Nostalgia, Gay Marriage, and the Confederate Flag

Nostalgia a poor guide for morality as understanding of justice evolves

Fresno Bee, July 10, 2015

  • Gay marriage and the Confederate flag prompt reflection on historical progress
  • The sense of moral decline is misplaced
  • Let’s celebrate civility and rational discourse

d6af3df478bb4f439581a80d5d541c36-843fe42fa3174b008d1aeb7eb6abf6f2-0A June Gallup poll found that 72% of Americans believe that our morals are “getting worse.” Similar majorities have complained about moral decay every year since Gallup began asking the question in 2002. Another recent poll by the Wall Street Journalconfirmed that a majority of Americans are worried about “moral decline.”

Moral declinism — to coin a phrase for the sense of moral decadence — has a long history. The ancient Jewish prophets warned of moral decay. The Greeks accused Socrates of corrupting the youth. Ancient Chinese philosophers imagined a lost era of true men and virtuous kings.

Change is often greeted with skepticism and nostalgia. We have a tendency to view the past through rose-colored glasses. We pine for the supposed simplicity of the family home. We are homesick for a mythical time when things were purer, easier and better.

Nostalgia is, however, a poor guide for morality. There is no perfect past this side of Eden. Indeed, many are happy to leave the past behind, especially when the past includes injustice and oppression.

Consider the demise of the Confederate flag. Some Southerners may be nostalgic for the antebellum South. But most Americans understand the rebel flag as a sign of an oppressive history and view its fall as a progressive development.

Or consider the gay marriage debate. Some, like the Rev. Franklin Graham, have described acceptance of homosexuality as a sign of “the moral decline we are seeing manifest daily around us.” But for homosexuals, these are times of moral progress.

The Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage explained that the institution of marriage “has evolved over time.” It argues that we must learn from history, “without allowing the past alone to rule the present.”

Opponents reject the idea that marriage can or should evolve. Chief Justice Roberts argued in his dissent that marriage “has formed the basis of human society for millennia.” Justice Alito added, in his dissent, that gay marriage is “contrary to long-established tradition.”

But tradition is not a sufficient guide to morality. The mere fact that something is old does not mean that it is good. Slavery is as old as the Bible. Its longevity is no justification.

The same point can be made with regard to new developments. New things are not better simply because of their novelty.

The key to moral progress is independent moral judgment based upon respect for human dignity. And the best method of making progress is dignified and rational critique. We reconstruct our values by trying to understand what matters and why.

Human beings are not perfectly wise, and human institutions are not perfectly just. We evaluate and improve things by criticizing them. Enlightened social progress results from reasonable civil discourse. Genuine moral progress must be grounded in good arguments that every citizen can understand.

Claims about a culture in decline are dangerous when they fuel the fires of social conflict. Indeed, some have warned about a newly emerging “culture war.” But the war metaphor is not helpful. Fundamentalists in some parts of the world take up arms to stifle dissent and preserve irrational traditions. Value conflicts can quickly escalate and become bloody.

We should reject the notion that Americans engage in culture wars. We argue and debate — and obey the rule of law, which allows us to agree to disagree. Moral argument is complicated and difficult. And some will be unhappy as change occurs. But in our system, social change happens without recourse to the blunt instruments of violence and war.

Instead of lamenting moral decline, let’s rejoice at the role of rational argumentation in American public life. Since the bloody civil war of the 1860s, moral development in the U.S. has happened in the courts, in Congress and through nonviolent civil disobedience. That’s moral progress.

We should, however, worry about a decline in civility and rational deliberation. Internet subcultures are filled with hateful speech — and terrible arguments. Some malicious morons turn hate speech into murder. Other citizens simply tune out. The solution to that problem is obvious. We have to teach our children to be more reasonable. And we should celebrate the fact that rational argument and civil discourse still guide our public life.

Read more here:

Mind Your Own Business

Love, death and the spice of life

Fresno Bee, May 1, 2015 

  • Gay marriage, assisted suicide and marijuana reform point in libertarian direction
  • Meddling busy-bodies often breed unhappiness
  • Liberty and diversity allow for human flourishing21381_815893

We would all do much better if we would learn to mind our own business. Sometimes we need help and guidance. Children certainly do. But with regard to the moral and religious commitments of adults, it’s best to keep your opinion to yourself.

Recent issues point in this direction. Lawmakers in California are considering new legislation that would legalize physician-assisted suicide. The U.S. Supreme Court is debating gay marriage. Marijuana has been legalized in a variety of places.

Our multicultural society is becoming more complex as we work our way through the question of how much liberty we ought to permit. Liberty breeds complexity, creativity and conflict. When we leave people alone, the world becomes more interesting.

But it is not easy to leave others alone. We have a natural compulsion to meddle. If I believe that my ideas are right and good, it is reasonable to think that others can benefit from them. All true believers have the urge to evangelize.

But in a pluralistic society, our evangelical urges collide with the equal and opposite energies of those who have different ideas. Disagreement is a natural law of liberty. We can measure our freedom by the extent of our disputation.

Some like alcohol. Others like marijuana. And others abstain. A similar diversity is found with regard to the question of who we love and how we want to die. There is no consensus about these topics. The best we can do is agree to leave each other alone.

A friend and mentor of mine, the philosopher John Lachs, wrote the recent book “Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone.” Lachs encourages us to “curb our desire to rule over other people.” He says we must abandon the supposition that ours is “the only natural or worthy way to live.” We must resist the evangelical urge.

For that to happen, we need humility and a bit of historical perspective. People have disagreed about religion, morality, culture, and politics for millennia. Most attempts to impose rigid homogeneity have produced suffering. The solution is to allow as much liberty as possible.

In the end Lachs suggests, most of what other people do simply doesn’t matter. Does it really matter what other people do in the bedroom, who they love, how they recreate, how they pray, what they eat, or how they end their lives? It’s obnoxious to think that your neighbor’s private choices are your concern.

Of course there are some difficult questions. There are risks and benefits that must be weighed. It is possible, for example, to imagine insurance companies profiting from permissive suicide laws. Drug addiction and intoxicated driving are serious concerns on the marijuana frontier.

Such problems should make sense to everyone involved, even proponents of these ideas. Legislation and regulation should aim to minimize these risks. But the most significant goal of a secular political system is to prevent government from meddling in our moral and religious beliefs.

Liberty destroys conformity. There is no denying that. Those who value a dull, bland sameness will be disappointed by what happens when liberty is unleashed.

We often forget that libertarian political systems are new and innovative. In the old-days, a priest-king would decide what everyone had to do. Conformity was often enforced under penalty of death. And even when busy-bodies don’t have political power, meddling moralists make life miserable.

In a free, pluralistic society, we will often dislike the choices that others make. But as long as we leave each other alone, we’re making progress. We don’t have to agree about sex, marriage, death, dying or drug use in order to get along. We simply need to stay out of each other’s business.

Living, loving and dying are hard enough for each of us. Tending your own garden is work enough for a lifetime. And when we are left alone to cultivate our gardens in our own way, we may be pleasantly surprised by the result. Some will plant tomatoes. Others will grow carrots. Some will invite the wildflowers to bloom.

Freedom gives birth to variety, which is, as they say, the spice of life. Liberty, diversity and social conflict make life exciting, nutritious and often unexpectedly beautiful.

Read more here: