Intolerant Tolerance

The Myth of Moral Neutrality

General Peter Pace was vehemently denounced and condemned in 2007 for expressing a personal moral judgment that homosexual acts are immoral. The critics excoriated Pace for making a value judgment, while implying that their denunciations of him were themselves morally neutral. In reality, Pace's critics expressed a moral judgment, too. They declared his comments wrong, not just factually but morally, and their moral outrage was palpable.

Let me make this clear up front: All people, regardless of their sexual orientation or other differences, should be treated fairly. We all have equal intrinsic value and dignity. But the goal of gay-rights advocates isn't so much to gain rights that they are being denied as to gain societal approval. Thus, their loud denunciations when someone like Pace makes a moral judgment against them.

All the while, these advocates claim that their own position is morally neutral. It isn't, and it really can't be. But their objection to judgments like Pace's reflects the assumption, held by many, that only their opponents are trying to "impose their morality" on society. In fact, it is in the nature of their own advocacy to do so.

Their view, however, reflects one of the most entrenched assumptions of moral relativism in our society today: that there is such a thing as morally neutral ground, a place where no judgments are made and where no one seeks to push his personal views on another; where, instead, everyone takes a neutral posture towards the moral convictions of others. This is the essence of tolerance, or so the argument goes.

Moral neutrality, though, is a myth, as the following illustration shows.

Tolerance and Moral Neutrality

One of the alleged virtues of relativism is its emphasis on tolerance. An articulate example of this point of view was written by Faye Wattleton, the former president of Planned Parenthood, in a piece called "Self-Definition: Morality":

Like most parents, I think that a sense of moral responsibility is one of the greatest gifts I can give my child. But teaching morality doesn't mean imposing my moral values on others. It means sharing wisdom, giving reasons for believing as I do—and then trusting others to think and judge for themselves.

My parents' morals were deeply rooted in religious conviction but tempered by tolerance—the essence of which is respect for other people's views. They taught me that reasonable people may differ on moral issues, and that fundamental respect for others is morality of the highest order.

I have devoted my career to ensuring a world in which my daughter, Felicia, can inherit that legacy. I hope the tolerance and respect I show her as a parent is reinforced by the work she sees me doing every day: fighting for the right of all individuals to make their own moral decisions about childbearing.

Seventy-five years ago, Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood to liberate individuals from the "mighty engines of repression." As she wrote, "The men and women of America are demanding that . . . they be allowed to mold their lives, not at the arbitrary command of church or state but as their conscience and judgment may dictate."

I'm proud to continue that struggle, to defend the rights of all people to their own beliefs. When others try to inflict their views on me, my daughter or anyone else, that's not morality: It's tyranny. It's unfair, and it's un-American.

That is impressively and persuasively written, one of the finest expressions of this view available in the space of five short paragraphs. It sounds so sensible, so reasonable, and so tolerant, but there's a fundamental flaw.

Wattleton's Fundamental Flaw

Faye Wattleton's assessment is based on the notion of neutral ground, a place where there is no moral judgment. Wattleton is not neutral, however, as her own comments demonstrate.

In her article, Wattleton in effect argues that each of us should respect the other's point of view. She then implies, however, that any point of view other than this one is immoral, un-American, and tyrannous. If you disagree with Wattleton's position that all points of view are equally valid, then your point of view is not valid. Her argument commits suicide; it self-destructs.

In fact, Wattleton has her own absolute that she seeks to impose on other people: "Fundamental respect for others is morality of the highest order." This is a personal moral position that she strives to mandate politically. She writes, "I have devoted my career to ensuring a world in which my daughter, Felicia, can inherit that legacy." What legacy? Her point of view. How does she ensure this? By getting laws passed. Faye Wattleton has devoted her career to ensuring a world in which her point of view is enforced by law.

I don't object to anyone seeking to use the political process to enforce his particular point of view in this way. In our system, everybody gets a voice, and everybody gets a vote. We each get to make our case in the public square, and may the best idea win. Because we each can vote, no individual can, by himself, inflict his point of view on the majority (unless, of course, he's a judge).

What is disturbing in Wattleton's article is her implication that she is neutral, unbiased, and tolerant when she is not. She is entitled to express her point of view, but in doing so, she is not being neutral. The only true expression of neutrality is silence. Speak up, give your opinion, contend for your view, and you forfeit your claim to neutrality.

Consider another case in point. Congress passed a law in 1994 that made it a federal offense to block the entrance to an abortion facility. Pamela Maraldo, then president of Planned Parenthood, commented to the press, "This law goes to show that no one can force their viewpoint on someone else." The self-contradiction of her statement is obvious: All laws force someone's viewpoint on everyone else.

So moral neutrality is not possible, but even if it were, there'd be no benefit in it, only danger. In our culture, we don't stop at "sharing wisdom, giving reasons for believing as [we] do—and then trusting others to think and judge for themselves," as Wattleton says, nor should we. This leads to anarchy. Let Wattleton suspect that her accountant or lawyer is cheating her or mismanaging her affairs and see if she still thinks it proper to let him "think and judge for himself" what professional conduct is.

Faye Wattleton turns out to be pushing an ethic that, although it seems fair and tolerant, is really the most bankrupt of all moral systems. It's called moral relativism. In the end, it is not even tolerant, as she makes clear when she condemns those who disagree with her. It sounds persuasive, but it's misleading and fallacious.

Moral Values and Public Policy

Almost everyone would agree that it's important to have informed and civil public discourse about public policy, especially concerning controversial subjects such as homosexuals' rights. But the discussion goes off the rails from the get-go when one side claims neutrality for itself while accusing the other of moral judgment. Both sides are making moral judgments; it's intrinsic to the issue. The question we should be discussing is this: Which moral judgment makes the best public policy? It is not possible to be morally neutral, so it would be much more productive if everyone began by owning up to his moral values and argued from there. •

Brought to you by Stand to Reason.

Values Clarification

In 1978, social scientists Sidney Simon, Leland Howe, and Howard Kirschenbaum published Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students. The book's thesis, drawn in part from the progressive educational theories of John Dewey, is that teachers should stop inculcating students with traditional values because such values are both subjective and potentially oppressive. Instead, a teacher must allow his students to become aware of "their own feelings, their own ideas, their own beliefs, so that the choices and decisions they make are conscious and deliberate, based on their own value systems."

According to Simon et al., this hands-off approach to values education is morally neutral; in other words, it is the only way to ensure that the teacher's morals are not imposed on the students. Buying into the hype, American public schools adopted the methodology en masse, and it is still used in many schools today. But should it be? The assumption that values are relative is not the student's own, after all; rather, it is an a priori perspective on morality that the teacher forces on the student. Thus, in education, as in everything else, there is no morally neutral ground on which to stand. We are always inflicting our views on others, even when the substance of those views is that all other views are equally valid. •

From Salvo 6 (Autumn 2008)

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founded Stand to Reason in 1993 and currently serves as its president. He has spoken on more than 80 campuses and has hosted his own call-in radio show for over 30 years, advocating for “Christianity worth thinking about.” Koukl is the author of seven books, including The Story of Reality—How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important That Happens in Between; Tactics—A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, and Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. He is an adjunct professor in Christian apologetics at Biola University.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #6, Fall 2008 Copyright © 2023 Salvo |


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