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April 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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