Thursday, October 30, 2008

Proposition 8: Decent People Doing Wrong

In a recent comment to a post on Proposition 8, an anonymous member of the studio audience linked to an article that contained the following quote:

It is apparently inconceivable to many of those who wish to change the definition of marriage that a decent person can want to retain the man-woman definition.

The fact is, I find it very easy to conceive of a case in which a person who is in all other ways a decent person, has adopted an attitude of prejudice towards some group and, as a result, denies them the decent treatment that they are willing to give others.

The way that I conceive it, most segregationists, and most of those who believed that the white race should not interbreed with the black race, were, in many respects, decent people. If you were to meet one in a context where race was not an issue – in an entirely Caucasian community where blacks were simply nowhere to be found – you would be hard pressed to identify any character fault in them at all.

The way that I conceive it, most of the German soldiers during World War II were decent people for the most part. They sought to care for and protect their children, they loved their spouses, they would help a neighbor who was in trouble (as long as the neighbor was not Jewish). They went to church, they donated to charity, and they were good Patriotic Germans who were willing to give their lives for their country.

The way that I conceive it, most West Coast Americans who supported the internment of the Japanese during World War II were, in many respects, decent people. That measure had the support of 80 percent of the population. It is difficult to imagine what California would have been like if those 80 percent did not have any good qualities. When it came to their treatment of other Americans (at least those of non-Japanese descent) there were some extraordinary people among them.

The way that I conceive it, most of those who defended slavery in the early 1800s, and most of those who took up arms and killed or tried to kill Union soldiers in order to protect the institution of slavery, were, in many respects, decent people. They wanted very much to do the right thing and to be good people. They taught their children the importance of being honest and trustworthy and placed great value on individual responsibility.

However, in all of these cases, their culture gave otherwise decent people a moral blind spot. These were not people who recognized that they were doing evil and went ahead and did it anyway. These were people raised with an inability to even recognize the evil that they were doing, where that blindness lead them to do evil that they would not have done if they had known better.

The attitudes that people have in opposition to gay marriage represents exactly the same sort of moral blindness. To them, their actions seem like a good idea – they seem to be something that a good person would support – so they do not suffer even the slightest twinge of conscience as they engage in behavior that, as a matter of fact, and quite independent of their perceptions, does great harm to others for no good reason.

Many of these morally blind people assert that it is a mistake to say that they suffer from hate. “I do not hate gays. I just think that marriage should be between a man and a woman. That’s not the same has hating gays.”

However, moral blindness is not a defect in reason. It is a defect in desire – a defect in emotion. It is a lack of an aversion to doing great harm to certain people, ultimately because one does not see them as entities that deserve the same type of decent respect that real people deserve.

In all of the examples that I listed above – the segregationist, the west coast patriot, the German soldier, the defender of slavery – otherwise decent people were made capable of doing great harm to others because their culture taught them to view those others as something less than full human beings. They were taught to view their victims as a lower form of life, so that, while they remained decent people when it came to their treatment of other persons, they also became morally blind when it came to their evil treatment of these non-persons.

Yet, we cannot strictly say that what these people suffered from was a mere lack of an aversion to do harm to others. I have no particular affection for the tools that I have at home. I certainly do not have any interest in treating them with the type of dignity and respect that I would accord to them if I viewed them as persons. Yet, this does not inspire me to spend millions of dollars or to take up arms or to hire the government to take up arms in my name to inflict great harm on those tools. In fact, insofar as they are useful, I seek to protect and care for those tools.

Homosexual neighbors are still useful as neighbors. If your house was on fire and your child needed rescuing, the homosexual neighbor might be in the best position to save her. Even if one viewed the homosexual neighbor as a mere tool, it is still useful to take care of the tool so that it will remain useful.

However, in the cases I mentioned above, the agents defended doing real-world harm to those they were taught to view as being undeserving of the respect given to persons. This harm cannot be traced back to the fact that it was useful to do this harm. In fact, those who inflicted the harm were generally made worse off as a result of what they did to their neighbors. This desire to do harm was something the agents came to value for its own sake.

When one devotes a great deal of energy to actions that harm others for its own sake – simply to realize the value that one finds in a state where others are harmed – then it is not unreasonable to say that this is ‘hate’. It certainly does not count as “love”, and it would be strange at best to say that somebody putting all of that energy into something harmful to others is suffering from “indifference”. It is, instead, the definition of “indifference” that one simply does not care to work either for or against that particular end. Calling this passionate devotion to realizing a state that is so harmful to the interests of other persons for no good reason “indifference” is about as absurd as calling a person on his honeymoon a “bachelor”.

So, if it is not love, and it is not indifference, then we are running out of options as to what we can call this sentiment that drives these people to work so hard to do so much harm to others.

Some might want to call it religious devotion – since they provide support for their attitudes in scripture.

However, these people need to explain why they are so devoted to enforcing scripture in the case of homosexuality, but ignore it in so many other areas. Why isn’t homosexuality on the ignore list like the charging of interest and working on the Sabbath? Any claim that takes the form “X -> P” (such as “God condemns it in the Bible; therefore, I condemn homosexuality”) can be refuted by examples of “X and not-P” (e.g., God condemns usury and working on the Sabbath, but I do not condemn these things.”.

Religion, in this case, Is being used as a smoke screen to hide a culturally learned bigoted blindness much like the blindness that allowed people to do harm to the interests of women, blacks, and Japanese Americans during World War II.

This is not a religious issue. This is very much a hate issue.

And history tells us that it extremely easy for somebody who is a “decent person” – whole societies filled with people who live the bulk of their lives being as good or better than you and I – can still have a moral blind spot that allows them to do truly horrendous things to others who do not show up on their moral radar.


anticant said...

There are many lifelong campaigners for gay rights - I am one - who don't buy into ths clamour for "gay marriage". I am perferctly content with the legal Civil Partnership which I was able to celebrate in 2005 after 45 years' togetherness with my life-partner.

Is there not a strong case for saying that marriage is a primarily religious concept which should only be celebrated in church, and would then be indissoluble for life? Anyone - gay or straight - not prepared to make such a binding lifelong commitment should register a civil partnership with the same legal rights as married couples, but also the possibility of divorce or separation.

My guess is that under such a regime, marriage would become far less popular!

Baconsbud said...

I don't believe marriage has ever really been so tied to religion as to make it something it should have say over. If you look at history most marriages weren't done for love but so each family would get something out of it. Before christianity became a religion did people get married?
What I get from this post is that religion no matter how much good they might do the harm they cause always seems to out weight it. I do have to somewhat disagree with you on the civil war thing up until 1863 there was no talk about slavery as an issue. Most of the leaders of the union were trying to get the southern states to rejoin and all would be as it was in 1850. Most of those fighting in that war didn't own slaves instead they believed they were fighting for god and state rights.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Marriage in the sense being used here (a Constitutional Amendment) is a legal state haveing nothing to do with religion. I have been married for 21 years. This means that, in several of my relationships with the government (the filing of taxes, inheritance, insurance, visitation in hospitals, etc.) I am granted liberties that "non-married" persons do not have.

"Civil Partnership" becomes the legal equivalent of "Marriage" only when every mention of the term "married" and its cognates in law is replaced by the term "married or civilly partnered" (or whatever the term may be).

The easiest way to make both relationships legally equivalent is to simply state that the same legal term applies to both types of relationships.


There was a great deal of talk about slavery even at the time of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson sought to blame England for slavery and declare it one of the reasons for the separation written into the Declaration of Independence (but the Continental Congress edited out this part). Benjamin Franklin was an avid abolitionist. The abolitionist movement was quite strong prior to the civil war and, in fact, the abolitionist movement was the reason for Southern secession.

Yes, several southerners said that they were fighting for states rights. Yet, the fact remains that the specific states right they were fighting for was the right to continue to be a slave state and not have abolitionism forced upon them. Couching this as a "states rights" issue was really no different than couching marriage in terms of "protecting a definition". It attempted to give an illusion of legitimacy to that which was, in fact, illegitimate.

As for the claim on the ratio of good to harm that religion does, I would like to refer you to two recent posts:

Asymetcric beliefs about good, evil, and religion

Religion and 'More Harm than Good'

anton said...


I heartily agree about your stance on the civil war "thing" as it has been "spin doctored" so that the "North" could say it had "good" on its side. The North also had slaves. Lincoln did not "free the slaves" but it certainly makes a good story. In fact, most historians agree that Lincoln did not care one way or the other. Unfortunately, the realities of historical events get lost in the revisions created to suit the victors. Over time the truth is hard, if not impossible, to resurrect. (Who financed the crusades and what reward did they get is an infamous historical example. Try and find a history book that tells the truth about this one!)

Groups who foresee an impending loss to their status use various versions of this one to rally the troops! If a population is apathetic to what an "enemy" is doing, make something up. Real history abounds in its examples of this strategy. The problem, of course, is that few care to acknowledge when this strategy is being used . . . and later, who cares!

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You are changing the subject.

The "North" (or, more accurately, the Federal Government in DC) did not fight for the abolition of slaves. The Federal Government fought for its own survival. Clearly, if the Southern states could seceed, then we can expect that other regions would also find reasons to seceed, until there was no more federal government and America had become a region of separate nations with various alliances between them - much like Europe.

It used the issue of slavery as a convenient political tool.

However, the abolition of slavery became a convenient political tool because there was a huge segment of the population - in America and in Europe - who felt very strongly on this issue. The abolution of slavery would not have been a tool without the underlying fact that there were people who were making decisions based on this issue, and that there were enough of them that the federal government was willing to purchase their allegiance.

Yes, there were northerners who were also morally blind to the wrongness of slavery. However, there were enough northerners who did not suffer from this blindness that the civil war resulted in the end of slavery.

anton said...

It used the issue of slavery as a convenient political tool.

Isn't that the point? Your analysis for the "good" achieved by the civil war being the "freedom of the slaves", as you state, was not the cause . . . but rather holding "things together". The flames of the religious right need fanning, and the "gay marriage" fight is helping fan that flame.

Or, am I missing something?

anton said...



I would be interested in what the average US American believes was the cause of the Civil War! I know it wasn't freeing the slaves. You know it wasn't freeing the slaves. But neither of us has a California "vote"!

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, the point of this blog posting was the subject of moral blindness - the way an (otherwise) decent person can be blind to the wrongs they commit to some subgroup.

Slavery was an example of otherwise decent people also guilty of a huge moral wrong - as were the other examples mentioned.

That there are more examples that I did not mention does not call my thesis into question.

Also, it does not challenge the fact that there were people who saw slavery as wrong in itself - and they were powerful enough to use this opportunity to end slavery.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I do not believe that there was such a thing as "the cause" of the civil war. Different people entered into it for different reasons.

Some went to preserve the union (to deny the right to secession). Some went to end slavery. Both reasons existed.

At the start of the war, the "end slavery" faction was a minority faction. However, by the time the war ended, they obtained their objectives. They did it, in part, by allying with the(larger) "preserve the union" faction.

However, the fact that the "preserve the union" reason motivated more people than the "end slavery" reason at the start of the war does not argue that the "end slavery" reason did not exist or was totally or trivially important.

Anonymous said...


I want to call into question your statement about motivation:

"So, if it is not love, and it is not indifference, then we are running out of options as to what we can call this sentiment that drives these people to work so hard to do so much harm to others."

I think there are other options. I think these people believe they are working hard toward a goal - but that goal is not to harm others. The goal has the byproduct, in reality, of harming others, of course... but I would hesitate to say that anti-gay marriage people are driven by hate. They could be driven by love, but not by love of homosexuals.

Those in support of Prop 8 seem to believe that they're putting energy into something that is beneficial to some, rather than devoting energy to harm others.

So maybe this is negligence: If they did sufficient research - a morally acceptable amount of research - these people would understand that gay marriage is necessary to promote human equality, that gay marriage will NOT destroy America, and that by opposing gay marriage they are inflicting considerable harm.

But that's my only issue with this post. I agree that people are doing wrong, but I don't think hate is their motive.

Kristopher said...

this was a really good post alonzo