Old War, New Weapons

In cultural debates, both sides use moral rhetoric

“I’m Barbara Bush, and I’m a New Yorker for marriage equality,” declares George W. Bush’s daughter on last week’s Human Rights Campaign video. Unsurprisingly, critics are up in arms. Some, like a writer on “Dispatches from the Culture Wars,” insinuate that Daddy Bush’s support for the Federal Marriage Amendment was mere political pandering “to bigots.” Others, like a writer on the “Republican Redefined” blog, solemnly suggest that this video is the end of the beginning of the road toward legalization of gay marriage. These predictions are all well and good—God forbid journalists fail to exaggerate the impact of the younger, more progressive Bush’s opinion—but far more fascinating are the moralistic claims about the nature of marriage that this video inspires.

Moral rhetoric is the culture war’s current weapon of choice, but the culture war’s real meat lies in the orthodoxies that compel the moral intensity at the front lines. We cannot adequately understand how the culture wars evoke such moralistic passion until we recognize the authority of these orthodoxies. Effectively, two camps wage the culture war: the secular orthodoxy, composed of those who identify with the medley of feminism, pluralism, liberationism, and multiculturalism, and the traditional orthodoxy, wed to Judeo-Christian values. As the incessant unrest over Roe v. Wade illustrates, the intrinsic disparities between these orthodoxies render them philosophically incompatible.

Both orthodoxies utilize moral rhetoric and indeed must utilize moral rhetoric in order to gain public approval on the three major battlefields: religion in the public sphere, issues of human life, and sexuality. On the sexual battlefield, the secular approach to sexual morality is as fiercely moralistic as the traditional approach to sexual morality. A Harvard “contraceptive justice” event this fall advertised Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards as “a leader in the reproductive justice movement” and perfectly illustrates the self-righteous rhetoric of justice wielded by secularists. This social justice rhetoric is particularly persuasive to our generation, which is programmed to stop, drop, and roll whenever we hear the words “equality” and “fairness.”

But the secularists’ use of moral rhetoric should not be taken for granted. Secular morality owes its origin to a conscientious shift in language resulting from centuries of philosophical debate. This is the shift away from moral relativism and toward the rationalist, objectivist approach of traditionalists.

Traditionalists maintain that reason must reign over emotion and passion. Intellect must master appetite for the common and personal good, and desires must never seek their own fulfillment. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle also came to view reason as the master of passion: Plato spoke of the rightly ordered soul in which virtues lead to happiness, and Aristotle saw moderation as the divine virtue. The traditional view of morality presupposes intrinsic goods that humans must affirm to enable human flourishing. The belief that all human life, regardless of age or “quality,” has intrinsic value serves as a good example of this view of morality.

In contrast, classic secularist thought revolved around the idea that reason is the instrument of emotion. As one of the first secular philosophers, David Hume, wrote in “A Treatise on Human Nature”: “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and may never pretend to any office other than to serve and obey them.” Reason itself is thus utilitarian, existing to manipulate, rather than to discover the rational.

In “A Clash of Orthodoxies,” Princeton Professor Robert P. George gives credit to 20th century liberal philosopher Joel Feinberg for pointing out the dangers of relativism, which denies the validity of moral judgments. Feinberg once reminded his own secularist camp that those waving its flag “must beware of [using] relativism—or, at least, of a sweeping relativism—lest they be hoist on their own petard." Both George and Feinberg wondered where we acquire fundamental rights if reason is instrumental. What is the foundation for freedom of religion? Speech? Equality? This became immensely problematic for Hume-influenced secularists as they defended their beliefs. In a cultural theater judged by public opinion, relativism is futile, and moralism is persuasive.

Many modern secularists found that relativism did not serve their own purposes. For instance, the right to abortion is a moral claim and can exist only if we deny holistic relativism. In one of the greatest recent philosophical shifts, the secular orthodoxy awoke from its moral neutrality; secularists are now as moralistic as the traditionalists.

The secular orthodoxy has taken a page out of the traditional book (no Biblical allusion intended). While the competing orthodoxies have irreconcilable philosophies on life, community, and happiness, shared rhetoric is a rare point of accord. But does our mutual moralism compel us toward common understanding or simply drive us further apart under the fire of name-calling and assumptions that “the other side” is morally reprehensible? The American cultural landscape currently suggests the latter. After all, as British politician Tony N.W. Benn once observed, we would die for our faith, but we would kill for our doctrines.

Rachel L. Wagley ’11 is a sociology concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

Tags