For a proper moralism in politics

In common usage, “morality” means observing sexual taboos. But common usage is wrong. I’m not against “morality;” I’m against a false and partial morality. Let’s not cede a good word to bad people.

I don’t want to pick on Nancy Pelosi (the wingnuts would probably claim copyright and want to charge me a royalty) but what she just said about Gen. Peter Pace’s anti-gay bigotry illustrates a frequent error in ethical discussion: the identification of “morality” with sexual-purity taboos.

I was disappointed in the moral judgment that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs made this morning, or whenever it was, reported this morning, and I was more interested in the statement made by Gen. Shalikashvilii, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, when he said that, “If America is ready for a military policy of nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation, the timing of the change should be carefully considered.” I think the military should carefully consider changing the policy. We need the most talented people, we need the language skills, we need patriotic Americans who exist across the board in our population. We don’t need moral judgment from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

“We don’t need moral judgment from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs”? Do decisions about, for example, rules of engagement or the treatment of captives have no moral element?

To identify morality with sexual morality &#8212 and in particular with observing various taboos, as opposed to treating one’s sexual partners justly and lovingly &#8212 allows the sexual-purity fanatics to claim for themselves the mantle of “morality.” The same trick is played when the anti-abortion, anti-gay folks are referred to as “values voters,” as if no one ever valued feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, curing the sick, and housing the homeless, or valued protecting the planet, or valued increasing the stock of knowledge, or valued liberty.

Part of the mechanism of this curious linguistic shift is simply euphemism. Most forms of immoral conduct &#8212 injustice, cruelty, ingratitude, theft &#8212 can be named in polite conversation. Fornication, sodomy, and adultery, not so much. So “immoral” comes to be a euphemism for “unchaste,” as in C.S. Lewis’s example: “I don’t say she is immoral, but I do say she is dishonest.”

But it’s also true that the worldwide Sexual Purity League, no matter which religion it’s connected to, takes the violation of sexual taboos as more basically, more shockingly immoral than any other sort of norm violation. (Drug abuse is a close second.) Illicit sex is dirty &#8212 that is, polluting &#8212 in a way that theft, slander, and assault simply aren’t.

(Back when a certain rabbi of the School of Hillel was preaching up a storm in Galilee, food taboos had some of the same salience that sexual taboos have now. He didn’t make himself popular with the local equivalent of the Traditional Values Coalition or Moral Majority when he pointed out that it’s not what goes into your mouth that really pollutes you, since it’s all going to wind up in the same sewer, but rather what comes out of it: perjury and slander, for example.)

As a result, people who don’t take the sexual taboos of their particular tribes all that seriously are led to speak as if they disdained morality, while what they really disdain is a false and partial morality, which condemns what is not wrong and allows what is not right. There’s nothing wrong with making moral judgments; indeed, there’s no alternative. What matters is whether you make the correct moral judgments, and do so without priggishness.

Mistreating the helpless &#8212 the poor, the outcaste, the captive, the stranger (aka “illegal alien”) &#8212 is immoral. Cruelty is immoral. Lying is immoral. Greed is immoral. It’s immoral to neglect the sick, to fail to cherish the young and honor the elderly. Why not say so?

As Orwell and Confucius both said, the root of all right action is learning to call things by their correct names.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: