Equality is not “discriminatory”

Thanks to Kyle McCarter, a Republican state senator from Illinois, I can take a break from defending the rights of homophobes and return to the more pleasant task of explaining why they’re wrong. And I don’t just mean that they are wrong about the discrete issue of marriage equality, I mean that their entire worldview is objectively ridiculous.

Angered by the passage of a marriage equality bill by the Illinois Senate yesterday, Sen. McCarter put this on Facebook:

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This is a rather pristine example of a rhetorical trope that crops up quite a bit in the marriage equality debate. The argument — which probably grows out of the persecution complex I talked about in the “beleaguered majority” post — is that same-sex marriage is not only wrong but an actual violation of the right of traditionalists to live in a world without same-sex marriage.

I can’t really refute the argument, because I literally can’t understand the premise. We can debate about whether particular policies are good for individuals or for society at large, but I can’t think of any reason to believe that anyone has a right for everyone else to abide by their beliefs, however sincerely held. What makes it even weirder is that people with orthodox religious beliefs already live in a world where their beliefs about marriage are flouted at every turn. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has very strict views on divorce and remarriage, and millions of couples throughout the world are married in ways that utterly defy the Church’s teachings. And no one cares. I have never heard any observant Catholics claim that their rights are violated because the Protestants across the street are each on their second marriages.

I’ve talked on the vlog about how the marriage equality debate is shaped by the different “moral foundations” each side is consciously or unconsciously applying. Liberals tend to view the question through the moral lens of fairness and harm, concluding that opposite-sex couples have no reason to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. Traditionalists approach the question as one of sanctity or purity, believing (in this one narrow instance) that altering the definition of marriage harms the institution itself.

I think claims of “discrimination” such as the one Sen. McCarter is making are a result of traditionalists trying to translate their ideas about sanctity into the moral language of harm or unfairness. But to do so they have to assume an individual right to have the world conform to one’s notions of propriety. They also have to portray traditionalists as fairly delicate creatures, who experience the sinful lives of others as a form of psychic pain. I don’t find the argument particularly persuasive in any form, but the more fundamental problem is that this argument precludes any form of pluralism.

Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said “my right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” This is a colorful but accurate summary of what is called the harm principle, the idea that individual rights must be limited to the extent that they  interfere with the rights of others. It can be complicated in practice, since my “nose” may be something quite intangible, like privacy or equal access to an education, but the core principle is essential to liberal democracy. But if one of my “rights” is to have everyone live the way I want, the principle self-destructs. We can’t all live in a world where everyone conforms to our preferences. Our preferences differ. I’m sure many vegetarians are horrified by the very idea of people eating meat, but it does not follow that a failure to ban hamburgers is a violation of their rights.

I don’t want to create a false equivalence, but I detect faint traces of the same intellectual error creeping into my side of the marriage equality debate. I believe we can make a lot of progress in educating and persuading people to be more supportive of same-sex relationships, but I don’t think I have the right to live in a world where no one disapproves of me. The articulation of hateful opinions about homosexuality, without some sort of harmful overt action, is not a violation of anyone’s rights. Those opinions create very real emotional distress – I have felt it myself, sometimes very acutely – but it is not the kind of harm that the government can or should redress.

We are living through a rapid and long-overdue shift in social norms with respect to gay and lesbian relationships. It now seems clear that this shift is going to be played out across virtually every aspect of our society, with each side feeling a sense of grievance at the failure of others to honor their deepest beliefs. My best advice to everyone is to grow up. One of the obligations of living in a pluralistic society is to navigate clashes between fervently held principles that each side regards as self-evident, if not written into the very fabric of the cosmos. Some degree of intellectual humility and a genuine effort to understand other points of view might go a long way.