Here’s a quote of the new Pope’s that’s being passed around:
Let’s not be naïve, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; [homosexuality] is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.
Yes, yes, I know. The new Pope is Catholic. It is an outrage and everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.
But this quote mainly interested me because I have long been confused about this idea of “not just mere politics”.
Abortion is a classic political issue. I happen to be pro-choice, but I have many pro-life friends. Technically, by their philosophy, I support murdering millions of babies. I don’t think these babies are people in the morally relevant sense, but these friends certainly do. This seems like it should be a problem. Is it really okay to be a friend with someone who wants to murder millions of people?
Yet my friends show no sign of wanting to not be friends with me anymore, or liking me even a little bit less. And if we were having dinner and one of them were to say “You know, Scott, you support murdering millions of babies and that seems bad”, then every social norm in the world would consider them to have made the social faux pas.
If it turns out that the CEO of McDonalds is pro-choice, only an extremely tiny set of people would think this was a valid reason to boycott McDonalds, and the rest of us – including other pro-lifers! – would mock them. If someone were to refuse to hire an employee merely because she was pro-choice, it would be an outrage. If a pro-choicer were appointed as a principal, then outside a few very special areas there would be no picketing the school and screaming that a murderer is unfit to teach our children.
I’m not just picking on pro-lifers here. Pacifists could blame the people who supported the war on Iraq for about a hundred thousand deaths. If I really wanted to, I could blame the anti-nuclear lobby for the ten thousand or so people who die from coal pollution each year. This seems like ample reason to hate anyone.
So this world “politics” has a weird sort of magic. Merely by saying “political issue!”, we can make it socially unacceptable to hold people’s decisions to kill millions of babies against them. Not just in a legal way of “the government can’t censor these people”, but in a very personal way of “you can’t even dislike them”.
So when Pope Francis says that homosexuality is “not a simple political battle”, one interpretation of his statement is that this sort of “oh well, it’s a reasonable issue where decent people can disagree” ethos doesn’t apply there.
We non-Popes have our “not just political” issues as well. Compare killing millions of babies to killing millions of Jews.
If I came out in support of killing millions of Jews, probably some of my friends would find this sufficient reason to stop being friends with me. No one would consider this a faux pas or mock my friends as extremist. Heck, they might even get angry at my friends if they continued to hang out with me after that.
If the CEO of McDonalds came out in favor of the Holocaust, people would boycott McDonalds immediately, and everyone would support the boycotters. If an employee were discovered to be anti-Semitic, firing them would be considered an extremely proportional response. And if a Neo-Nazi became school principal, you better believe that school would be picketed.
Some non-Popes even agree with Francis on homosexuality. Back when California passed Proposition 8, I had to listen to friends discussing how to “get revenge” on Prop 8 proponents through shaming or harassment campaigns. When I pointed out that this is not really how you’re supposed to do politics, they told me homosexuality wasn’t about politics, it was about stigmatizing entire groups of people and denying their very right to exist.
So both Popes and non-Popes have what seem like lines in the sand, where our mysterious tolerance for political issues breaks down. As far as I can tell, things like the war in Iraq, abortion, global warming, and affirmative action are on the tolerable side; anti-Semitism, eugenics, and sometimes gay marriage are on the intolerable side.
This doesn’t seem to correspond to the importance of the issue – getting global warming right is clearly more important than getting gay marriage right, since, contra the protestations of televangelists, only one of those two is likely to lead to an apocalypse of fire that dooms us all. It doesn’t seem to the controversialness of the issue either – it was still perfectly acceptable to oppose the War in Afghanistan even in the early days when 80+% of the population was in favor, and gay marriage seems to be creeping towards the “no tolerance” side of the line even though the population is split almost perfectly 50-50. The line seems to have something to do with identity politics, but I can think of exceptions (for example, legalizing certain deviant sex acts).
More interesting than trying to justify the line’s current position is wondering where the line ought to be. This is harder than it sounds. Like, if I were trying to draw a line totally a priori, I would tolerate every political opinion except being against euthanasia for people who are terminally ill and suffering, which would be so far beyond the pale that you would immediately be kicked out of society. If you forced me to add other forbidden topics, I would probably start with being opposed to military intervention to end genocides abroad. Since no one else seems to agree with me on either of these, my guess is everyone would put the line in a different place and it would be super-confusing.
Maybe we could not have a line at all and just tolerate all political opinions? This sounds sort of attractive to me. As a teenager, I met a genuine neo-Nazi online. He seemed to be a pretty nice guy, and though he was aware I was Jewish, he kindly clarified that he thought killing all the Jews was a bad idea and it was really only necessary to get rid of the leaders of the Zionist-Israeli conspiracy. Anyway, we talked on and off for a few years, and if I’d known him in real life I probably would have been happy to invite him over for dinner.
This makes me think that my intuition of “hate neo-Nazis” is mostly based upon the assumption that neo-Nazis are the sort of people I would hate anyway: that this political opinion is correlated with non-political traits like being violent, being ignorant, being rude, and so on. If there were no intolerance line, I could continue to dislike the violent ignorant neo-Nazis for their violent ignorance, I could continue to object to Nazism in the same detached bloodless way I currently object to Communism or libertarianism, and if there were otherwise-decent neo-Nazis I could hang out with them and invite them to dinner. It seems like a reasonable plan, although I don’t know how many otherwise-decent neo-Nazis there are.
But here’s the problem with throwing out the tolerance line.
I consider myself pro-choice, not just in the sense of “I’m not willing to use the government to ban abortions”, but in the sense of believing that in some cases abortion is morally permissible and even a good idea. I also consider myself honest, non-hypocritical, and willing to stand up for what I believe in. I can’t think of any situation in which it would actually be a good idea for me to perform an abortion, because I have no training in that area and would probably screw it up. But assuming some weird confluence of conditions in which it was practically necessary for me to perform an abortion, it would be extremely hypocritical of me to refuse for moral reasons: I would perform the abortion. Absent some weird and uninteresting quirk like being hopelessly grossed out by surgeries, I think any non-hypocritical pro-choice person would have to say the same.
But that means that, at least for non-hypocrites, there’s very little distinction between supporting something and doing something, save the situation. If I’m willing to invite someone pro-choice over for dinner, I should also be willing to invite an abortion doctor over for dinner, or else I am simply rewarding the former for sheer moral luck.
(Yes, there are some caveats. For example, you might think a person is too decent to perform an abortion but doesn’t know it yet; that once the actual condition came up and they had the woman in front of them and maybe saw an ultrasound of the baby, they would chicken out. In that case, knowing that someone was an abortion doctor would give extra information beyond them being pro-choice. This is one way I tolerate people who are against euthanasia. Or you might be trying to socially boycott abortion doctors in order to make abortions impossible by discouraging people from taking up abortion docting as a career. Or you might be worried about losing face with your pro-life friends. All of these are boring and tangential to the issue at hand.)
(And it’s possible that until you read the paragraph above, I had plausible deniability for just being someone who hates abortion but thinks it’s wrong for the government to meddle in it, which is a plausible deniability that the abortion doctor does not have. But there are other cases where that doesn’t apply: for example, with the people who oppose euthanasia for the terminally ill and suffering.)
Likewise, anyone willing to invite a neo-Nazi who supports committing genocide to dinner should also be willing to invite an actual concentration camp guard over. This isn’t quite total moral relativism – you can still think being a concentration camp guard is wrong – but it seems pretty close. Once you decide not to hold someone being a concentration camp guard against them, even a tiny little bit, can you get upset with anyone at all?
Actually yes. One thing that aborting babies and running concentration camps have in common is that they’re (at least in their respective societies) legal. Although there is not necessarily a huge moral difference between pushing for state-sanctioned genocide and engaging in genocide yourself once it has been state-sanctioned, there does seem to be some manner of moral difference between pushing for genocide and going off and killing some Jews now even though it is illegal. So one possible stable solution is “Tolerate people’s political opinions, tolerate their legal political actions, but feel no obligation to tolerate illegal political actions if you disagree with them.”
(This should be kept separate from the related but obviously horrible statement “Anything that is legal is morally correct”. This sort of “tolerance” in the sense of “do not cause social chaos by actively personally hating the people involved” is different from the sort of tolerance where you actually tolerate having concentration camps in your society.)
Still, it seems pretty dreadful. Not being antisocial towards anyone for their political opinions, or even their evil politically-motivated actions? But it sort of makes sense in the context of ostracism being viewed as a consequentialist tool for pressuring people into changing their beliefs and actions. After all, violence is also a tool for pressuring people to change their beliefs and actions, and we only deploy that tool when people are breaking laws as well. Any other use of it risks getting into wars of all against all such that using laws as a guide instead is an obviously superior solution.
And it gives the right answers to some hard questions. Like, I think most of us now believe that harassing the soldiers coming home from Vietnam was a mistake, even though they’re in the same category as the abortion doctors – people who actually committed potential atrocities for political reasons. I even think most people are now willing to forgive most of the ordinary Germans who were in the Nazi Party and helped in the Final Solution as no doubt little different from the populations of other countries that existed at the time, or from Germans in the generation before or after.
But this is one area where my intuitions diverge from my thought processes. I’m still not too sure which to trust.