I read an interesting article this morning that connected the “social conservative freakout over Caitlyn Jenner” to some interesting observations about changes in Americans’ moral systems more generally. The whole article is worth a read, but here’s the author’s central argument:
“What we’re witnessing is the withering away of the morality of ends — including a vision of human flourishing rooted in Protestant Christianity — that once prevailed in American public and private life. This comprehensive moral vision is being supplanted by a much more minimalist (but no less absolutist) morality of rights that aims above all to protect individuals from various forms of harm.”
The author is on to something, but this naming of different moral systems mis-states the problem I think. Why? Because outcomes (“ends”) are equally important in both systems. Both systems also involve moral rules (not laws, though they are intertwined) that can be applied to practical situations. The salient difference is the specific ends chosen.
For social and religious conservatives, the outcomes that are desirable are largely fixed, the meaning and purpose of life is pre-defined and fixed, and the moral rules that are intended to produce these outcomes apply to everyone. These goals may have ancient origins, like the Biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply,” which the Quiverfull people use to make moral arguments that Christians should have extremely large families. They may be something totalitarian and nationalistic, like Muslim countries’ desire to perpetuate their theocratic belief system at all costs, even to the point of imposing the death penalty for leaving Islam. They may come from something as simple as a quasi-nostalgic desire to re-create the “good old days” of decades past. What these groups and their moral systems all have in common is a substantive, specific, pre-determined position as to the desirable result of human efforts.
For progressives and social libertarians, the most important desirable outcome is that people have the freedom and autonomy to seek their own meaning in life and to define their own (not necessarily selfish) goals. Many of the more detailed rules of their moral systems involve facilitating this, often by preventing people from harming others. This is a much less specific desirable outcome, and this is deliberate. There are many justifications for this, including (1) the desirability of personal freedom of thought and conscious as a good in itself, (2) facilitating the peaceful co-existence of different groups of people with different substantive ideas and goals, and (3) recognizing that changing circumstances and historical contingency means that goals that used to be admirable may no longer be so.
For example, let’s take the Quiverfull group’s desirable outcome of having a large number of children, a goal they are adopting from Genesis. Some quick Google searches suggests that the entire world population around that time was ~60-100 million when that Genesis was written. Today the world population is ~7 billion, and there’s strong evidence that we are risking massive environmental damage in the long run. Progressives would argue that whether having 19 children is morally praise or blame-worthy must depend on these types of circumstances. In some cases, this is not very controversial (e.g., religious cleanliness rituals vs. modern medicine), but there are a lot of other changes too, like (1) the availability of education, (2) scientific investigation, (3) technological change, (4) greater wealth, etc…
Of course, there are substantial ways in which these two moral systems overlap. With simple moral questions like theft, murder, dishonesty, etc… the results are the same in both systems. The “culture wars” is a great illustration of where these moral systems give different results. The author of the article at the top makes this case thus:
“If you’re committed to an overarching (religious or philosophical) vision of human flourishing that precludes gender reassignment surgery, then an expression of disapproval and perhaps even disgust at the Vanity Fair cover would seem to be in order. But if you’ve left behind any such comprehensive morality of ends in favor of a morality of rights, then it’s hard to see what’s wrong with Jenner’s actions, or with the magazine in promoting them publicly on its cover. No one is harmed as a result, and the harm Bruce Jenner felt as a woman trapped in a man’s body has (one hopes) been alleviated by undergoing the surgical transformation into Caitlyn.
But of course many people who uphold a morality of rights go further than merely cheering on Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as a woman. They want to protect her from the emotional harm of being judged, disapproved of, and treated as an object of disgust by those who persist in upholding a morality of ends. That’s where the gap between the two moralities becomes a chasm, since the morality of rights judges the very act of making a moral judgment in terms of a morality of ends to be harmful — and therefore an act of cruelty, injustice, and even evil.”
There is a indeed chasm here, but not the one the author describes. Simple unjustified moral criticism causes mere disagreement. The chasm comes from people using this moral criticism to justify taking or supporting concrete actions that cause real-world harm. Social ostracization, employment discrimination, marriage inequality, harassment, emotional abuse, child abuse/abandonment, assault, and even murder in some communities. Words do hurt, but not nearly as much as a literal kick in the teeth, or being fired from your job. I feel incredibly fortunate and privileged to exist in a time and community where I don’t really experience this personally, but many others are not so fortunate. And this is true not just for trans* people, but for others as well—from racial minorities to victims of deceptive or unfair trade practices to future generations who will inherit the environment we leave behind.
In the long run, particularly with a more interconnected, educated, technological and fast-changing world, the benefits of the less specific but still comprehensive moral structure continue to grow, as do the costs of those that impose their preferred outcomes on to others. This isn’t a new idea. So I’ll end with a quote from Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential philosophers of ethics:
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” — Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)