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Moral Moments

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Calling a Spade a Shovel

by Joel Marks

Does rational argument ever change anybody’s mind? I hope so. Otherwise I’m wasting my time being a philosopher, unless building arguments is worth doing for its own sake (like painting pictures – impressionists need not win over classicists, etc., for their work to have value). It does seem to me to be a common experience to have my mind changed in this way. A life steeped in philosophy has given me a degree of flexibility of intellectual commitment (which in turn can influence my feelings and behavior), so that I am often taken aback (and at times appalled) by the rigidity of belief and aversion to argument shown by others (to the point where they will deem it rudeness or an attack for me to question what they are saying or thinking).

What I like to do in these moral moments is provide specific, concrete examples of general claims and abstract inferences. Therefore let me illustrate the above point about the power of reasoning to alter someone’s view by relating a recent experience where that happened to me (twice!).

The case has to do with tolerance. What is tolerance? No doubt many things. But what had caught my attention was a Declaration of Tolerance put forward by a newly formed Anti-Hate Task Force in the city where I live. In response to some recent racist incidents, the group had formed to urge citizens to show their moral support for the victims. Among other things, we were being asked to sign a statement, which said: “To help keep diversity a wellspring of strength and make [our city] a better place for all, I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual orientation, or other characteristics are different from my own.”

Well, no sooner than that was publicized came a protest from a local clergyman that the inclusion of ‘sexual orientation’ was going too far. Knee-jerk (American) liberal that I am, I was prepared to have my eyes glaze over upon reading the arguments of some local nut, but now came Change-of-Mind Number One. Although I did indeed find the anti-homosexuality arguments to be off-the-wall (or off-the-shelf of the fundamentalist’s stockroom), a subtler point was being made that struck me as right-on, namely: How could the so-called Declaration of Tolerance insist on tolerance for everyone?

The Declaration implicitly holds certain attitudes to be examples of intolerance, such as racism. A person is a racist precisely because he or she lacks respect for persons of other races. The Declaration presupposes that there is nothing wrong with being a member of one race rather than another – it is a matter of sheer difference, not (relative) value. So the racist has a defective and even pernicious belief. Yet the statement also says we should respect persons who have different ‘beliefs.’ Does that mean, therefore, that the racist’s belief is simply different from the non-racist’s, and therefore should not be assigned a lower value by the non-racist, on pain of intolerance (by non-racists of racists)? Indeed, should it even be celebrated as contributing to the wellspring of diversity? Obviously not (according to the Declaration, according to the objector). So the Declaration contradicts itself: For it claims to promote tolerance for all, but it does not in fact tolerate what it deems to be intolerance.

Of course the particular gripe of the objector was not that the Declaration contained an implicitly self-contradictory notion of tolerance but that it had explicitly included (diversity of) sexual orientation on its list of things to be valued, on pain of intolerance. At this point I added my two cents by arguing (in a column for the local newspaper) that the objector had got the first part right, but not the second. Yes, the Declaration does (or should) limit the scope of the tolerance it promotes, on pain of contradiction, but it is quite right not to have placed (alternative) sexual orientation outside its scope.

In other words, homophobia is a form of bigotry, exactly on a par with racism. We should want to stamp out both of them, along with all the other forms of intolerance. Of them we ought not to be tolerant. The sticky part for me is that I am using the same form of expression as the objector to the Declaration. Many on the Christian right argue that Jesus was not tolerant of sin. I tend to share that streak of righteousness; it’s just that we disagree about which things are sins (or wrongs, in secular terminology). In the present case, it is clear to me that homophobes are ‘sinners’ precisely for deeming homosexuals to be sinners. Calling homophobes, as the local media sometimes do, ‘social conservatives’ strikes me as quite a euphemistic double standard, given that racists are called just that, i.e., ‘racists’ (and ‘bigots’).

But then came Change-of-Mind Number Two. I invited a member of the Anti-Hate Task Force to be a guest on the radio program I co-host with my colleague Prof. David Morris. In the course of the conversation she persuaded me that little was to be gained by labeling some of one’s neighbors ‘bigots,’ and, indeed, the Declaration of Tolerance is intended to encompass people whose beliefs (or whatever) you do not value or may even disvalue. The bottom line is respect for persons. The Declaration of Tolerance calls upon heterosexuals to respect homosexuals and calls upon homosexuals and their heterosexual confreres to respect homophobes (which may also imply not calling them ‘homophobes’).

What remains tricky is that such respect does not seem, then, to imply respect for the homosexual or homophobe qua homosexual or homophobe, respectively, but only, I gather, qua person (or qua citizen in a civil society, precisely because of the real potential for the changing of minds by means of rational argument?). Thus, we don’t have to welcome or approve bigotry (or, from the homophobe’s point of view, sodomitic sin), but should nonetheless tolerate bigots (or whomever) on grounds of both respect for persons and the greater good of civil society.

© Joel Marks 2005

Joel Marks is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com He would like to thank the Rev. Paige Besse-Rankin and John Lepore for very helpful conversations.

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