Moral Calculus.
November 7, 2004 9:24 AM   Subscribe

EthicsFilter: Do you support making what you feel is an unjust law or policy more equitable? [MI]

For example, if you (please leave aside your personal beliefs here, we're being hypothetical) oppose government involvement in marriage, but believe in equal treatment for gay people, should you support extending legal marriage to gays? Does the severity of the issue matter, i.e., if there were a law allowing straight couples to beat their children severely in certain cases, would you support extending that right to gays? Or, on the other side of the issue, if you believe that schools shouldn't enforce dress codes, and also that religious groups shouldn't receive special rights, do you support or oppose exemptions to existing dress codes for religious reasons (yarmulke, burqa, etc.)?

If this is a judgement you make on a case-by-case basis, what factors influence your decision? How do you decide when the harm of furthering a bad policy outweighs the harm of inequality?
posted by IshmaelGraves to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total)
I thought about this a lot when the "gays in the military" thing was going around early in the Clinton administration. If my personal belief is that no one should be in the military, why not keep any people you can out of it? However, if there is going to be anyone in the military, I think everyone should have an equal shot at it and I think discriminating against gay people is reprehensible, even more so than whatever may I think about the military.

In Vermont when civil unions were even more of a hot button, there were debates in Barre for state representative seats. People were asked what they thought about civil unions and all the Democrats got up and said "I'm all for it" and all the Republicans got up and said "No no no no no." Then the one Libertarian guy -- who came dressed as Thomas Jefferson -- got up and said simply "I believe in no special treatment for any marriages including the one between me and my wife" which got a lot of people thinking. However, at the end of the day, he still gets to be married and my gay friends would still have to testify against their partners in federal court. There's a huge lingering "How do you get from point A to point B?" question which has yet to be answered to my satisfaction in the civil/gay marriage argument and why I still side with gay marriage above small government.

In my reasoning, what I see as civil rights issues trump my ideas about ideally smaller government. I feel pretty strongly about perceived or real current inequalities which tends to outweigh my more philosophical ideas on how to run a government in an ideal sense. Things are always going to be a little [or a lot] broken, I'd like it if they weren't broken at any one group of people's expense. Granted it's not that easy, but it's rarely so extreme as in your child-beating scenario [though I feel like the military example comes close].
posted by jessamyn at 9:51 AM on November 7, 2004

Yes, consistency in applying principles is one of the best ways to make laws that are fair, as long as they don't trample on your individual rights.

Unfortunately, seldom do people think things through so thoroughly. For instance, the reaction some people have to gay marriage is an "icky" one that is more emotional than rational.

In fact, it is the extremes that test the strength of a principle. It is the guy who writes inflammatory articles who tests whether "free speech" is real or an illusion.

Unfortunately, society has always had a problem adjusting and accepting people and lifestyles that are "different" or "unconventional", even if they don't intrude into their own lives. The sign of a society's progress is the acceptance (and when I say "acceptance", I don't mean you have to like it; merely accept that it is different) of such differences as part of life.

(True story: Here in India, we have laws leftover from British rule that criminalise homosexual behaviour. When an NGO challenged the law in court, the Indian government actually argued that the law couldn't be struck down because Indian society disapproved of such behaviour.)
posted by madman at 10:54 AM on November 7, 2004

I absolutely agree. The long term goal to make major change does not have to conflict with the short term goal to fix it while we have it.

That said.... there are cases where it may be useful to the long term goal for things to stay as bad as they can.

to work with your first gay marriage hypothetical, keeping gays out of marriage does not really help get rid of govt. marriage overall, so might as well make it as fair as you can in the interim.

However, let's say you were anti-death penalty. The racial biases in it make it hard to defend, and if those were somehow fixed, a valuable argument against the death penalty would be lost. Does it make strategic sense to keep the flaws?

Tough call, but something to think about.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 11:34 AM on November 7, 2004

I oppose government involvement in marriage, so my response is to strongly support civil unions and to be mildly opposed to gay marriage. This way, if the shallow and vapid legal institution of marriage ever were to lose favor, the precedent for more civil union-like arrangements for all types of couples would be there. So yeah, in a sense I support the prejudice toward gay couples, but since legal marriage is a baroque and laughable institution anyway, I say let it fester with its current, increasingly irrelevent standards.

I realize that's just one example. The death penalty example for instance is rather harder.
posted by abcde at 1:26 PM on November 7, 2004

Yeah, I was thinking about this issue from a death penalty standpoint as well. I see a lot of anti-death penalty groups doing things like calling for televised executions, describing gruesome execution methods and botched executions, and the like.

I've often wondered if that tactic is actually creating opposition to the death penalty (which I assume is their goal) than rather just pointing out flaws in how it's currently applied and powering a search to do it "better."
posted by Vidiot at 1:56 PM on November 7, 2004

Do you support making what you feel is an unjust law or policy more equitable?

Yes, mainly because the more people that are affected by the unjust law, the more outrage that will come from it, thus the sooner it will be overturned.

For example, if the police started racial profiling of Arab-looking people driving panel vans in New York, I'd support expanding it to, say, black people. There is a threshold of tolerance the majority will allow for unjust laws; in the case of civil unions, there either aren't enough gay people to raise a public outcry, or there are enough people, but they're not organized enough or wish to keep their sexuality a private matter.

This kind of behavior can wreak havoc on your moral character, however. But, nobody said being a pragmatist was easy.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:47 PM on November 7, 2004

if you (please leave aside your personal beliefs here, we're being hypothetical) oppose government involvement in marriage

...even putting aside my personal beliefs...What does it mean to 'oppose government involvement in marriage'? If the goverment really wasn't involved in marriage *at all* (and actually, I don't think it should be), then outside of religious or sentimental reasons, there's no reason to get married to begin with (which again, to me, is ok).

Like (I think) the guy in jessamyn's story, I don't think that, legally speaking, married people should enjoy any benefits that single people don't enjoy, including tax breaks, the ability to share a health plan with your cohabitator, etc. Therefore, it is hard for me to get excited about the issue of marriage for gays. I think they should be treated the same as everyone else, and the way I think everyone else should be treated is that their marriage should have as much legal signicance as throwing a birthday party. Looking at marriage as a 'right' in this sense is weird to me. If this was the only issue that mattered in an election, I'm honestly not sure which way I would go with it. Signing more people up for a 'right' that I don't believe to be a 'right' would be difficult for me to endorse.
posted by bingo at 4:09 PM on November 7, 2004

bingo: There are certain rights granted to married people that regular single people don't have, and can't have just because you're only talking about one person. One is inheritance rights. Child custody rights are another. You can't force a spouse to testify against another, even if they have knowledge of a committed crime. Etc.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:02 PM on November 7, 2004

I haven't seen this posted yet. Our government is based on compromises. I don't like the fact you drive 100MPH, I feel it's dangerous and I don't feel capable of driving at those high speeds. Okay you say, but 55 MPH that is suggest is too slow. The speed limit then is 70MPH.

That example is weak in that there are no big ethical questions at hand. Yes, I realize the limitations of it also not representing how exactly speed limits are set.

The point is that there are virtually no absolutes in human society. Everything else we must compromise on or we simply exist to function.
posted by geoff. at 9:02 PM on November 7, 2004

Civil_Disobedient: The fact that you're talking about more than one person in any of those scenarios doesn't mean that the same relationships couldn't exist between non-married people. In fact, inheritance and custody already can be applicable to non-married couples, with (and sometimes without) a little paperwork. The testifying thing is not entirely true, but to the extent that it is true, I think it's stupid.

I'm talking about the benefits that you can't possibly get without being married, like tax breaks and shared health insurance coverage. If no such benefits existed, then what difference does it make whether or not the government endorses your marriage? It would be (as I think it should be) a non-legal arrangement.
posted by bingo at 10:54 PM on November 7, 2004

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