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04/28/2016

Expanding The Moral Community: Why is it so hard?


Much of American history can be described as the struggle to
expand the moral community in which an increasing number of human beings are
seen as having basic rights under the constitution. We forget sometimes that
though the inclusion of all people was perhaps implied in our early documents,
as in “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal…” from the Declaration of Independence, it has taken historical time and
struggle to come closer to realizing that ideal. This struggle has been the
quest for recognition of more and more individuals not assumed initially to have
the right to vote and exercise control over their lives, which included African
Americans, women, minorities, and more recently the LGBT community. The growing
recognition of more and more individuals as being full fledged citizens has
been a slow, often painful, birthing process of freedom, in the sense of
unleashing human potential and possibilities, within the democratic process.


 


The recent uproar over the
Anti-LGBT law
passed in North Carolina is a reminder of how difficult it is
for many states and communities to accept and accommodate historically
marginalized people into the mainstream of society. This law was a quick
reaction by the right wing North Carolina legislature and governor to an
ordinance passed in Charlotte, similar to what other cities around the country
are doing, allowing transgender people to use restrooms according to their
gender identity. Perhaps this law also should be seen as a reaction to the
Supreme Court ruling in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage, which has been
propelling society toward greater openness and acceptance of LGBT life styles,
integrating them into the mainstream. Many who favor the Anti-LGBT law claim
that individuals born as male, but are now identifying as female, could pose a
risk to women and girls in public bathrooms, though there seems to be no
substantial evidence whatsoever of such a risk. My sense is that the
individuals who support this law in fact are using risk as a smokescreen in attempting
to preserve what they perceive as waning values and norms in society: In the
name of conservatism they hang on to an exclusionary vision of society that no
longer fits the conditions of expanding freedom and opportunity.


 


So what some see as waning values and norms, others see as
moral progress toward more robust democratic ideals and values. This inherent,
historical struggle of opposing social and political forces has resulted with
unexpected rapidity in the social and legal acceptance of gays and lesbians in
the past 20 years in the United States. Most young people today especially
those living in metropolitan areas, like Charlotte, where cultural diversity is
a daily reality, readily accept that people naturally have different sexual
orientations and gender identities, which people should be free to express in
their lives. This liberal openness to diversity likely stems from the fact that
they live in the midst of, and have normal interactions and friendships with,
people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, which prompts them
to look upon them as neighbors and as normal people. On the other hand, my guess
is that many of the advocates of the Anti-LGBT Bill in North Carolina have
little or no contact (of which they are aware) and no or limited relationships
with LGBT individuals. Also, part of the resistance to greater inclusion of the
LGBT community could be stem from the
anxiety
of having to recognize one’s own uncomfortable feelings and inclinations about
sexuality and gender.


 


An additional factor to explain the reluctance of many
self-identified conservatives to accept alternative sexual and gender
orientations may be related to religion. Particularly, in the “bible belt”
regions, regardless of whether or not they are followed by church leaders and
members, clear notions of basic moral norms of right and wrong are assumed.
Sadly, religious morality has been historically integrated with and used to
justify a range of regional cultural values and norms—even heinous ones such as
the use of Christianity to justify the institution of slavery. But in fairness
even many Christians outside the bible belt follow Catholic
natural law theory based
on certain features about human nature from which basic norms are predicated
about what is “normal” as well as “right” and “wrong” in a content rich,
objective sense. In short, the point is if one believes that members of the
LGBT community are engaging in a personal life style that is assumed to be
inherently immoral, a barrier to inclusion is created.


 


So we in America today are in the midst of a culture war between
conservative communities in rural and smaller towns on the one side espousing religious
assumptions about human nature (which affects how they perceive risks) and liberals
celebrated diversity in more progressive, metropolitan areas on the other. Advocates
on either side of this divide bring to bear ideas and theories in an effort to
convince others of their position. However, my sense is that articulating
arguments to defend the root moral assumptions of either side is unlikely to
change the minds of individuals on the other side. The result seems to be
communities of individuals living in parallel universes with alternate moral
vocabularies who “talk at” each other. Though I am for a liberal, moral
vocabulary to account for moral progress within the democratic process, the
real change that many of us liberals seek really is at the emotional, and even
spiritual, level relating to how human beings are able to show empathy and
respect for their fellow human beings in their communities.


 


We know human identity is based largely on social
identity
within a particular group or groups related to broad social categories
such as religion, race, ethnicity, social class, etc. and to more specific ones
such as professions, sports teams, political parties, etc. One of the inherent
features of social identity is that individuals have a sense of self-identity by
virtue of their group affiliations, which is also defined in terms of groups
with which they are not affiliated and to which they stand in opposition. When
group identities become rigid, to the point of engendering animus toward other
groups, barriers are created which can marginalize the rights of individuals in
those groups. But through exposure to, and openness to personal relationships
with, individuals outside one’s own group, group identity becomes more flexible
and open to change—this is an inner change of heart and disposition toward
others.


 


Perhaps many of those who self-identify as conservatives in
North Carolina who favor the Anti-LGBT law, and who also are predominantly
Christian, should remember the ministry of the central character of their faith
tradition. The thrust of Jesus’ ministry as defined by scholars like
John Dominic Crossan is one of
radical inclusion and hospitality. Jesus spent his time interacting with,
eating with, and drinking wine with those on the margins of society who were
outcasts and viewed as unclean and dangerous according the prevailing hygiene
laws. His message to these people was that they too can be included in the
moral community and be loved like all others. This is a robust message of
compassion and love.


 


Ultimately, struggle for expanding inclusion can only
succeed when opponents of bills like the Anti-LGBT Bill are able to show
members of the LGBT community the kind of compassion and love Jesus showed to
those on the margins of society in his day. The struggle of inclusion really is
the struggle to expand what one thinks of as the moral community, or more
simply, the neighborhood.

 

 

 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.


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