This coming week, the Supreme Court will, just as Scalia predicted, consider whether the government has any constitutional basis for barring same-sex couples from marriage. And while sometimes buried under layers of legal jargon or hidden by strategic decisions to focus elsewhere, the role of morality in this pitched national debate is paramount. At bottom, the question for the court is whether the moral disapproval of homosexuality held by a majority is sufficient reason to limit the freedom of gay men and lesbians to marry.
Of course, not everyone frames it this way. Though Americans are a famously moralizing people, we frequently avoid a conscious embrace of the moral dimensions of our most pressing debates, preferring the language of freedom, rights and harms. This has been especially true for gay advocates and the political left, for whom individual autonomy has meant a reluctance to judge personal behavior. But it’s increasingly true also of the right, which, finding a nation unpersuaded by direct appeals to moral and religious conviction, has turned to pragmatic and utilitarian arguments instead — claiming, for instance, that unit cohesion and family stability are imperiled by permitting gays in uniform or at the altar. For their part, the courts, for sound constitutional reasons, have sought to avoid basing decisions explicitly on moral positions.
Sidestepping morality is difficult. And when it comes to same-sex relationships, John Corvino argues in “What’s Wrong With Homosexuality?,” that approach is “badly mistaken,” as it cedes territory to anti-gay opponents and wastes the opportunity to make a case for the moral goodness of same-sex love. “We shouldn’t confuse the rejection of bad moralizing with the rejection of moralizing altogether,” Corvino writes.
He’s right. It’s an argument that the gay rights movement has recently embraced, especially as marriage has become its preeminent goal. Arguing that same-sex love deserves equal recognition, as President Obama said eloquently in his second inaugural address, is a moral project. It amounts to saying “gay is good,” not something to be tolerated despite being morally reprehensible.
Indeed, one of the most notable but little noted recent culture-war developments has been the stark role reversal by advocates and opponents of gay equality on the relevance of morality to their arguments. For decades, anti-gay activists freely expressed moral opprobrium — even disgust — at the thought of homosexuality, successfully opposing gays’ right to teach, serve in uniform, have sex, become Boy Scouts, be ordained or marry, all based on condemning some variation of their “unmentionable vice.” Without the tools to assert their moral worth in response, gay advocates replied with the language of tolerance, privacy and liberty, almost as if they were demanding the right to be morally bad.