‘Gay marriage’ and the breakdown of moral argument

In his classic text After Virtue, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre lamented, not so much the immorality that runs rampant in our contemporary society, but something more fundamental and in the long run more dangerous; namely, that we are no longer even capable of having a real argument about moral matters. The assumptions that once undergirded any coherent conversation about ethics, he said, are no longer taken for granted or universally shared. The result is that, in regard to questions of what is right and wrong, we simply talk past one another, or more often, scream at each other.

I thought of MacIntyre’s observation when I read a recent article on the Supreme Court’s consideration of the much-vexed issue of gay marriage. It was reported that, in the wake of the oral arguments, Justice Elena Kagan remarked, “Whenever someone expresses moral disapproval in a legal context, the red flag of discrimination goes up for me.” Notice that the Justice did not say that discrimination is the result of a bad moral argument, but simply that any appeal to morality is, ipso facto, tantamount to discrimination. Or to state it in MacIntyre’s terms, since even attempting to make a moral argument is an exercise in futility, doing so can only be construed as an act of aggression. I will leave to the side the radical inconsistency involved in saying that one has an ethical objection (discrimination!) to the making of an ethical objection, but I would indeed like to draw attention to a very dangerous implication of this incoherent position. If argument is indeed a non-starter, the only recourse we have in the adjudication of our disputes is violence, either direct or indirect.

This is precisely why a number of Christian leaders and theorists, especially in the West, have been expressing a deep concern about this manner of thinking. Any preacher or writer who ventures to make a moral argument against gay marriage is automatically condemned as a purveyor of “hate speech” or excoriated as a bigot, and in extreme cases, he can be subject to legal sanction. This visceral, violent reaction is a consequence of the breakdown of the rational framework for moral discourse that MacIntyre so lamented.