NOTE: as I look back on this post I think it important to note that it was written in response to a religious bigot who made the claims I discuss as examples as well as the claim that there was no rights issue at stake in same sex marriage because “gays have the same rights as everyone else: Marry someone of the opposite sex”. The sole justification for these claims turned out to be certain key Biblical verses.
I sometimes hear people say that they don’t see how people could be ethical if they are not religious. This is, of course, quite absurd. Reason is just as good at ferreting out the ethical truth as any revelation. It may take a little more work but it is well worth the effort. In fact it seems that there is a similar kind of charge to be made against the religious ethicist. The religious ethicist is one who simply appeals to some scripture as evidence for the morality or immorality of some action. Thus, as in my recent encounter with the religious right, someone who thinks that homosexuality is immoral simply because it says in the Christian Bible that God doesn’t like it is a religious ethicist in my sense.
When these kinds of people say that something is wrong they do not really understand why it is wrong. This is a corollary of the Euthyphro question. Either God has no reason for commanding it and so it is arbitrary as to why he commanded this specific action and thus there is no way to understand why it is wrong or there is a reason he commanded it and the religious person is ignorant of that reason (since God never tells us the reasons for his commands).
When the secular person says that something is wrong (and if they are a morally responsible person) then they must have a reason for thinking that it is wrong other than an authority figure. This involves doing some actual thinking, applying an ethical theory, putting oneself in the others place, etc. This is a lot more work than simply appealing to some book. The result of this is that the religious ethicist ends up saying very strange things.
So, to take our earlier example, in my recent debate with the ARZ/B the first move made was question whether or not gays could make acceptable parents. This person said that they could NEVER provide a mother and a father to a child. I disagreed. Gay couples are capable of providing everything that straight couples do (with the exception of being genetically males/female but that is irrelevant). Of course when I make this point and there is no rational response to be made the real motivation for this belief becomes apparent; the Bible dictates a male/female parental unit. But, besides being commanded in your Holy scriptures there is no rational reason for thinking that gays can’t provide parents for children.
To further illustrate this point, when I compare gay rights to the other civil rights movements in history (women, blacks, migrant workers) I sometimes get the response that skin color is not morally relevant but sexual preference is. But why is this the case? What is it that makes sexual preference a morally relevant factor? Here is a reason why it is not: these people have no control over their sexual preference. True some people do choose to become homosexual (maybe Lindsey Lohan) but the vast majority of them are naturally that way. Check your own experience to see that this is true. I am straight, but I never chose to be that way. At the appropriate age I began to notice and be attracted to and made nervousby women, but this isn’ttrue for everyone. Now, of course some sexual preferences are morally relevant (pedephilia for example) but this is because of another factor (lack of consent, abuse of trust).
Now, please bear in mind that I make a distinction between religious beliefs based solely on dogma and theistic beliefs based on reason. If a person believes in God and uses reason to confirm God’s revelation then I have no quarrel with you. But such a person cannot object to gay unions! For as we have seen, there is no reason to forbid them other than the Holy scriptures but for the theistic person reason trumps the scriptures.
At any rate what the secular and theistic ethicist have in common is a commitment to reason as a source of moral knowledge and to a true understanding of moral issues. This is something the religious ethicist lacks and is the source of all of the very poor arguments they usually give.
I have also wondered about this. A large part of moral reasoning involves putting yourself in the place of the other and ‘seeing things from their point of view’. But in the case of people with homophobia it would be very difficult to imagine how they would feel if they were gay and in love and wanted to be married. Perhaps this explains why they try to deny there is a rights issue here.