The Moral Argument

A few weeks back Utah state senator Stuart Reid defended his vote against the anti-discrimination act protecting employment and housing rights of people of gender and sexual diversities.  He stated he did so because he believes homosexuality to be immoral.  In summary his argument was as follows and I quote: “When society, through its government, identifies something to be immoral, it is by definition discriminating against that thing, act or behavior by setting it apart as harmful to society. Under Utah law, something identified as moral receives preferential treatment and something identified as immoral receives discriminatory treatment. … In short, if homosexual activity is not immoral, then end discrimination in all its forms against it. If it is immoral, then government should protect against its harm to society and does not provide special rights in support of it[i].”

Now, as a gay man, I have to protest his claim that I am immoral based on the inherent state of who I am.  But I have to say there is coherence in his argument that I have not seen in recent history of conservative politics.  Frankly, he is making a solid point in how we as a society have operated.

He is correct in stating as a society we have legislated / discriminated against that which was deemed *immoral*.  And as he stated in his response, we either did nothing about the immoral behavior or we sanctioned it without enforcement, or we punished it.  We promoted what society thought was moral and discriminated against that which we considered immoral. Slavery and polygamy were accepted as moral behaviors until the majority deemed it immoral. The reverse is also true in this country. Integration and interracial marriages were considered unacceptable and immoral until the majority deemed them moral.

And we as a country are still undecided regarding the morality of marriage between first cousins.  It is allowed in sixteen states, banned in 25 states, and carries a criminal offense in the remaining states.  Is it moral?  Sixteen states say yes and for the record the majority of New England states and southern states are in agreement in this regard.

The reason given for its being immoral is the possibility of deformed children being born to these unions. Some states require sterilization before such marriages can be allowed. However, these 16 states recognize that the threat of birth defects is only marginally higher between first cousins than between second or third cousins or in non-related spouses.

However, Texas, which instituted their ban against marriage between first cousins in 2005, makes it a felony charge with possible prison up to 20 years.  Conviction of having sex with your first cousin, regardless of marital status, results in registration of being a sex offender.   Being designated a sex offender carries with it an emotionally charged reaction from the society at large as this designation is often used to warn against pedophiles.   Marrying your first cousin is not the same as violating a child, yet the stigma is applied making marrying your first cousin as severe a crime as pedophilia.  Is it therefore immoral behavior?  For us living in a country where the rule of law is held as a moral compass, we have conflated law-abiding with morality.

Conflating the two, however, is troublesome.  What is legal does not automatically equate with what is moral.   It was perfectly legal to have whites’ only entrances and toilets in the early half of the 20th century. It was perfectly legal to have children under the age of 15 work in dangerous factories in the 19th century. It was perfectly legal to outlaw Jews in Nazi Germany and send them to their deaths. And it is currently perfectly legal to define marriage as one man one woman. Are any of these legalities moral?

Just because something is legal or illegal does not make that thing also moral or immoral.  The stronger reason why slavery, polygamy, pedophilia, racist segregation, child labor is considered immoral not because it is illegal but because of the imbalance of power and potentiality of emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual abuse in the relationships. Not only for the one who has no power in these relationships but also for the one in the dominant role.  Consensual marriage with your first cousin does not automatically mean an unequal power dynamic.

And the moral argument is also raised when it comes to a woman’s right to choose.  Society has said, albeit with exceptions, that killing another human is immoral.  The exceptions seem to be acts of war, self defense, and the death penalty.  Even these exceptions have been questioned.  So we now have the dilemma of the unwanted pregnancy.  When does life begin?  When is the fetus a human baby and therefore immoral to terminate?

It is an issue that will probably never ever be fully settled because even within the same dominant religious tradition within this country there are two definitions of when life begins.  The first is the belief that life begins at first breath.  This is referenced several times in the Hebrew Scriptures in Genesis and elsewhere.  The second is the belief that life began before birth with the Hebrew Psalms declaring that one’s destiny was written even while within the womb.

The first supports a theology that humans have agency, free will, the ability to choose and that agency/ that choice began with the infant drawing its first breath.  The second develops a theology that humans do not have agency, that their lives are pre-determined, pre-destined by a god who has already decided who is to destined for salvation and who is destined for eternal damnation.

The first supports that the woman also has agency, free will, the ability to choose and create her destiny.  The second supports that the woman does not have agency. She is only a vessel for her offspring, the continuation of the species and any greatness she may achieve is through the fruit of her womb.   There are sacred and poetic texts extolling the womb of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Her value is only in the fact that she gave birth to a long awaited heir to the throne of David, a messiah, a king.

The followers of the theology that people have agency would say that the woman needs to enter pregnancy willingly and knowingly of the consequences of nurturing a child.  Therefore if she becomes pregnant against her will or does not for her own reasons believe she can accept or support the consequences of pregnancy she has several options to choose.  She may opt to support the pregnancy and raise the child or offer the child into adoption, or to terminate the pregnancy.  The fetus inside her is not a human being until it can draw its first breath or other wise be viable outside of the womb.   And should she choose to have an abortion; the theology declares no shame in that decision.

The followers of the second theology would declare the rights of the fetus supersede the rights of the vessel that carries it.  To end the pregnancy they argue would be in violation of one of the Ten Commandments, thou shalt not kill.  Murder we have already stated has an exceptions clause but this apparently is not one of them. Those advocating Personhood rights at conception state that terminating a fertilized ovum would be murder punishable, at the very least, by a long prison sentence and depending on how the laws are written possibly by capital punishment-the death penalty.  Those who protest against abortion tend to add the stigma of shame into the equation for those women who made a choice to do what nature does over 75% of the time[ii] with all conceptions.   I would argue that personhood bills create an unfair power dynamic over the woman, restricting her ability to have agency in her life just as slavery, polygamy, pedophilia, racist segregation, and child labor restrict the ability of agency for those trapped in such situations.

There is one more piece of the puzzle regarding determining what is moral.   Does morality come from within or is it imposed by some outside force, say a deity or a government?

Those who argue for an end for a woman’s right to choose also tend to argue that morality is imposed by an outside force, namely a deity.  The belief again is that humanity has no agency to determine its path.  Therefore, without the presence of an all judging god, humanity will of its own chaos reduce itself to immoral behavior as normative.  The argument therefore states that Humanity / society must therefore be constrained by outside forces be it governmental or be it a deity.

Unitarian Universalists have long argued that within each person is the agency to choose the best path.  Given the options, the pros and the cons, the parameters in which they find themselves a person will be able to make the best decision specific to their circumstances.  Making decisions that are morally sound are not easy tasks.

Is morality universal or is it relational?  Or is it a combination of the two?   I suggest that morality is indeed both universal and relational.  All of our world religions have some form of the Golden Rule, which implies some universality to what may define moral behavior.  I would love for people to treat me with shrimp and caviar so in my desire to be so treated I decide to treat others with shrimp and caviar; yet there are people that if I offer them shrimp and caviar it is as if I am offering them death because they are allergic.  So the universal does not always work in the specific.  It would be better if I who love shrimp and caviar offer an assortment of foods that can be chosen freely by others.   There are no absolutes in the specifics of living day to day.

I would question my friends who had to have their god observe absolutes.  My friends would state that abortion was always the wrong choice, no matter what.  I would ask them a question. Is god a loving, compassionate, god?  Yes, they would answer.  What if in god’s loving compassion towards a young woman who was so wounded from living in a sexually abusive home that to have a child at this time would only ensure that the child would be equally wounded.  Would that god allow an abortion as being more merciful to the young woman than to have her endure a pregnancy and have a child that she in her wounded state does not have the skills to raise?  They were never able to see god being merciful in such a manner.  They were never able to see god being gentle with this young woman and grace her with a chance to heal the scars of spiritual and physical violence before becoming a mother.  In short, they could not accept that even god might show mercy when they could not.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even criminals love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even criminals do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even criminals lend to criminals to receive as much back. (Luke 6 Fred’s paraphrase)

Blessed Be.


The Moral Argument by Rev. Fred L Hammond delivered on  14 April 2013 © to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa