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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why Rick Santorum is wrong

The title of this post might sound a little obvious to most who might read it-- Rick Santorum, wrong? Perish the thought! But I think it's important to take a look at why he was wrong, specifically, when he said this in an interview with Piers Morgan:
I think just because we disagree on public policy, which is what the debate has been about — which is marriage — doesn’t mean that it’s bigotry. Just because you follow a moral code that teaches that something’s wrong doesn’t mean that — are you suggesting that the Bible and that the Catholic Church is bigoted? If that’s what you believe, fine. [...] Well, I shouldn’t say — not fine. I don’t think it’s fine at all. I think that is contrary to both what we’ve seen in 2,000 years of human history and Western civilization, and trying to redefine something that has been — that is — seen as wrong…I think is in itself an act of bigotry.
Okay, let's unpack. Santorum is saying that the Bible and Catholic Church cannot be bigoted because of "2,000 years of human history and Western civilization," which could mean one of two things:
  1. Over the past 2,000 years, homosexuals have justified the belief that homosexuality is immoral, and therefore that belief is not based in bigotry.
  2. The Bible and the Catholic Church have maintained that homosexuality is immoral for 2,000 years, and therefore can't be wrong. 
What is bigotry? A good definition would be: a determination to ascribe to a group of individuals a characteristic(s) which is/are not logically required by the characteristic(s) which they do actually have in common. This would include the belief that black people are untrustworthy, which is particularly noxious considering that skin color is a circumstance of birth, and we tend to be most offended by the insistence that a people must share some undesirable trait based on something they were born with and can do nothing (or almost nothing) about. But a trait doesn't have to be a circumstance of birth in order for someone to form bigoted beliefs about it. If I said that people who like to play Dungeons and Dragons are idiots, that would be a bigoted claim on my part because there is no evidence at all to show that there's a particular attraction between that game and people of low intellectual caliber, let alone a necessary connection. If there was a connection but it wasn't absolute, then I would still be guilty of making a false generalization. But the more I insist that individuals in a group must share a negative quality because of something else that they have in common, the more offensive I become because of how much more unfounded my insulting statements clearly are.  

If the first statement-- that time has justified the belief that homosexuality is immoral-- was Santorum's intended meaning, would it be a good defense? Maybe...if it were true. If, over a period of 2,000 years, we could observe that sexual intercourse between people of the same gender resulted in something catastrophic every time, it might be fair to say that it's immoral. Say, if sex between two women caused nearby buildings to explode. That would be pretty bad. We would have good reason to tell those lesbians to cut that out, and think poorly of them if they refused to.* But of course, there is no foundation for such a belief. Sexual intercourse between two people of the same gender does not inevitably result in anything unfortunate happening. And what's more, the Bible and the Catholic Church (I'm going to continue grouping them that way in spite of the distinctions a person might want to point out, because it's part of Santorum's claim) do not claim that homosexuality is immoral based on any such observation, over 2,000 years or two months. Rather they claim it by fiat on God's part, which strongly suggests that this is not what Santorum meant.

So let's assume that Santorum is in fact saying that the sheer length of time that the Bible and the Catholic Church have been claiming that homosexuality is immoral demonstrate that it is.  That the Bible has been claiming it for that duration isn't exactly impressive-- it's a book, albeit one with a large number of translations and interpretations which nonetheless haven't much altered the statements regarding the morality of sex between two men or two women. That the Church has maintained that homosexuality is immoral for that period of time, on the other hand, demonstrates....what, exactly? That the Church is tenacious in this belief. Does its tenacity demonstrate the truth of the belief? Not remotely. The claim that the sheer amount of time that you've held onto something demonstrates its worth or validity is an appeal to tradition, and it's a fallacy.


So we see that the allegation that the Bible and the Catholic Church are bigoted for calling gays immoral is not rendered unfounded by the reality of homosexual intercourse being immoral or the fact that they've been making this claim for a very long time. Santorum's last objection is to "trying to redefine something that has been seen as wrong." In other words, he objects to people saying that a previously held claim of something being immoral is mistaken. Really? So is there no such thing as moral progress-- society did not advance in any way by the willingness of people being willing to say loudly and clearly that slavery, for example, was wrong? After all, there was (and still is, in some parts of the world) a long-standing belief to the contrary. When miscegenation was legalized in the United States, there was definitely still a widespread and firmly held belief that that was wrong. Would Santorum argue that this "redefinition of something that has been seen as wrong" was therefore a bad thing?  I doubt it.

Finally, there is Santorum's allegation that believing that the Bible and Catholic Church's insistence that homosexuality is immoral constitutes bigotry is itself a form of bigotry. Well, Rick, show us your work please...because that doesn't hold by the definition of bigotry I'm using, or indeed any definition I know. For a start, neither the Bible nor the Catholic Church are a group of people. The Bible certainly isn't, and the Church is an institution with identifiable agreed-upon doctrines. It might be mistaken to say that the Church is bigoted, but that could not be a bigoted statement in itself simply by definition. And there is no association being made which could constitute correlating an unfounded trait with a unifying trait-- nobody is saying that the Bible and the Catholic Church say _______, therefore they must consider homosexuality immoral and are therefore bigoted. They say openly that homosexuality is immoral, and that is being evaluated as bigotry.  Rightly so, I have argued, whether homosexuality is considered a circumstance of birth or not.

* If they agreed, however, and became sexually inactive or were willing to have sex with men instead, they would not cease to be lesbians. I know this. I am not at all combating the notion that sexual orientation is a matter of identity, not behavior. I am simply for the purposes of this post treating it as a behavior in order to point out that negative associations on that basis still qualify as bigotry.  

2 comments:

  1. The Catholic Church also rejected secular democracy for over 1900 years, and it didn't reject slavery until the 1890s. Would that state of affairs mean that secular democracy was immoral until the church approved? Was slavery acceptable until a pope finally took a position against slavery?

    It seems to me that Catholic Church is usually way behind the on the curve of moral progress.

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  2. Honestly? I'm embarrassed by Rick.

    I'm from Pennsylvania and I just shake my head and hide any time he's in news.

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