Friday, December 19, 2008

Equality, Feelings, and the Harm Principle

Here is Andrew Sullivan consoling himself about Rick Warren:

.... [I]f we cannot work with Obama to bridge these divides, none of us will be worthy of the great moral cause that this civil rights movement truly is.

The bitterness endures; the hurt doesn't go away; the pain is real. But that is when we need to engage the most, to overcome our feelings to engage in the larger project, to understand that not all our opponents are driven by hate, even though that may be how their words impact us. To turn away from such dialogue is to fail ourselves, and to miss the possibility of the Obama moment.

It can be hard to take yes for an answer. But yes is what Obama is saying. And we should not let our pride or our pain get in the way.
Pride? Pain? Bitterness? Hurt? Sure, those are in the mix, but it is a category mistake to reduce inequality to feelings.

The question at hand is whether gay people will be treated as full, complete, rights-bearing human beings. The emotional reaction to their treatment does matter -- it's the most salient and common proximate cause behind making change happen -- but it matters less than the actual absence or presence of equality. It's a very good thing that it matters less, because if this were legitimately about feelings and perceptions, then it would be nothing but a popularity contest, and gay people would stand little chance of winning their rights on those grounds, just as African Americans stood little chance of winning the white majority's good favor before the law made their good favor irrelevant.

There is a question of justice at stake which does not hinge on perceptions, emotional or otherwise. Which is to say: even if every gay person standing laughed and nodded along when a sack-of-crap pastor compared their unions to pedophilia, incest, or bestiality, it would still be wrong to deny the rights and equality of gay people. It would be wrong because gay unions differ from the others listed in the only important way that heterosexual unions differ from them: that they involve the volitional acts of adult human beings.

When, in a free society worthy of the name, we've established that a given relationship involves competent adult human beings acting freely and without doing harm to others, we've reached the end of legitimate exertions of state power. What individuals feel, believe, or opine about the relationship is undeniably interesting to those individuals and perhaps to others, but it's not the business of government.

Via proposition 8, a slender majority of California voters deprived gay people of rights and privileges routinely granted to non-gay people, and thus demoted them to a secondary status. This unjust notwithstanding anyone's feelings.

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