A Useful Lens
I studied philosophy as an undergraduate and I lecture on the topic frequently. I have an MBA, but I’ve viewed the world through the lens of philosophy ever since I finished my PHIL 101 course during my freshman year of college. While I’m fascinated by all philosophical disciplines, I’ve always found the questions that moral philosophy (more commonly referred to as ethics) poses to be the most fun to ponder. I was supremely disappointed when I had to take business ethics for my masters degree. Corporate social responsibility is a valuable endeavor, but it’s not ethics.
I wish that ethics were a required study in high school. Its about deciphering what objective morality is, i.e., what actions are objectively morally correct (right). The average person doesn’t think this way. Moral intuition guides all of us. It’s a gut feeling. Initial moral intuition is rarely grounded in logic, but is almost always fueled by emotion. Morality is wrongly associated with the heart when it should be associated with the head. Shooting from the hip isn’t a smart practice when it comes to ethics.
A person’s moral intuition is subjective. It’s a product of their unique life experiences. A person whose suffered a robbery is likely to have a harsher moral interpretation of that action than someone who hasn’t been a victim of robbery. A person whose parent is an alcoholic might view drunkenness more negatively than someone whose parents were healthy. Objectivity is required to conduct sound moral calculus. Just like a laboratory experiment, all impurities that might taint the analysis need to be removed. In this case, the impurities are our own personal biases.
Biases can come from a million different sources. Religion is the biggest enemy of objective ethical analysis. Truth is independent of religious affiliation, age, sex and every demographic that a person could be classified by. This degree of intellectual integrity is not possible for many people. It’s a psychologically vulnerable space to be in, but it’s necessary to find the truth.
Fools and Face Slaps
Let’s examine a hypothetical (but all too common) situation. There is nothing more maddening than a devout believer declaring “the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin.” Face slap. This person has obviously made Christianity a core aspect of their identity and, as a result of that association, has made the Bible their arbiter of moral truth. ‘God said so’ is an adolescent statement, not a moral statement. If you challenged this hypothetical person to explain how the moral characteristics of homosexual actions are objectively morally wrong, they would not know how to respond.
Let me use an easy example: the act of killing to steal a vast sum of money. There are qualities or characteristics of this action that have moral significance, irrespective of any God or religion. There are many different schools of thought on this matter. Utilitarians looks at the consequences of an action. Will the kill lead to more good outcomes or will it lead to more negative outcomes? Will the money enable the killer to do more good with the money than the victim would have? Perhaps the damage done from the murder will far outweigh the benefits. It’s important to note that the moral calculation involves the total impact of the action, not just how the action affects the killer.
Deontologists don’t look at the consequences. They’re interested in whether or not the killer acted according to universal moral principles. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative states that an action is only morally right if the operating principle of the action in question can apply universally to all other instances of that particular action. Killing someone to take their money obviously fails this test. If everyone who had money was killed, then no one would ever have money. The operating principle is not universalizable. Furthermore, killing someone for their money treats that person as a means to an end and not as an ends in themselves. This rule is another variant of the universal maxim described above.
We can disagree on which school of thought to adopt on the morality of killing, but we can’t state that there are not objective moral characteristics of the act of killing that can be analyzed. ‘God says so’ tells me nothing about WHY killing is immoral. Morality is useless if it doesn’t provide us with a compass towards morally correct actions. Ethics is a tool. It doesn’t always guarantee the truth, but its practice provides the user with a valuable method to discern what is right and what is wrong, independent of personal biases.
Sodom and Gomorrah
In Genesis, the Christian’s loving God becomes displeased with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and wants to wipe them off of the face of the earth. Abraham, concerned about his nephew and Sodom resident, Lot, asks God to spare the cities if ten righteous men live there. God isn’t able to find ten righteous men so the city is destroyed.
Sodom gave us the word ‘sodomy.’ Genesis describes the wickedness and the homosexual crimes against nature that the cities’ citizens engaged in. While religious scholars downplay the significance of homosexuality in the story, it’s become ammunition for religious homophobes. Where does this perception of moral bankruptcy come from? What are they doing that is so terrible?
Let’s examine consensual homosexuality as a moral action. What makes it immoral? Does homosexuality have bad consequences? I suppose it could. Unprotected sex has negative consequences, but that’s not specific to homosexuality. Is sodomy morally wrong when practiced consensually? Granted, there are risks to sodomy, but I think it’s a huge leap to call it immoral just because a healthy dose of lubricant is required. What consequences of homosexuality are so dire? I honestly can’t think of any. Less attractive men available for women? I suppose Mormons are afraid of that…
Homosexuality doesn’t use anyone as a means to end. Christians often refer to homosexuals as being inherently more promiscuous than heterosexual couples. This is patently false. Even if it were true, promiscuity is the behavior in question, not homosexuality. Creative Christians might try to use the categorical imperative to slander homosexuality. They might say that if everyone practiced homosexuality, there would never be any procreation and the human race would cease to exist. This is theoretically true. But there’s a key difference: not everyone is a homosexual. There are heterosexuals that aren’t homosexual and have no desire to be homosexuals. Likewise, homosexuals have no desire to be heterosexuals. The correct formulation of the categorical imperative here would be that if you are a homosexual, then you should engage in consensual romantic relationships with other homosexuals. This is universalizable.
Thinking is Hard, Questioning is Uncomfortable
Moral objectivity is like perfection. It’s a moving target. We strive to attain it, but never will. But by conducting our moral analysis with discipline and integrity, we minimize our toxic bias. College students don’t debate the morality of homosexuality because it’s truly a ridiculous discussion to have. It’s intellectually empty.
Utilitarianism and Deontology are the two most basic schools of ethics. There are many more that are separate from these two and there are many more that have evolved from these two. The more complex and detailed that the moral analysis becomes, the more absurd that the moral examination of homosexuality seems. It’s simply ridiculous and zealots who proclaim the immorality of homosexuality only prove that they know absolutely nothing about morality. Imagine a blind man going into an art exhibition. He walks by an artist and turns to her. She asks him if he’s interested in her work. He points towards and screams bloody murder that the woman’s art is horrible and shouldn’t even be there. That’s the religious homophobe when it comes to ethics.
Moral analysis is hard. It requires that we be open to anything. It mandates that we be willing to shake the foundations of how we always understood the world to work. It’s easier to simply identify with a particular religion and take all of our moral cues from religious texts. You can do that. Most people do. Just know, that if you start making sweeping moral claims that are based on a two-thousand year old book, you will be seen as a fool. Memorize less and think more. Talk less and question more. Hate less and love more.