Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Important Distinctions: Morality vs. Sexual Morality

My undergraduate philosophy mentor once said something that immediately illuminated one of the more bizarre corners of American political discourse for me. Here, roughly, is how he put it:

Suppose you turn on the television, and you come in on the middle of a program in which a tele-preacher denouncing the decline of morality in America. Now, even if you haven’t heard any specifics from him, you can be pretty sure what he’s talking about. Is he decrying the fact that many Americans are rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but give an absurdly small proportion of that wealth to the needy in this country or the starving abroad? No. Is he concerned about the astronomically high rate of murder or other violence? Not likely. Is he denouncing discrimination against women or racial minorities or homosexuals? Not a chance. Is he worried about the prevalence of lying and cheating in our schools and businesses? No, he isn’t.

Even though our hypothetical tele-preacher purports to be concerned about and discussing morality, he is, in fact, not at all concerned with any of the most important moral problems. He is, rather, concerned with a rather narrow and peripheral set of moral issues that no serious thinker has ever considered central to moral action or moral theorizing. He is concerned only with sexual morality.

Over the years, it has become clear to me just how insightful my undergraduate mentor’s point was. The right sometimes seems to own the words “moral” and “morality” like they sometimes seem to own the flag. But that has happened only because of a confluence of two factors: first, the fact that ‘moral’ and ‘morality’ have come to carry sexual overtones, and second the fact that it is the right that is perversely fixated on other people’s sexuality. The unfortunate result of this is that Republicans can say things like “we are the party of morality” with a straight face, playing on the ambiguity between “we are the party that emphasizes doing what is right” and “we are the party that thinks that sex is dirty.” What they really mean is the latter (even if they wouldn’t put it quite so clearly), and that is the only sense in which they are “the party of morality.” But they of course hope that the other possible interpretation of their words will still, to some extent at least, come through.

So what are liberals to do about this? We clearly can’t cede the morality issue—morality in the good old-fashioned sense of doing what’s right—to Republicans. We could, of course, start sprinkling our speech and writing with ‘moral’ and ‘morality,’ and this would be fine if it weren’t for that fact aforementioned—that outside of academic philosophy, those terms have taken on puritanical connotations. Kerry and Edwards have struck on an excellent solution to the problem, using the term ‘principle.’ Not everyone thinks that morality is a matter of principles (e.g. virtue ethicists don’t), but we can let these theoretical niceties slide. (Especially since morality probably is a matter of principles.) It’s hard to terminologically outflank someone who’s appropriated the very term ‘moral,’ but this seems to do it. It’s especially effective precisely because of the sexual/puritanical connotation that ‘moral’ seems to have acquired, turning the ambiguity against those who would exploit it. The term ‘principle’ has no explicitly sexual connotation. Thus, when it is explicitly juxtaposed with ‘moral’ and its cognates, ‘principle’ seems—to my ear, anyway—to automatically and explicitly take on the more standard, not-explicitly-sexual meaning of ‘moral.’ Thus “the party of principle” is the party that cares about right and wrong—you know, morality in the big sense, the real sense.

It’s never been clear to me how sensible conservatives can get along with the neo-puritans on the religious right. And it’s never been clear to me what weird, perverse views about sex motivate the religious right’s stark, raving phobia of it. What is clear to me, however, is that we can’t continue to let their presupposition that to be moral is to be puritanical go unchallenged. Kerry and Edwards have hit upon a smart terminological strategy for challenging that presupposition quickly and effectively. This terminological move will ultimately need to be backed up with explicit argumentation, but as an opening gambit it's hard to beat.


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