Commentary Magazine


The Moral Complexity of Social Issues

This year’s presidential campaign is a reminder that most members of the press, and almost everyone on the left, view social conservatives through the prism of two issues–abortion and gay marriage. (When possible, the burning national issue of whether states should be allowed to ban contraception is thrown in as well, as we saw during this weekend’s debates.) The narrative that’s been affixed is a simple one: those who oppose the right to an abortion and gay marriage are almost by definition unenlightened and/or bigoted. It doesn’t matter that most people who are traditionalists are none of these things. Nor does it matter that there are nuances and shades of gray in most people’s views on both issues (mine included). The subtleties get thrown aside in an effort to put people in neat little boxes. There are the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.

This has important implications for our national life, including this one: more than ever before the champions of cultural conservatism need to be people who embody grace, who can articulate the moral good in a way that is non-censorious, and who can speak to these issues with honesty, fairness, and sympathy. They have to possess the ability to place social concerns in a larger frame. And importantly, they – indeed, all of us – need to resist the temptation to speak as if these issues are morally and socially uncomplicated. There is a good deal more ambiguity on these matters than either party platform allows for.

For example, for those of us who are pro-life, what ought to be the appropriate consequences for individuals who abort their pre-born children? Should there be any legal or moral distinction on the continuum of development (e.g., six hours v. six months after conception)? For those who favor abortion rights, why exactly should abortions be rare? Is there something problematic occurring? If so, what might that be? And on what basis do you believe a child in the eighth month deserves to be protected in law but not in, say, the second month?

For those who oppose gay marriage, what happens if, as gay marriage spreads in America, we learn that the institution of marriage incurs much less damage than was once commonly believed (or none at all)? What grounds, if any, would there be to continue opposing gay marriage? Is the concern about marriage — or is it about homosexuality? And for those who believe in gay marriage: what exactly are the moral and legal grounds on which you believe two men should marry but not three? Should we view marriage as an arbitrary contract that is de-linked from cultural, biological, and religious underpinnings?

It’s not as if these questions don’t have answers. But the answers are neither easy nor obvious. The problem with our public discourse is that it’s often suffused with certitude and judgment rather than grace and some measure of humility. This doesn’t mean one cannot, having wrestled with these issues, settle on a principled position. But that resting place is one that we all know, in our better moments, we ought to come to only after an honest and searching examination. There’s a special place of honor for public figures who engage rather than avoid the strongest arguments against their views.


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