Skip to content

The Virtuous Homophobe

A few days ago, Kim Davis was released from jail, where she had spent the past few days. Davis, as you probably recall, is the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples (more technically, for contempt for refusing to obey an order to grant such licenses). Davis says that doing so is inconsistent with her Christian beliefs. Let’s assume (rightly, I am very confident) that Davis’s belief that single sex marriage is morally objectionable is wrong. Is there nevertheless something admirable about her behaviour?[1]

Why would it be admirable? Davis might be displaying the virtue of fortitude by refusing to bow to pressure to betray her principles. Some people have suggested that she is in fact just seeking attention, or money, which are of course far less laudable motives. I don’t think we have much evidence for these claims; in any case, I set aside the suggestions. Let’s suppose, then, that she is motivated, in at least important part, by her principles.

Virtue theorists sometimes defend a thesis called the unity of virtue. This doctrine comes in various flavors, but the weakest entails that no one can have any of the virtues without having them all. A terrorist cannot exemplify the virtue of courage, for instance. That seems to me very implausible. A terrorist might exercise great self-control to overcome their fear when they act horrifically; the only reason to deny that they act courageously is that we deeply (and rightly) disapprove of what they do. So there seems no reason to think that Davis doesn’t display the virtue of fortitude.

Suppose that a counterpart of hers was ordered to deny marriage licenses to gay couples by the state, but she refused to do so because she took the order to be immoral. Suppose she continued to refuse to do so, even under the threat of going to jail. Wouldn’t we admire her? That is, wouldn’t we admire her conviction, and her willingness to stand up for it in the face of pressure, independent of admiring her commitment to principles that are correct? After all, had she folded in the face of pressure, she would be less admirable, though her principles would be just as good. If that’s right, then shouldn’t we – grudgingly – admit that Davis exhibits a virtue in standing up for what she believes to be right?

Some people have suggested that if she cannot issue marriage licenses to gay couples consistent with her principles, the moral thing for her to do is to resign. Even if that’s right, that wouldn’t show that she wasn’t displaying the virtue of fortitude. Unless we hold a very demanding version of the unity of virtue thesis, we shouldn’t believe that someone can only display the virtues in doing the best thing available to them, not even the best thing available to them as assessed by their own principles. I’m not convinced, in any case, that resigning is what is best in the light of her own principles. Consider her counterpart once more, ordered to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples. Surely we admire her more for standing her ground than for resigning in the face of this pressure? That seems to indicate that Davis, too, might be doing what is most admirable, from the perspective of someone who accepts her false moral claims.


[1] Reginia Rini, late of this parish, started me thinking about this by raising the question on Facebook

Share on

16 Comment on this post

  1. Yes. Basically she is doing the right thing, given what she believes. And that should be obvious to you whether or not you agree with what she believes. So it is a really bad sign that I have read many, many comments on Kim Davis, and this is the first place I have seen someone recognize that fact while disagreeing with what she believes.

    1. The right thing given what she believes, perhaps.

      But is it right for her to believe that? Are beliefs truly something we have no control over?

      Because if she is to blame for this belief, then she is also to blame for putting herself in a situation where the right thing to do according to it resulted in such a disruption.

  2. In my understanding of the notion of a virtue, to act virtuously is to act in a good way and for good reasons. However I cannot find room for either of these two aspects in David Kim’s case. First, I cannot see how she acted in a good way if the way she acted was homophobic, namely in a way harmful to the moral entitlements of other people. Second, I cannot how she acted for good reasons if what appear to her as reasons is just silly bigotry, or if, putting aside the particular contents of her beliefs, she as a person is stubborn in the sense of being disposed to dismiss offhand, or pay insufficient attention to, aspects of reality that count against her beliefs.

    In a nutshell, I think that she is likely to lack the rationality required for exemplifying the virtue of courage or fortitude. In general she might lack responsiveness to reasons (i.e. as illustrated by the second of my considerations), and in particular she might lack fail to understand the harmfulness of her action.

  3. I think this article brings out nicely the doublethink that people often apply in their judgments of others’ courage. The folk conception is simply that courage is conditional: If you demonstrated resolution in the face of danger to further a good cause, you acted courageously, if you demonstrated the same resolution to further a bad cause, you didn’t. In the way it’s most commonly used, it’s a rather meaningless honorific.

    Though I agree that the unity of virtue thesis leads us to the wrong answer here, I also think it’s pretty clear that she ought to resign, though to do so is clearly not in her short-term best interest. You’re wrong to deny customers the services they need performed, if those services are ethically justified. Given that they are, one’s being obstinate simply inconveniences people trying to attain those services–and what good is done by that?

  4. It seems to me that what appears to be ‘fortitude’ exercised for a bad reason is really obduracy (or some kind of character flaw). I think that we have to consider context when evaluating whether an action is a virtue or a vice. Charging into battle is courageous if done prudently; if done imprudently, it’s rashness. This isn’t a defense of the unity of the virtues: I agree with Flanagan that there can be a ‘variety of moral personalities’: one might be fully courageous without being fully charitable. But it’s a defense of a contextual reading of virtue (and character).

  5. She will accept compensation from the state while refusing to abide by the policy of the state. This situation is real. Leave the hypothetical aside. She is a hater who disguises her behavior behind religion. In an earlier time she would have denied licenses to mixed racial couples because she is what she is.

  6. I don’t agree with Levy on this. I don’t think what she is doing is admirable at all. I don’t think she is displaying fortitude. Further, I don’t think I have to have a strong unity thesis to get that off the ground. A weak unity that suggests that you get the facts correct and act according to them is all we would need to say her act was not virtuous. In fact, it seems more accurate to say that she is incontinent rather than virtuous.

    So, for one to be acting virtuous one must know some of the facts that are driving one’s evaluation of, in this case, not signing the marriage certificate. I guess there is a minimum amount of wisdom needed for anyone to claim that one is exhibiting a particular virtue. After all, one is not being courageous if one is putting their life on the line for their last cigarette. Why not? Well cigarettes aren’t the sort of thing you put your life on the line for. Similarly, staying steadfast to your abhorrent moral views is not exhibiting virtue at all.

  7. I think Justin Caouette’s response is a good start for an explanation of why David was not being courageous. Courage has to involve doing something outside the norm. Now, I know that David did go beyond the norms imposed by her job, and by the courts; but it looks as though she was relying heavily on another set of norms. Firstly, she didn’t do something that other people don’t do. Until very recently, every registrar in her state denied marriage licences to gay couples. So it’s not like her action was out of the ordinary in that sense. Second, as I understand it there are very strong media and community movements against gay marriage. If David wakes up in the morning, hears Limbaugh on the radio saying it’s terrible that gay people can get married, meets a neighbour who sighs over the wickedness of the gays, and ends up being escorted to court by rich and powerful anti-gay supporters, then it seems like she’s not really bucking the system that much.

    I’m not sure we should condemn David too much – as Levy suggests, she was apparently doing what she believes in. But it’s not clear that it rises to the level of courage. Steadfastness, perhaps; but courage seems to be overstating both the danger she put herself in and the level of opposition which she faced.

    (Having said that, I have never been to jail, so it is possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about.)

  8. “Surely we admire her more for standing her ground than for resigning in the face of this pressure?”

    No, not at all. Because by refusing to do the job for which she is paid, and refusing to resign, she is refusing to take personal responsibility for her personal beliefs – instead she chooses to make her personal beliefs a problem for other people, thus imposing those beliefs on them in ways that violate their rights.

  9. The title is very inappropriate. Neil Levy does not write that she is a homophobe, and does not supply any evidence for it either.

    That’s not a triviality, in fact it impacts directly on the question of virtue. If she really is a homophobe, in any real sense, then her judgement is impaired. She would be to some degree incapable of doing something which is so obviously designed to benefit gays. I personally believe that both homosexuality and homophobia are biological, genetic, facts. In other words, both were ‘born that way’. However it is not necessary to take such a strong position, to realise that ‘homophobia’ means something innate, and that the homophobe is not entirely responsible for his or her actions. With that in mind, it would be better to avoid discussion of virtue in this case.

    1. A couple of responses come to mind immediately. (1) I don’t understand how homophobia could possibly be construed as genetically determined. Even if you subscribe to metaphysical determinism, this doesn’t imply that an evaluative attitude like homophobia is genetically determined. Surely culture plays a role. (2) Viciousness doesn’t necessarily imply responsibility. However, I think that in this case responsibility does apply (although I’ll avoid getting into thorny issues here).

      1. Homophobia can be ‘construed as genetically determined’ in the same way as any other phobia. A genetic contribution to development of phobias is widely accepted. That said, the term ‘phobia’ is probably not a good description of homophobia and xenophobia, which combine hostility, aversion and aggression, rather than avoidance. Homophobes don’t run away when they see gay men: they typically try to harm them in some way. So too with xenophobes.

        It is evident from the degree of hatred and aggression that this cannot be purely cultural. That is also evident from the failure of policies aimed at eradicating hostility toward minorities. Some people are clearly innately hostile to certain groups or categories, to the extent that it dominates their life. That has consequences for policy, since we can’t expect the problem to go away.

  10. I’m not sure why you think the innateness of something is in any way relevant to the possession of virtue, and you misconstrue what homophobia is. Despite the etymology, it is the standard word for a discriminatory attitude to gay people, not a phobia of them. More importantly, mot biologists have abandoned the concept of innateness or use as a synonym for some well-defined biological concept, like developmental canalisation, because it is a useless and perhaps meaningless concept. Here’s why: heritability measurements are environment relative. The easiest way to see this is that you can alter the heritability of anything by changing the environment: as environmental variation increases, so heritability falls and vice versa. The heritability of *anything* is 100% if the environment is totally uniform. On the other hand, heritability drops to 0 if genotypes are held fixed. From this it follows that you can’t project from the heritability of something in the actual world to what you would see if you changed it in some way. More practically, for every trait studied, it has been found that the norm of reaction of that trait, which is a graph mapping out its heritability across environments, is not additive. What that means is that there is no regular effect between genes and traits.

    It is true that some traits are harder to change by changing the environment than others. That’s why biologists talk about canalisation, robustness, and so on. There is no evidence that homophobia is among them. In fact, the evidence is entirely the other way: homophobia has massively decreased in western countries over the past 3 decades.

    1. The innateness of attitudes and preferences is very relevant to possession of virtue, because it affects the decisions made. We can’t say that drug addicts show ‘civil courage and fortitude’ by constantly defying the laws that prohibit them from buying their drugs. They do that because they can’t help it, at least to some degree. Yes, I know there are some people who do take a rigidly moral approach to addiction, and see addicts simply as bad people who repeatedly and wilfully consume prohibited substances. But most of us will accept that addicts’ freedom of choice is diminished, so it would not be appropriate to attribute virtues to them, when they act in a compulsive fashion.

      Now, I said that the term phobia is misleading because of the etymology. By homophobia I mean an innate aversion and hostility to gay men. By ‘innate’ I mean that it is present prior to socialisation and not culturally acquired, and that it can not be removed by cultural or social factors in the broad sense. If Kim Davis is homophobic in that sense, then she does not exemplify any virtue by her actions.

      That’s all I wanted to say about Neil Levy’s original post. It is not necessary to go into the details of evolutionary biology for that. However, the comments have raised the wider issue of what is behind the backlash against gay marriage. Politicians, the social sciences, and the media are extremely reluctant to accept any biological explanation, and Neil Levy is obviously sceptical too. That is even more true for xenophobia, which is a major electoral factor in Europe.

      This is a deeply political issue, because it impacts on the notion of humans as political actors. Many people don’t want to think that voters are irrational, in the sense of being driven by innate compulsion and aversion. However, the political evidence increasingly indicates that there are negative voting blocks, united by specific aversion and hostility. The anti-gay vote is one of those.

      Neil Levy says that homophobia has ‘massively decreased in western countries’, but that has never been researched. What he means is that surveys show greater acceptance, in response to questions such as “Would you accept a gay man as a colleague or neighbour”. As with xenophobia, politicians and social scientists often inferred that this process would continue, until acceptance reached 100%. What I am saying is that it stops somewhere, because there is a core of individuals with an innate hostility, that drives their political and cultural choices. As far as xenophobia goes, I can even put a figure on that, because elections in Europe indicate a 20% ceiling for xenophobic-populist parties.

      So this is really a political issue, and has very little to do with ‘virtue’. What can be said is that the phobic individuals, in this sense, are often reckless in expressing their aversion and hatred. They write on their social media accounts that all immigrants must be gassed, for instance, and are then surprised that they lose their job. It’s not a question of bravery, although they might then present themselves as ‘victims of political correctness’ and so on. Marriage clerks who refuse to perform gay marriages, and seek publicity for the resultant sanctions, probably fit into that category of ‘reckless public aversion’.

  11. Being anti-gay “marriage” is not the same as being anti gay. Thus she is not necessarily homophobic. Rather, I presume she is a supporter of the tradition of marriage, in the Judeo-Christian fashion. Two arguments against “gay marriage” include the religious, but also economic. Tax breaks, employee benefits, et al for marriage are to support families, which in the norm, occur in the heterosexual setting. Change these policies and laws, but leave “marriage” alone, pass “civil unions” or some other equivalent, and perhaps look at the policies and benefits of married but childless couples, and everybody will be happy (nah, that never happens)

Comments are closed.