Intolerant Tolerance

The Myth of Moral Neutrality

General Peter Pace was vehemently denounced and condemned in 2007for expressing a personal moral judgment that homosexual acts are immoral. Thecritics excoriated Pace for making a value judgment, while implying that theirdenunciations of him were themselves morally neutral. In reality, Pace'scritics expressed a moral judgment, too. They declared his comments wrong, notjust factually but morally, and their moral outrage was palpable.

Let me make this clear up front: All people, regardless of theirsexual orientation or other differences, should be treated fairly. We all haveequal intrinsic value and dignity. But the goal of gay-rights advocates isn'tso much to gain rights that they are being denied as to gain societal approval.Thus, their loud denunciations when someone like Pace makes a moral judgmentagainst them.

All the while, these advocates claim that their own position ismorally neutral. It isn't, and it really can't be. But their objection tojudgments like Pace's reflects the assumption, held by many, that only theiropponents are trying to "impose their morality" on society. In fact,it is in the nature of their own advocacy to do so.

Their view, however, reflects one of the most entrenchedassumptions of moral relativism in our society today: that there is such athing as morally neutral ground, a place where no judgments are made and whereno one seeks to push his personal views on another; where, instead, everyonetakes a neutral posture towards the moral convictions of others. This is theessence of tolerance, or so the argument goes.

Moral neutrality, though, is a myth, as the following illustrationshows.

Tolerance and MoralNeutrality

One of the alleged virtues of relativism is its emphasis ontolerance. An articulate example of this point of view was written by FayeWattleton, the former president of Planned Parenthood, in a piece called"Self-Definition: Morality":

Like most parents, I think that a sense of moral responsibility isone of the greatest gifts I can give my child. But teaching morality doesn'tmean imposing my moral values on others. It means sharing wisdom, givingreasons for believing as I do—and then trusting others to think and judge forthemselves.

My parents' morals were deeply rooted in religious conviction buttempered by tolerance—the essence of which is respect for other people's views.They taught me that reasonable people may differ on moral issues, and that fundamentalrespect for others is morality of the highest order.

I have devoted my career to ensuring a world in which my daughter,Felicia, can inherit that legacy. I hope the tolerance and respect I show heras a parent is reinforced by the work she sees me doing every day: fighting forthe right of all individuals to make their own moral decisions aboutchildbearing.

Seventy-five years ago, Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthoodto liberate individuals from the "mighty engines of repression." Asshe wrote, "The men and women of America are demanding that . . . they beallowed to mold their lives, not at the arbitrary command of church or statebut as their conscience and judgment may dictate."

I'm proud to continue that struggle, to defend the rights of allpeople to their own beliefs. When others try to inflict their views on me, mydaughter or anyone else, that's not morality: It's tyranny. It's unfair, andit's un-American.

That is impressively and persuasively written, one of the finestexpressions of this view available in the space of five short paragraphs. Itsounds so sensible, so reasonable, and so tolerant, but there's a fundamentalflaw.

Wattleton's FundamentalFlaw

Faye Wattleton's assessment is based on the notion of neutralground, a place where there is no moral judgment. Wattleton is not neutral,however, as her own comments demonstrate.

In her article, Wattleton in effect argues that each of us should respect the other's pointof view. She then implies, however, that any point of view other than this oneis immoral, un-American, and tyrannous. If you disagree with Wattleton'sposition that all points of view are equally valid, then your point of view isnot valid. Her argument commits suicide; it self-destructs.

In fact, Wattleton has her own absolute that she seeks to imposeon other people: "Fundamental respect for others is morality of thehighest order." This is a personal moral position that she strives to mandatepolitically. She writes, "I have devoted my career to ensuring a world inwhich my daughter, Felicia, can inherit that legacy." What legacy? Herpoint of view. How does she ensure this? By getting laws passed. Faye Wattletonhas devoted her career to ensuring a world in which her point of view isenforced by law.

I don't object to anyone seeking to use the political process toenforce his particular point of view in this way. In our system, everybody getsa voice, and everybody gets a vote. We each get to make our case in the publicsquare, and may the best idea win. Because we each can vote, no individual can,by himself, inflict his point of view on the majority (unless, of course, he'sa judge).

What is disturbing in Wattleton's article is her implication thatshe is neutral, unbiased, and tolerant when she is not. She is entitled toexpress her point of view, but in doing so, she is not being neutral. The onlytrue expression of neutrality is silence. Speak up, give your opinion, contendfor your view, and you forfeit your claim to neutrality.

Consider another case in point. Congress passed a law in 1994 thatmade it a federal offense to block the entrance to an abortion facility. PamelaMaraldo, then president of Planned Parenthood, commented to the press,"This law goes to show that no one can force their viewpoint on someoneelse." The self-contradiction of her statement is obvious: All laws forcesomeone's viewpoint on everyone else.

So moral neutrality is not possible, but even if it were, there'dbe no benefit in it, only danger. In our culture, we don't stop at"sharing wisdom, giving reasons for believing as [we] do—and then trustingothers to think and judge for themselves," as Wattleton says, nor shouldwe. This leads to anarchy. Let Wattleton suspect that her accountant or lawyeris cheating her or mismanaging her affairs and see if she still thinks itproper to let him "think and judge for himself" what professionalconduct is.

Faye Wattleton turns out to be pushing an ethic that, although itseems fair and tolerant, is really the most bankrupt of all moral systems. It'scalled moral relativism. In the end, it is not even tolerant, as she makesclear when she condemns those who disagree with her. It sounds persuasive, butit's misleading and fallacious.

Moral Values and PublicPolicy

Almost everyone would agree that it's important to have informedand civil public discourse about public policy, especially concerningcontroversial subjects such as homosexuals' rights. But the discussion goes offthe rails from the get-go when one side claims neutrality for itself whileaccusing the other of moral judgment. Both sides aremaking moral judgments; it's intrinsic to the issue. The question we should bediscussing is this: Which moraljudgment makes the best public policy? It is not possible to be morallyneutral, so it would be much more productive if everyone began by owning up tohis moral values and argued from there.

Stand to Reason: str.org.