There’s been a lot of conversation over the Church’s policy decision regarding children of LGBT couples. What I have seen as I’ve looked through blogs is a lot of people grasping for ideas to explain their position on this issue, getting misinterpreted or saying something unintentionally hurtful, and causing more pain all around. This troubles me. There’s a difference between hurting feelings because of genuine disagreement and hurting feelings as a byproduct of failing to frame a difficult issue in constructive ways. I can’t do anything about the former, but this post might help with the latter.
In this post, I present three cognitive frameworks that might help people understand their own position and the position of others, one political, one moral, and one psychological. I hope that those reading this will come to a better appreciation for the views of people with whom they disagree, that they will see the good that motivates those with whom they disagree, and that they will reflect upon the flaws in the views that they currently subscribe to. As with all great moral debates, the three ones I describe below are probably irreconcilable. That’s why these Facebook, forum, and blog debates don’t seem to persuade anyone. So long as I operate in a different moral framework than you, our chances of agreeing with each other will be at best accidental (and for different reasons). And competing moral frameworks can’t disprove the validity of their competitors. I urge anyone reading this to consider that before they embark on a debate with people they care about (or should care about). As a final point, my hope is that I can summarize each of the positions below to show why they hold a lot of intuitive appeal. If I have failed to do that, I hope I’ll be able to rectify it in the comments section, but in the meantime, I ask readers on both sides to be sympathetic to positions they otherwise find disagreeable.
Liberalism and Communitarianism – Political Framework
Liberalism is often associated with political liberals, but that is a mistake because political liberals—who I’ll call progressives—aren’t always liberal. Liberalism is the belief that in any political society, the rights, freedom, and security of its individuals are the most important thing that a society can, and should, protect. Liberalism correlates with the Enlightenment values of individual autonomy, political freedom, and the right to moral self-determination (described more below). Progressives are often associated with these ideas, but it would be more accurate to associate libertarians with them. In fact, progressives and libertarians divided in the early 20th century over the question of how involved the government should be in ensuring that these values are protected. Nevertheless, you’ll see liberals and libertarians often join forces on issues such as same-sex marriage (and their rights as equal citizens in all respects). But just as progressives tend to believe that individual liberties are best protected by government involvement, they are also likely to believe that private organizations ought to protect and promote individual liberties as well (libertarians often disagree on this point—which might be why there are a lot of libertarians in the Church). In other words, for a promoter of liberalism, and particularly for progressive liberalists, the Church’s decision to limit the opportunities for children of same-sex couples clashes with one of the most critical values that we are raised to believe: that protecting individual autonomy is fundamental among other values.
As important as liberalism is, it has its problems. One of them is that most humans aren’t wired to be purely liberal thinkers. Even progressives, who tend to be associated with liberalism, do not vote that way in some political issues, such as gun-control or certain protections for racial minorities (there’s a liberal argument to be made for both of those issues, but progressives don’t always make it). Those that find liberalism unsatisfactory marshal out the positions used by its opposing framework, communitarianism.
Just as progressives are often associated with liberalism, conservatives are often associated with communitarianism, although that too is overly simplistic. Communitarianism is the belief that the community’s interests as a whole should take precedence over any of its individual’s. The classic position of a communitarian is this: If a small business owner wants to open a pornography store in a small town, should the town be allowed to prohibit that if most people don’t want it? The idea has a lot of appeal, especially among political conservatives. There’s no question that humans are born with a kind of “hive mentality,” where we recognize that a united community can do much greater things than a group of individuals (think Aristotle). There’s a great deal of research backing up the commonly held view, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and a lot of people can remember a day when it felt safe to leave the house of children and wander the streets because the community was there to protect them. If political liberalism is fundamental to our political system, it seems that communitarianism is the best framework in which it can thrive.
However, there are problems with communitarian thinking. One is the danger of moral authoritarianism. If the community is ultimately more important than the individual, than the community ought to set its own standards. If individuals don’t like it, they should go to a different community. Astute readers will recognize this argument among many a faithful Mormon in this debate: there is no right to be a member of the Church, and those who disagree with it do not have to stay.
That’s a frustrating argument for liberals to hear because it seems so intuitively wrong…from a liberal perspective. Moreover, when it comes to a religion debate such as this, communitarians can excuse the problem of moral authoritarianism by simply saying, “Hey, I don’t make up the rules, God does.” The veracity of the communitarian position then moves from a political one to a metaphysical one. Those who aren’t persuaded by the metaphysical arguments (i.e. those without at testimony) leave, and those that are stay, albeit often begrudgingly. Yet, and this is a bit tangental, those communitarians who tend towards a guardian-of-the-community role, often find the begrudging liberals to still be intolerable, since even if they agree to stay in the community, they nevertheless weaken it by staying. The message liberals get is typically this: conform or leave. The danger of such a message is, and liberals often point this out, that there’s a difference between the Church and the Gospel. While some people might try to separate those too much, communitarians run the risk of agreeing with that position in principle but in practice allowing their biases to make the distinction effectively irrelevant.
Harm Principle and Virtue Theory – Moral Framework
Moving on, another classic moral debate is the harm principle v. virtue theory. The harm principle was most clearly developed by John Stuart Mill. Mill characterized it this way: I should be allowed to do whatever I want up to the point that it violates the liberty of another to do what she wants. The harm principle may not tell me what *I* should do, but it does tell me how far I’m allowed to go before I need to stop and limit my actions for the sake of others. The harm principle helps those who follow liberalism to know where to draw the line on individual freedom, although it’s worth stressing that the harm *principle* is not the harm *rule*; there are times when even most liberals would agree that it ought to be set aside such as in at least some instances of statuary rape even when both parties fully consent. However, the harm principle might cause us to question whether other acts ought to be considered morally wrong, such as polygamy. Mill, in fact, wrote favorably about Mormons practicing polygamy.
The harm principle has its advocates in this debate. What harm is there in allowing children of LGBT parents to receive various Church ordinance? And if there is no harm, or at least no closely related harm (there’s almost always some harm out there for anything if one abstracts enough), then the policy is morally wrong. Or at least, if the harm principle is the foundational standard for moral thinking, then that is probably the necessary conclusion to be drawn. One answer Ivan Wolfe at Millennial Star gave to this is that the harm is to the Church. This policy, Wolfe explains, is about the “struggle for soul of the Church,” meaning whether the Church can keep out people who would try to enter it and try to change it to openly tolerate the same-sex lifestyle. Perhaps that is a potential harm, but couched in communitarian thinking as it is, it is not entirely persuasive, since it really just swaps the harm principle out for the core philosophy of communitarianism. In fact, the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage can be seen as a debate about the harm principle, where the side that lost tried to do exactly this.
Another response to the harm principle is to adopt an alternative moral framework, that of virtue theory. Virtue theory isn’t easy to explain, particularly because it is so easy to misrepresent. The notion that we should follow the virtues, some more than others, and eschew the vices, some more than others, is not central to virtue theory; that notion is merely its outgrowth. Virtue theory is about finding one’s role in society or in a particular situation and then following what is expected of that role to excel at it. Farmers should be patient, warriors should be courageous, scholars should be wise, and al of us should try to emulate the virtues of these various roles in the roles that we find ourselves in order to excel at what we are supposed to do. One virtue theorist, Alisdair MacIntyre, gives the example of a hockey player racing to the net of the opposing team in the final seconds of the game. The player sees that she must pass it to her teammate to have any chance of winning the game. What should the player do? If she’s a good player then she immediately knows what is the appropriate thing to do, because she knows that her role is to excel as a hockey player at her sport in conjunction with her team. By passing the puck, she acts virtuously. Compare the hockey player with another blogger discussing the LGBT issue.
Geoff B. at Millennial Star gives the analogy of a orchestra concert, which he uses to explain why the Church’s recent policy addition is just. Imagine being at a concert. If you were there, you’d intuitive recognize that certain things would be wrong to do. It would be wrong as an audience member to stand up and heckle the orchestra. It would be wrong for a violin player to sit in the percussion section. It would be wrong for a viola player to play an oboe’s part, etc. What would be appropriate to do if you neither wanted to listen to the orchestra or take part in it is to go somewhere else and do something else.
The analogy draws the communitarian conclusion that I discussed above, but its point on roles is particularly salient to what I’m describing here. A good church member has a role to support the decisions of church leadership. Harm principle folk might find that repugnant, but that is because they do not ascribe to virtue theory. If they did, then not only would the conclusion be entirely fine, it would be the clearly and morally right thing to do. Not only are harm principle folk wrong about to criticize the church’s policy (see communitarianism above), but church members who criticize it are acting according to the wrong moral framework when they criticize it too.
There are problems with virtue theory. As I see the length of this post increasing much more than I initially anticipated, I’ll set those aside for right now. What I think probably makes virtue theory seem so clearly wrong to certain people, and why the harm principle seems so clearly wrong to virtue theory people boils down to another paradigm, the last one I’ll discuss.
Care/Harm and Sanctity/Degredation – Psychological Framework
Jonathan Haidt was a progressive, atheist, Jew living on the east coast who found the moral views of conservatives absolutely repugnant. However, as Haidt began to study the underlying psychology of why people are drawn to progressive or conservative ideologies, he discovered that conservatives weren’t morally repugnant as he previously thought, they just set moral priorities differently than progressives do. Haidt later went on to discover six moral-value foundations that guide both conservatives and progressives, and depending on how you prioritize one foundation over the other you are more likely to vote one way or the other. I’ll highlight two of those foundations, which are probably the most salient ones here: care/harm, sanctity/degradation.
Progressives tend to be highly sensitive to acts that result in harming other, and are motivated strongly to care for others, including those they do not know. That helps explain why progressives are much more likely than conservatives to stress the needs of the poor, racial minorities, single mothers, and even criminals. Conservatives are sometimes baffled when progressives come to the defense of Islamic extremists who hold particularly non-progressive views (conservatives, as communitarians, are very hesitant defend someone who doesn’t share in their community values), but progressives are so strongly motivated by the promotion of care and avoidance of harm, that it matters to them on an intuitive level to protect even someone they vehemently disagree with on other issues. That is not to say that Conservatives don’t feel this way some of the time, but they are more likely to put a lower priority on this care/harm need than progressives.
Just the opposite, conservatives are much more likely to promote values, laws, and institutions that promote sanctity and condemn acts that degrade what they find holy. Conservatives tend to be highly critical of flag burning, of criticizing heroic people (military, police), and are closely watchful of any attempt to limit Christianity’s influence on America (at least those conservatives that are Christians). Given the hypothetical—is it morally permissible for a woman who doesn’t have any clean rags to cut up an American flag and use it to wash the toilet bowl—conservatives are much more likely than progressives to answer that question with a no. Progressives might find that baffling. After all, the woman has done nothing to mitigate individual liberty or violate the harm principle. Why is she doing anything wrong? For conservatives, it has nothing to do with care/harm, and in fact, there are a lot of things in this world that are morally right or wrong that don’t have anything to do with care/harm.
Haidt goes on to show that even most progressives probably agree with that statement to at least some extent. Haidt gives two scenarios to show this. Imagine the family dog gets run over accidentally by a neighbor. The family who owned the dog loved it so much, and they decide to eat it. They cook it correctly, nobody else sees any of this happen, and they enjoy the meal. Was that morally wrong? Most people say so. Some don’t. But consider an alternative: imagine a man who buys a chicken from the supermarket each week. He prepares it for dinner, has sexual intercourse with it, cooks it, eats it alone, and nobody sees this happen. Is that morally wrong? Almost everyone agrees that the man in the second scenario crossed a line, even though the man did not violate the harm principle. Haidt uses these stories to illustrate that virtually everyone recognizes that some acts are morally degrading even though no harm resulted from it. Likewise, some things are just sacred, even if there is no better way to explain it than that.
Progressives often find the sacred/degradation moral foundation frustrating because they can’t argue with it. And in fact, there is a danger for conservatives to treat some things as sacred that really ought not to be, such as racially pure marriages (and progressives never let them forget it). So who is right about the new policy? Again, I won’t weigh into that. But I do hope that the faithful who engage in this debate will not be angry with those who question the moral rightness of the new policy. Hopefully they will see that behind those criticisms is a concern for the individual who will feel out-of-step as a result of it. And I hope that critics will realize that the faithful are not being morally obtuse or grossly indifferent to the emotional (and spiritual) needs of the individual, but that the faithful simply believe that there are times when sanctity outweighs care, and regrettable as it might be, this is one of those times.
I similarly hope that progressives will not fault Church members for believing that the harm principle is not necessarily an appropriate way to resolve moral quandaries such as this one. And hopefully, members will recognize that their virtue theory may be so exclusive that it alienates those who want to believe but can’t (yet?) fully commit to a radically different moral framework than what they intuitively believe to be correct—I add as a caveat that I’m not sure that one must be a virtue theorist to be a good Mormon. Finally, I hope that liberally minded individuals will see that the desire to protect community and enact seemingly harsh policies is driven out of a wholesome desire for good, even if it can be excluding. And I hope that communitarians will think carefully before they engage in boundary maintenance, recognizing the risk that their wholesome desire may be unnecessarily alienating to those that need not be so readily excluded. At least, those are my hopes.