Tuesday, May 06, 2003

General Versus Specific Morality-I might be slicing words a bit thinly here, but this Andrew Sullivan post on l'affair Bennett is interesting. Spinning off this Ramesh Ponnuru Corner post
If you're a "social conservative" on one issue, do you have to be one on all the others? (In which case, Andrew Sullivan, who opposes embryonic stem-cell research, is socially conservative and National Review, which opposes the drug war, isn't.)
Sully replies with this head-scratcher
...Ramesh makes a good point: there's something slippery about this idea of a general moralizer. It blurs all sorts of distinctions. Is it possible, for example, to be a social conservative in one respect and not another? Could you coherently, say, smoke pot and yet also think divorce is not something that should be too easy to get? Or believe that honesty is critical in public life and yet be a big-time gambler? I'd say yes.
If you have a set of rules that you think have been handed down from God, you're stuck following those rules. People who take their scriptures at face value will largely be "general moralizers," where any difference in moral stance would stem from the difference in their revelation when compared to standard Biblical views. For instance, a devout Rastafarian might be a moral conservative but like his ganja, fitting the first of the dichotomies that Sullivan presents. As for the second, the Bible is largely silent on gambling. The vision of the Roman soldiers casting lots for Jesus' clothes at Golgota might be the biggest indictment, but other verses seem to condemn casting lots as a form of gambling as opposed to "flipping a coin" type of decision making. That makes Bennett's sin one of squandering resources rather than gambling per se. As to the bigger question Sullivan asks, the a-la-carte moralism will mostly stem from an a-la-carte morality. For American conservatives, that will largely be those who take the Bible on an a-la-carte basis, ignoring the parts that are inconvenient. To avoid being a hypocrite in one's own eyes, one needs to discard part of the Bible that doesn't mesh with one's world-view. Others, without a particularly strong faith, see morality as a generally good idea. People with a negligible attachment to a religion can still see that monogamy is better than promiscuity, that honesty is better than lying and heterosexual behavior is generally healthier than homosexuality. A good hunk of morality can be understood outside of the Bible; if I recall correctly, Catholic doctrine talks about such a Natural Law that people intuitively understand even without any religious teaching. Such more-secular social conservatives might get a few of the issues "wrong" but have a basic understanding of morality. However, those of us who have a moral code laid down to us have no good choice but to stick up for what God has shown us. To not do so will get God ticked off at us and hurt our witness by not abiding by what God has laid out. People who don't have a fixed moral code can edit their morals as needed, but I, and others, don't have that option.

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