Morality and Gay Marriage

As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage.  It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation.  “Bigot” is a pejorative term.  In other words, it expresses moral emotions.  It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups.  In this case, the moral judgment of the “pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate.  Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.”  Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).

The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex.  Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations.  Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all.  We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better.  Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.

As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot?  Of course not!  There never is.  Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary.  There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”

The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person.  For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot.  In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians.  While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral.  Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading.  Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two.  At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters.  It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with.  Why would it need them?

In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game.  However, no moral judgment is rational.  Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective.  They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals.  In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.

What to do in the case of gay marriage?  My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing.  What is marriage?  One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state.  It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition.  That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever.  On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits.  It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation.  Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits.  Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.

Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require.  It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.”  In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”

4 thoughts on “Morality and Gay Marriage”

  1. “Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals [italics added]. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.”

    I agree with your logic but dispute the premise: that evolution is necessarily only about individuals. Or put another way, that social animals (such as man) may not evolve traits which favor the survival and procreation of the groups to which they belong.

    According to the modern theory of kin selection (see Wikipedia if you are not familiar) it is genes, not individuals, that are selected for. From which it follows that genes may be selected that encode certain “moral” feelings or emotions which favor the survival, not of the species as a whole, but groups of related individuals. This could include families, clans, tribes, though not by its logic groups of unrelated individuals.

    Even so, whether such traits and the moral feelings they encode would carry over to groups of unrelated individuals is still an open question. That is basically where we are today I think. You may be able to show that such genes are likely to be eliminated eventually through natural selection, and that at present sociopaths have a natural advantage (to choose an extreme example). But even so it doesn’t follow that all these genes have been eliminated already, that they aren’t still hanging around and being “misapplied” according to the dictates of Darwinian logic. It may even turn out that the people who share these moral genes are more likely to survive and prosper. Fundamentalists tend to be more fecund than gays I imagine (and, no offense, more fecund than atheists too).

    The concusion I draw is not one of fact but of possibility: that genes may encode moral feelings that are good for the group over the long-run, even as they discourage behavior that while it may be gratifying to the individual in the short-run is inimical to the group’s interest.

    Thus we (some of us) may be impelled by our natures to condemn behavior or cultural practices which are perceived as decadent or depraved, which might include homosexuality or the institutionalization of gay marriage.

    I don’t say this is the way it is and I certainly don’t believe that if it is this way for some people it is necessarily that way for all. Obviously it is not. But, then, natural selection only occurs when variation exists.

    I don’t know why I’ve gone on like this. Do you find this argument convincing?

  2. By using the term “individual” in this context, I did not mean to imply anything about modes of natural selection. I am certainly no “selfish gene” zealot, as you can check by Googling “helian group selection”. What I meant is that moral emotions occur in the minds of individuals, and by their nature lack any means of becoming things in themselves, or of independently acquiring the legitimacy to dictate to anyone else what is “good” or “evil.” This is a mere statement of fact, and does not imply, among other things, moral relativism, an imperative to tolerate amoral behavior, or condoning willful disobedience of moral rules. It does imply that there is no need to tolerate or humor the pathologically self righteous among us, and particularly not those who make up their own moral rules as they go along.

    The claim that evolved behavioral traits associated with morality are good for the group begs the question, “Which group?” It is not reasonable to assume that traits that likely evolved among groups whose mode of existence was utterly unlike those existing for most humans today, and under conditions that were also utterly unlike those existing for most humans today, are still likely to benefit groups as they exist today. The moral rules of the Nazi and Communist “groups” were entirely in harmony with the evolved human behavioral traits we associate with morality. History demonstrates that those rules, fervently believed in by millions as the ultimate expression of the Good, benefited neither the Nazis, nor the Communists, nor any other group. In fact, those “goods” caused the deaths of tens of millions, including many of the most intelligent and capable in the societies where they held sway. One should be very circumspect about playing games with morality.

  3. Well, then, let me quote that opening paragraph again:

    ““Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals [italics added]. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.”

    I would argue that they can and often have acquired independent and collective legitimacy in groups. Which groups? Those that have survived for many generations, including my country here in America. I would not claim that they have achieved universal legitimacy, however, though to the members of such a community they would be collective and independent. But I’m nodding off under a sleeping peel so can’t du justice to this discussion now. Maybe tomorrow if you think we have any subbstanatial disagreement.

  4. I’m afraid we do have a substantial disagreement here. I know of no way in which morality can acquire independent legitimacy, either for particular groups or for mankind in general. On the other hand, the illusion that it does have objective legitimacy is quite common, and understandable as an aspect of human nature. The illusion is what has always made morality effective. Unfortunately, we can no longer afford the illusion. It no longer promotes our survival. The illusion is now far more likely to result in our demise. The mass slaughter it caused in the 20th century is just a foretaste of what the future holds for us unless we come to our senses.

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