility for the consequences of negligently unleashing one’s own disordered demons in the public square.

Maybe. But that is psychodrama; that is speculation. If our ultimate aim is to secure a form of public debate respectful to the moral agency of all comers, we cannot begin from the condescending assertion that we understand our opponents’ minds better than they do. In fact, none of us knows our own minds; none of us can fully appreciate the secret mechanisms and bizarre entities populating our internal behind-the-scenes. Accusations of psychological bad faith are universally corrosive, as much a threat to the basic institutions of giving reasons and hearing arguments as to any particular entrant thereupon. The depths of human psychology are dark, but casually trawling there will not aid the construction of an admirable political culture.

So we must assume that Archbishop Dolan is not insincere, and is not a self-deceived bigot. What, then, is he? Mistaken, yes, obviously. But still a person, a moral agent, whose capacity for participation in public discourse must still be respected, even as in practice it stirs a debate intrinsically destructive of others’ agency. The aim of public morality, of any richer means of living together than mutually grudging accommodation, presupposes a shared commitment to understanding one another as fully-constituted, respect-deserving agential equals. Archbishop Dolan’s comments, implicitly predicated on the inferiority of homosexuals, are signal failures to uphold this aim. We do not improve matters by engaging in further such failures, now directed at him.

I began by considering two intensely, irreparably incompatible moral visions: of marriage equality as unjust and immoral, and of that very condemnation of marriage equality as emanating from a stunted moral sensibility. If we wish to see the former viewpoint shuttered, then we should begin by relinquishing the latter. This is a terrifically difficult aspiration, requiring us to keep in sight the evil perpetrated by the public actions of people like Archbishop Dolan, without idly slipping toward a profoundly unhelpful dismissal of the erring person. The lesson here is old, and familiar, and good. Hate the sin. But try to love, or at least to respect, the sinner.

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31 Responses to A Reflection on Confronting Evil

  • Patrick says:

    This hatchet job, under pretenses of trying to 'love' Archbishop Dolan, instead (and without any evidence) assumes he has a wicked heart of which he must not be aware. This is the worst kind of response: one which does not take one's opponent's arguments seriously, but instead assigns all sorts of nefarious motives to why one must secretly (and, in this case, subconsciously) hold particular position. And it does nothing but embolden those who are against gay marriage with the idea that their opponents have no substantial arguments to offer in support of their position…but instead must engage in question begging and personal attacks. (This post is already being cited on facebook and other similar sites with this spin.)

    The Church's arguments about gay marriage (and about sexual orientation more generally) might all be unconvincing, but they deserve a fair hearing (did this article just reduce the argument to Leviticus…seriously?). Responding to this series of exchanges would be a good place to start if one were actually serious about convincing opponents of gay marriage that they had a flawed position: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/01/2350

    • Regina Rini says:

      Hello Patrick,

      I must confess to a bit of confusion, since the constituent elements of a "hatchet job" cited in your comment ("assumes he has a wicked heart of which he must not be aware", "assigns all sorts of nefarious motives"…) are explicitly rejected in my post. Indeed, that is the entire point of the piece. Please (re)read the following sentence:

      "So we must assume that Archbishop Dolan is not insincere, and is not a self-deceived bigot."

      I have some difficulty understanding how you interpreted that sentence in the way you did.

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      Patrick :
      I don't know where you live, but I am sure that you will find somewhere an adult education class to improve your reading skills. You have made the first and hardest step by displaying your handicap : good luck !
      Regina :
      Thank you for an interesting post – I agree with you.
      The difficulty for us ordinary mortals, as I see it, is where to draw the line : I could love Archbishop Dolan, but GW Bush and his pro-war clique ? (I leave you to add to the list of those whose conduct makes them difficult to love…..).

      • Regina Rini says:

        Hello Anthony,

        I agree: line-drawing is extraordinarily difficult here. Plainly there exist political positions so horrible that anyone who advocates them is thereby beyond the bounds of legitimate discourse. We do legitimately condemn such people, such as neo-Nazis. But there must exist a very wide space between those we agree with and those "beyond the bounds", in which we are obligated to treat and to regard our opponents with respect. Unfortunately, I don't have any helpful general suggestions for delineating that space!

        • Anthony Drinkwater says:

          You’re right that Lids’ response doesn’t reply to your post, but at least it has the merit of addressing your issue – not the questions of gay marriage itself, but how we should respond to those who in our view do evil – « hate the sin, love the sinner ».
          Lids' comment in fact evokes the common reaction that it’s a just maxim for wimps which is exploited to bend the weaker to their will and crush opposition. The irony is that this is not a christian maxim but a central part of the thinking of a very great and successful fighter of oppression, Mahatma Gandhi.
          How to explain this apparent contradiction ?
          I wonder if in fact, « hate the sinner, love the sinner » could be described as essentially a prudential value which protects the sinned-against more than the sinner. Let us continue with Lids’ simple example to illustrate : my husband, whom I love, proposes to do something which I consider evil. Applying the maxim enables me to resist his actions without having to go through the anguish that this means that I can’t really love him. Applying the maxim in this case actually helps protect my mental health.
          To take another very different example, « he only says that because he"s a muslim / an employee of X Corporation / gay / is resentful at not being promoted » amalgamates the views expressed with the person or his circumstances such that the views themselves are not properly debated or even addressed.
          Sorry, haven’t the time or space to develop further, but I hope you get the drift from this skeleton argument and I am sure you can think of hundreds of other analogies.

          Generalising, the maxim could thus be seen as an exhortation to differentiate the question of validity of a statement from the circumstances in which it is made – an essential condition for philosophy and science.
          All of this reinforces my view that you are absolutely correct in stating that this is a good, even though terrifically difficult, aspiration.

          • Regina Rini says:

            Hi Anthony,

            it's interesting that you draw the connection between the sort of not-attributing-bad-motives stance I advocate and differentiation between "the validity of a statement from the circumstances in which it is made", especially in the context of philosophy or science. Plausibly, these two goals are grounded in quite different concerns. In the latter case, we separate statements from speakers/circumstances, because we are aiming at truth and a statement might be true even if uttered by a disreputable speaker in disreputable circumstances. In the former case, it is possible that we are not aiming at truth: there might be no "truth" about which policy a community should pursue. Here, the aim of distinguishing speaker and statement is to demonstrate respect for the speaker, even when we reject the statement.

            There is an intriguing counterpart relationship here. In the case of truth-seeking enterprises, we aim to preserve our respect for decent statements even when they come from bad people/circumstances. In the case of policy-making enterprises, we aim to preserve our respect for decent people even when they come up with bad statements.

            I don't know quite what lesson to draw from this relationship, but it's certainly suggestive. In particular, if we think that policy-making does&lt aim at truth – i.e. that there is a normative truth about ideal policy choices – then we have to be doubly careful in political discourse: we have to allow for the possibility that statements are truth-apt even when their speakers are dubious, and for the possibility that speakers deserve respect even when their statements are condemnable. That might be an even more difficult dual enterprise!

  • Jack says:

    I thought this was extremely thoughtful and well written. If you, Patrick, hold it to be as you say, a "hatchet job", you might try rereading it after reading the final paragraph and holding that aim, for the writer, in mind. With an open mind, you might find you read it differently.
    Of course it would be taken poorly by opponents of gay marriage, so is the teaching of Christ, so maybe the point of it really isn't to take aim at the minds of opponents of gay marriage so much as the proponents' and to begin to change the way we perceive them, leaving changing their minds for another day. The message I get from it seems sincerely stated in the final paragraph, and if only some of us get that I would call that a good start.

    • Regina Rini says:

      Hello Jack,

      thank you for this – it helps to clarify something I should have made more explicit. I certainly don't expect my post to (directly) make any difference to opponents of marriage equality. My intended audience is indeed those who, I take it, agree with me on the central position, that marriage equality is a moral necessity. To that audience I meant to direct a message of personal moral restraint. In a certain sense, I suppose, I'm arguing with myself: my own intuitive response to someone like Archbishop Dolan is something like angry dismissal. But I've tried to argue that this response is mistaken.

  • Frank J says:

    The fear based rhetoric of the Archbishop is simply a smokescreen. His "ominous threat'
    remarks I put in the category of Chicken Little telling us the sky is falling or Harold
    Camping's telling us that the world is coming to and end because of the homosexual
    rights movement. To all of the I say: horse apples.

    • Regina Rini says:

      Hello Frank,

      I certainly agree with you about the (lack of) substance in the Archbishop's claims, which are both demonstrably silly and harmful. I'm not sure that we should call it a "smokescreen" though, which suggests that the Archbishop does not sincerely believe what he says.

  • Patrick from CA says:

    I appreciate the intention of this analysis, but I think it misses some of the central concerns of the Archbishop: to regain relevancy for the Catholic church as a voice on morality and to regain political leverage largely lost in the past decade.

    Explorations of the internal motivations, reasoning and expressions might be interesting – and are certainly relevant – but they seem to miss the mark here. Labeling LGBT people as moral and social hazards is an easy way to get money, votes and social legitimacy. The Catholic church would not dare take such a stand to deny those who have been divorced the right to re-marry, even though it is a reasonable parallel of their objections to same-sex marriages.

    The Archbishop and the church that stands behind him have taken aim at this specific minority for a very simple reason: it's a quick way to score points at the expense of a widely hated group. The problem now is that homophobia as a lever for political legitimacy is no longer beyond question. In fact, the use of this lever seems to be a lightning rod for unwanted attention – attention that will certainly not accomplish what the Archbishop was hoping it would.

    • Regina Rini says:

      Hello Patrick from CA,

      thanks for your comment. I'm a bit wary, personally, of attempting to analyze away someone else's argument as disingenuous cover for a political tactic. After all, the Archbishop's supporters might equally make counterpart claims about the motives of marriage equality proponents – e.g. that queer folk are a special interest group for leftist politicians, or that marriage equality is a Trojan horse for destroying the religious significance of marriage.

      Once we start that way, we give up much chance of substantive public discourse, and move toward trading accusations of bad faith. Possibly I'm being overly idealistic – perhaps that is the inevitable tendency of democracy. But I'll hold out a bit longer still.

      • Patrick from CA says:


        Thanks for your reply, I appreciate your thoughtful analysis.

        I suppose my point here is to differentiate between expressly political speech and speech that is intended to clarify a moral or ethical position. In the case of the Catholic church, morality and ethics are communicated through other means; it seems reasonably safe to presume that the Archbishop's words are a carefully studied exercise in public relations. An Archbishop does not formulate or even clarify matters of church dogma. Instead, I see his words as a sign of the way the church would like to occupy and be seen within a politically charged public sphere in the state of New York and in the US.

        For what it's worth, queer folks are targets for all kinds of people who wish to use them as leverage in public discourse. This is true in ways that seem harmless and even flattering (e.g., Bette Middler's stories about playing in gay bath houses), and in ways that seem more transparently exploitative (the presumption among Democrats that they already have the LGBT vote). I would invite such analysis, as I think it might actually help bring to light many unquestioned assumptions about the way groups imagine themselves to be related or separate. In fact, I think a lot of the rhetoric around marriage equality merits precisely this kind of analysis.

        At heart, I'm wondering whether to see the Archbishop's words as an ethical argument housed within a speech that is also a political act, or as an essentially political act that is disciplined by rather predictable ethical arguments articulated through a formulaic type of speech. I'm tending toward the latter, mostly because of who the speaker is and what I imagine to be the intended effects of his words.

        In any case, thank you for the thoughtful article.

        • Regina Rini says:

          Hi Patrick,

          there's a complex tension here between two sorts of political speech. Let's call one <i>substantive</i> political speech. In this type, the speaker aims to influence other citizens through sincere persuasion, perhaps via arguments or suggestive analogies, or perhaps even certain appropriate sorts of appeal to shared values and emotions. Let's call the second sort <i>tactical</i> political speech, wherein the speaker is indifferent toward the validity of the content of her or his speech act, and further indifferent toward whether the intended audience gives adequate deliberation to that content, but cares merely about whether the existence of the speech act itself will have some sort of political consequence advancing the policy goals of the speaker. (A lot of empty stump speeches given by candidates for office are canonical examples of the latter.)

          In large part, what distinguishes between the two sorts is a matter of the speaker's attitude – the attitude toward the content of the statement, and the attitude toward how the audience receives the statement. We might describe this, overly simply, as depending on whether the speaker acts with an attitude of respect toward the audience in their capacity as independent members of a political community (as opposed to in their capacity as manipulable cogs in the political machine). This is not a perfectly sharp distinction; there will be borderline cases. And, of course, a given speaker's attitude is not directly accessible to the rest of us; we can only make inferences from public facts about the speaker and the context of the particular statement.

          So, the question seems to be: what sort of political speech act was Archbishop Dolan engaged in? You suggest reasons for thinking that his was a tactical statement. If that's right, then plausibly we have far fewer grounds for upholding respect for him (or at least respect for him in this capacity). I agree that there are strong reasons to categorize this act in that way. I guess I just want to suggest that the importance of mutual respect in political discourse is so overwhelming that we should provide an extensive benefit of doubt. Even when it appears that our opponents are engaged in merely tactical speech, we should treat them as if they have engaged in substantive speech. Of course, there are conditions where this presumption of substance should be rescinded, but I think it would be very difficult to say in advance what these might be.

      • Karcy says:

        That's way more cveler than I was expecting. Thanks!

  • Lids says:

    'hate the sin, love the sinner'? Puh-lease! Regina your use of this Christian maxim is laughable at best! Based on your childish understanding of this over-used cliche, I love my husband so I will institutionalize, endorse, promote, fight for his RIGHT to marry three women, not just one. After all, it is a longing in his heart,and if we are all consenting, who is being harmed? Oh that's right! The children. Darn children, always get in the way of adult human dignity issues and equality. Here's some advice Regina, find out what the teaching about sin and love really means before using it as a closing statement in an already weak argument.

    • Regina Rini says:

      Hello Lids,

      I'm honestly not sure that you are responding to my post. Is it possible that you read the "spin" on facebook about it, as described by the first Patrick above, rather than reading the post itself?

      (I don't think anyone deleted your comment. Sometimes they do take a little while to appear after they've been submitted.)

  • Lids says:

    I just wrote a response, it wad posted and then deleted. Didn't like that I disagreed w the author?? Can I have it back please?

  • Dave Frame says:

    I've always seen "gay marriage" as basically being a turf war over who "owns" the institution of marriage. In societies like this (actually, in most societies, most times) marriage has been conducted and sanctioned by the clergy, even if many of the implications of it are enforced by the legislature. But that "enforcement" is the back end. The gate-keepers at the front have been the clergy, though obviously that's changed as the state has mimicke/copied and co-opted aspects of marriage under its own auspices. But that gate-keeper role is precious to those who wield it, and that (I'm guessing) is why this Dolan guy sees the state's foray into what he sees as his patch as "unjust" (leaving aside his other claim).

    I have some sympathy with this sentiment, since I'm kind of skeptical about elites/the state arbitrarily altering, copying or obliterating other institutions' institutions as unilaterally as it often does. And I think that's where Regina's final line about "respect" bites.

    Imagine a town of 1000 people. 997 of them are happy with institution X. Two of them are very unhappy with it and Hank, the philosopher-legislator, having considered the arguments, decides that the two dissenters are right. He can prove this on a blackboard to the satisfaction of the entire Senior Common Room/Civil Service/World Bank/other elite institution. Under what circumstances can he legitimately over-rule the 997? Would Hank be justified if X were gay marriage? How about trade liberalisation (probably as uncontentious among economists as gay marriage is among philosophers)? What I reckon Hank could really do with is an equation that would let him evaluate the overwhelmingness of the arguments for X vs the overwhelmingness of the oppostion to X.

    • Patrick from CA says:

      Dave, now imagine that the people happy with Institution X are actually referring to one controlled by the state, not by the self-appointed gate-keepers. No matter how effective the self-appointed gate-keepers are at convincing people that the institution belongs to them, they're in error and are misrepresenting the facts. In fact, the state has instituted radical changes in living memory to that institution and continues to revise it as required. Self-appointed gatekeepers oppose all those changes vehemently, but they happened anyway. And things went on.

      This is precisely what we have with marriage. It doesn't matter that church folks scream that it belongs to them, it does not. Nor do birth certificates, death certificates, descriptions of real property or tax receipts, all of which at some point were within the remit of religious institutions. These are all decidedly secular matters, as the birther controversy reminds us.

      Catholics and other religious groups were sure that divorce would lead to moral ruin. No-fault divorce was nothing but an express lane to such ruin. Now that we have it in all 50 states, now that marriage is really just a civil contract, there is little point in arguing: marriage may remind us of religion, but that's largely due to the way it once was, not to the way it is now.

      Marriage is not religious any more. It has not lost its religious content because gay people wanted to wrest control of it from religious authorities. It lost its religious content because straight people wanted to wrest control of the institution from religious authorities and they succeeded in doing so decades ago. Gay people did not change marriage, straight people did.

      • Dave Frame says:

        Patrick from CA – I agree with your diagnosis, but that doesn't mean Mr Dolan would accept it… I'm pretty sure in his eyes there's still a struggle going on for control of marriage, and my guess is that he and many others in his community would be painfully aware that they seem to be on the losing side of that struggle.

        Personally I'm less interested in the specifics of the issue than I am in the legitimacy issue – how should the state or the elites who run it weigh intellectually compelling arguments (like those for free trade or nuclear power) against public opposition? Even though I find opposition to nuclear power eye-rollingly dumb, I'm hesitant to recommend its use where a large proportion of people don't want it, because to do so strikes me as disrespectful, as failing in the duty Regina identified regarding treating others as "fully-constituted, respect-deserving agential equals". My suspicion is that Hank's equation – balancing opposition to X against the strength of the case for X – could go some way towards explaining why Regina is targeting her criticisms towards New Yorkers, where gay people are protected by many rights, rather than towards (say) Saudi Arabia, where no such protection exists (presumably, assuming we aren't relativists, the case for gay rights are similar in both polities, but the opposition is lower in NY). Without Hank's equation, her targeting of the comparatively benign regime strikes me as arbitrary (or possibly even back-to-front if you buy the argument that the marginal value of effort securing gay rights would be higher in the most repressive regimes…).

        • Patrick from CA says:

          Dave – I don't accept your suppositions here. I get the feeling that you want to push this because your sentiments are essentially conservative and opposed to same-sex marriage. I get that feeling because analogy is really strained.

          There are certainly entrenched elites within the system of governance we have today. But to argue that LGBT activists are among them is ludicrous. They've won the vast majority of their victories through court decisions. They lose virtually every referendum. In your analogy, the "elites" are those opposed to the change, not those driving it.

          And there is public opposition, but it's far from overwhelming. The population seems fairly evenly split on the issue, but there seems to be a clear momentum for a change in that balance. Barring any unforeseen events, we will have a public that is overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex marriage within the decade. Just as the public was 70% in favor of lifting Don't Ask, Don't Tell before the government took action, I think we can see the elite here as conservative, not activist.

          Dolan is the mouthpiece of a political establishment that has been in decline since since Latin American independence. I see him as a wistful, nostalgic figure, but he clearly imagines himself as powerful and speaks as though he had legitimacy. He may be a convincing actor, but he's tilting at windmills. The battle was lost and the war is over. It doesn't matter what he thinks, rule of law has made his approval unnecessary.

          As for the value of targeting NY, I think this became clear in last week's UN resolution on LGBT rights. Better to have one shining example than a thousand dim bulbs.

    • Regina Rini says:

      Hi Dave,

      on your first point, regarding the state intruding on other institutions: I have some sympathy for this general idea. But, in the case of marriage, this is already a state institution. Being recognized as married by the state carries enormous legal consequences for individuals, and has for hundreds of years. Contrast this with another religious institution, such as (in Catholicism) baptism, which carries no legal consequences, and into which the state would indeed be very poorly disposed to intrude.

      Regarding your last paragraph (which I take to be a separate point): obviously there are some very difficult issue here. For now, I'll just question the framing of the "philosopher-legislator" going before the "elite institution". In a democratic system (with certain exceptions, such as before the judiciary), this is not quite an accurate framing. I would suggest we look at two levels of deliberation. First, there is individual deliberation: how should I regard this issue, how should I vote? And, second, there is public deliberation: to what conclusion should the community come, once the individual members have aired their views?

      In individual deliberation, it seems very clear that one may justly ignore the majority, even a vast majority, upon reflection. ("Reflection" is important here – clearly there is something wrong with ignoring the views of everyone else if you haven't even bothered to think about why you hold your own views.) Public deliberation is much harder. It does seem like there are cases where, once everyone has aired their individual views, there is a sense in which the community <i>ought</i> to come to a decision at odds with what the vast majority prefer. One example is racial discrimination. Another, I think, is marriage equality.

      Such deference to minorities in public discourse might sound utopian. (After all, much progress on minority right comes through the judiciary, not through democratic deliberation.) But it does happen all the time in ordinary life. Here's one example. When I lived for a while in Paris, I spoke very minimal French. Sometimes I would attend seminars where everyone else present was a native speaker of French, who also spoke English quite well. Now, if we'd taken a majority vote on the question "in which language would you personally prefer that we conduct this seminar?", then surely French would have won by about 29-1. However, when those present realized that I couldn't really follow a seminar in French, they happily conducted it in English, for my benefit, even though this might not have been their individual preference. Roughly speaking, they concluded that it was more just to diminish each of their individual preference-satisfactions a bit than to entirely exclude me from the exchange.

      Obviously such situations won't find precise analogs in issues of great public policy, where the interests at stake are far weightier. But the basic idea remains the same: there are some times where we should each sincerely express our own preference, see that we are in the majority, and nevertheless defer to the minority. In an ideal political system, we'd become very good at recognizing those times.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Hi Regina,

    Any system of real government is a mixture of rule by one, rule by a few and rule by many. In liberal democracies the rule by one bit is heavily constrained and mostly what we have is a mixture of power held by elites or specialists and power held democratically. "The people" do not design, draft or implement legislation. They seldom even get a chance to have their say on specific laws that are passed. What they get is to offer a very blunt assessment of the general direction of the government every few years. They also get to express "their" opinion through various media, though the extent to which this is genuinely democratic is open for debate. Elites do respond to these democratic utterances; obsessively so, in the case of modern British politicians. But behind the scenes the options that are put together and discussed in the policy arena are almost always the products of elites, whose beliefs are sometimes uncomfortably distant from those they claim to serve.

    I agree that in private deliberation we can reasonably disregard the democratic voice in our first cut at the issue, but it's reasonable to revise even this private deliberation in the light of other people's views (which could be relevant for a number of reasons, especially where one's arguments are contingent on premises such as "most people believe X"). And I agree that it's also reasonable to consider that one's own deliberations may differ from some sort of social optimum, so engaging with that seems like a good idea, too. But "social optima" are of course highly value-laden. And if relevant elites have values that are biased compared to the statistical norm, then those elites have in some way to perform an assessment of the extent to which their values trump those of everyone else. This seems to me a two-stage process: (1) specify a decision rule regarding the conditions under which the "trump" gets played; (2) assess whether those conditions are met. That seems the obvious process to me, but it isn't how I hear people arguing – usually the thing which is specified is the outcome, and arguments are deployed in its support. I find it hard to take anything generic away from debates about gay marriage or other minority rights issues, because people's ideas of (1) and (2) seem kind of ad hoc to me.**

    I agree very much with your final paragraph, but to me minority rights issues always raise the question of the conditions under which we ought to make those trade-offs. I agree that ideally we'd be good at identifying those occasions, but that's like saying "we should be right more often". True but not necessarily decision-relevant…

    **For instance, posters here seem to use different rules for decising whether various putative initiatives would pass muster. Anders (for instance) discussed the panopticon state without reference to the circumstances under which mutual spying might (or might not) infringe on "rights" to privacy. Your post above is predicated on the idea that the only relevant thing in play in gay marriage is "simple human dignity". So I feel as though I'm being asked to suspend any qualms I may have regarding my own privacy, while being told that even to countenance consideration of the costs and benefits of gay marriage is to be in error: "The mere raising of such issues, in a context of argument, implies an open question about the simple human dignity of the people affected." In one case consequentialism is so obvious it's not even discussed. In the other it is considered so repugnant that only evil people might consider using it. It's hard to keep up…

    • Regina Rini says:

      Hi Dave,

      I wonder if we're talking past each other a bit. It seems like you're primarily interested in how decision-making elites ought to think about their relation to the majority. While I agree that this is an interesting and important issue, I'm not quite seeing that it has <i>particular</i> relevance in this case, as opposed to any other matter of public policy. Perhaps I'm missing something?

      (Regarding your double-asterisk comment: I hope you don't expect that the writers of this blog share the same substantive views! Or even that we hold views that rely on mutually compatible metanormative foundations. I think it's a strength of the blog that we have a wide range of views and motivations.)

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I'm coming late to a thread that is already well-advanced, but I think this is a hugely important issue. I think I'm broadly in agreement with Regina's analysis: some people really are bigots, but others simply have a faith in a doctrinal system according to which gay marriage is unjust and immoral. Or at least immoral. "Unjust" might be a bit of rhetorical flourish.

    With regard to what attitude "we" should take towards such people, I think "we" perhaps need to be a bit careful in defining who "we" actually are. Are we talking here about enlightened, intellectual, secular-minded and broadly altruistic ethicists, i.e. the kind of people who like to contribute to blogs such as this one? It's worth clarifying this I think, otherwise we run the risk of living in some imaginary world where "we" is something like the public at large, which we think broadly sharse such enlightened and thoughtful perspectives, and which then is supposed to sit in judgement over a minority of "cranks" such as Archbishop Dolan. The reality is very different of course: the "we" that I have defined is a tiny minority, with most people just getting on with their lives without giving much (and certainly not very coherent) thought to such issues.

    If this is indeed the "we" that we have in mind, then perhaps even more important than loving/respecting the "sinner" is to *understand* the sinner. Confusing honest belief with bigotry is certainly to be avoided, but we also need to understand what motivates people to hold such beliefs in the first place. Usually it will presumably be because they were brought up to hold such beliefs, and/or came across them at an impressionable age. Their beliefs are a source of guidance and comfort to them, and in the case of clergyman an intrinsic part of their professional persona (rather like believing in the power of the free market if you work for the wall street journal), and therefore need to be defended against attack. To the extent that evidence to support those beliefs is lacking, all the more stronger do such neurotic defences need to be. It is easy to see how words like "immoral" and "unjust" might spring from the fear and anger that such defence mechanisms entail.

    • Regina Rini says:

      Hi Peter,

      You're right that we should be careful about the "we" in question. In my case, I suspect that my primary rhetorical audience (on this blog anyway) is roughly the very small community you describe. But I think the sorts of obligations I describe do apply to <i>everyone</i> in a democratic society. Not that I think that most share my views about the necessity of marriage equality, but that everyone is obligated to treat their opponents in similarly respectful ways (whatever their opponents happen to think).

      I think you're right that an obligation to respect entails something like an obligation to understand. I'd just be very careful how we cash out this sort of "understanding". You suggest a sort of psychological reduction: showing that person's views are explained in terms of her or his personal history. I worry that this sort of understanding risks failing to respect the content of the views themselves. If I tell you that I sincerely believe X, and you respond, "oh, you only believe X because of your upbringing, and because holding to those old beliefs gives you comfort", I'm certainly not going to feel as if you've shown respect to my views.

      Of course, intent matters here. Perhaps your aim was to say that <i>everyone</i> (including you and the people who agree with you) are products of upbringing, environment, etc., and that every substantive view might be given such a psychological reduction. Starting from that point might be useful, if it helps us see a sort of parity between our own views and those we disagree with. I just worry that it's extremely tempting to psychologically reduce one's opponents' views, and leave one's own safely substantive.

      • Peter Wicks says:

        Hi Regina, yes I agree that's a risk. I think my thinking basically went as follows. If the "very small community" exchanging views here wants to have some kind of positive impact, our best bet is probably to focus on promoting clear thinking around ethical issues. This is what we excel at, after all. And I think this is likely to be enhanced if we are able to understand – in this psychologically reductionist way – the views of those we disagree with, as well as indeed our own. To put it bluntly, I doubt that people like Dolan could care less whether we "respect" them. We're just not a big or influential enough constituency. So we probably shouldn't get too hung up on whether we respect them ourselves: better to focus on respecting those we are communicating with on a regular basis.

        But the point you make about being willing to psychologically reduce our own views as well as those of others is well taken. One of my core beliefs is that everything I believe may be wrong. Wittgenstein helps with this: if we realise that any verbally-expressed belief is a linguistic construct that only has meaning in the context of the socially-constructed language in which it is expressed, then we can see more clearly that the reality our beliefs seek to express is infinitely more complex than our beliefs about it ever can be, and that indeed those beliefs may be totally wrong. This doesn't mean that we have to fall into some postmodern trap and believe that there is no external reality at all, but it does (hopefully) breed the humility that ensures that psychologically reducing our opponents' views will actually help us to respect them more, and not less.

        Or something like that! 🙂

        • Regina Rini says:

          The Wittgensteinian perspective is definitely an alternate, and helpful, take on this point. Anything that gets us to see our own views in context, with attendant limitations, is a good thing.

          On the other hand (here going against my own views elsewhere on this thread) there is the delicate matter of taking one's own views with appropriate humility <i>and</i> forcefully arguing for things one firmly believes to be matters of great moral importance. I don't know quite what that balance looks like…


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