Looking Beyond the Scorecard


The conventional wisdom formed quickly after yesterday's debate in Sanders Theatre, and as is often the case with conventional wisdom, it was shallow. Students who no doubt pride themselves on looking beyond image have failed to do so, declaring Andrew Sullivan the winner without adequately considering the arguments on display yesterday.

While the response has generally left something to be desired, there was nothing shallow about the debate itself, an examination of the moral, philosophical and legal issues surrounding homosexuality. The event, which took place in the Moral Reasoning class "Justice," between Professor Harvey Mansfield and Sullivan of The New Republic was unquestionably Harvard at its best. In an age of political correctness and shrill campus protests, it's heartening to see a quality debate on such an emotional issue.

The most obvious feature of the debate--and the one on which most observers seem to be basing their judgement--was Andrew Sullivan's obvious superiority in debate. During his undergraduate days, he was president of the Oxford Union, a world-class debating society, and he was comfortable with the fast-paced interactive nature of the event. Mansfield was far less at ease, insisting on fully establishing the philosophical groundwork of one point before moving to the next.

A more disturbing aspect of the debate was the conduct of Professor Michael Sandel, the moderator. From the beginning of the debate, Sandel made it clear with which side his sympathies lay. He frequently interrupted Mansfield in an attempt to force from him the type of concise answers Sullivan was providing. The quality of the debate would have been much improved had Sandel recognized that Mansfield's style was fundamentally different.

The large disparity in debating skill and Sandel's constant pestering combined to cloud Mansfield's arguments. The debate was far more complex than most in attendance seemed to appreciate.


Sullivan began by arguing on Mansfield's own terms: the field of natural law. Sullivan noted that natural law looks to nature for guidance on what is good. Arguing that for some people homosexuality was natural, Sullivan questioned how it could then be morally wrong. He addressed an obvious retort to this assertion by distinguishing between homosexuality and other natural, but certainly undesirable, conditions, such as epilepsy and alcoholism.

Mansfield began his argument by pointing to shame as the "central controller of human dignity." Shame, while sometimes excessive, is the sole restraint on sexuality, said Mansfield.

Mansfield's assertions gave rise to the question of whether shame is inherent in people or if it is socially manufactured. Sandel and Sullivan pressed Mansfield for an answer, but Mansfield steadfastly refused to oblige.

It also took a while for Mansfield to address his theory of natural law. When he finally did begin, he was interrupted by Sandel. Mansfield's argument--as far as he was able to articulate it--was that nature provides an ideal, not an individualized set of behavioral prescriptions; this is in sharp contrast to Sullivan's notion that because he is by nature homosexual, his conduct is acceptable under natural law. Non-procreative sex, masturbation, pre-marital sex and homosexuality are all distant from Mansfield's ideal and thus "imperfect." Homosexuality is even further from the ideal of natural law, argued Mansfield, because by its very nature it denies the prospect of procreation.

Mansfield's arguments are rational and are grounded in sound philosophical thought; anyone who doubted that before should now be clear on this point. I do not yet know whether I agree with his reasoning, but my impression is that few at the debate even gave them serious consideration.

This was a serious discussion, vastly superior to most discussions of the issue on campus. Judging the outcome merely on debating points does it a great disservice.

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