2017 ended with a bang—a barrage of sexual harassment charges against Harvey Weinstein and so many others. I call these men “Weinstein et al.” In my last post, I explained that their accusers (rightly) assume Weinstein et al. have violated an objective moral value, and therefore what they did was Wrong. This week I’ll explain why we must be consistent in our ethic, applying this same reasoning to similar moral issues. Otherwise our rebuke of Weinstein et al. is hollow, and our inconsistency is the "Achilles heel" of our quest for human flourishing and the common good.
Consistency Promotes the Common Good
We have no problem with the moral absolute that Weinstein et al. are not able to do whatever they want with their bodies, at the expense of others. We have recognized that, in the words of Kant (an absolutist), people are “ends, not means” and in the words of Jesus (another absolutist), “treat others as we would like others to treat us.” In other words, always seek the welfare of others. We realize only this promotes human flourishing and the common good.
On this ground we can with one voice and without contradiction praise that which is morally praiseworthy (e.g., respecting women--seeking their welfare) and condemn that which is morally reprehensible (e.g., treating women like toys--disregarding their welfare). When someone rebels with the “Sez who?” objection, and begins treating women like toys because he wants to, we can together refer him back to this objective moral value which he has failed to understand or live up to.
But we are inconsistent, picking and choosing which issues are grounded in moral absolutes. This is our culture's Achilles heel. Unless we are consistent, Weinstein et al. can justify their actions in light of our inconsistency. More and more women (and men) will be harmed. And if Weinstein et al. don't point out our inconsistencies, I predict others soon will in order to justify their desires and back us into a moral corner.
For instance, Weinstein could argue that he has the right to do whatever he wishes with his body because it is his, since this same argument gives a woman the right to get an abortion. We have said it is a personal, private matter what she chooses to do with her body to reach certain goals she has. So he can argue it is an equally personal, private matter what he chooses to do with his body to reach certain goals he has. He could simply tell us to “Keep your laws off my body!”
Some may respond that abortion is different, because in the case of Weinstein et al. they are harming other people, namely the women involved, but abortion doesn't harm another person. However, this begs the question by assuming the life growing inside the woman is not a person who will be harmed (in fact, killed) by her choice to abort. (See my recent blog posts here for more on this.)
Human flourishing and the common good can only be promoted by seeking the wellbeing of all people—men and women, born and unborn. Otherwise some will flourish (men and the born) but others will not (women and the unborn).
Or Weinstein could argue that he self-identifies as a sexual predator, and who are we to question this? He could argue that we must treat him as we treat those who self-identify with other alternative sexual identities. We should be more tolerant, accepting, and get over our “phobia” of his identity.
One could object that these are not similar cases. Weinstein et al. are wrong because they impose their sexual will on women. But those who choose alternative sexual identities enter into sexual engagements with others voluntarily. However, Weinstein et al. could rightly retort again with the “Sez who?” response: “Who said that makes any difference? My sexual identity and ethic says it is OK to impose my will on women. Who are you to impose on me your arbitrary requirement of mutual consent?”
Without a consistent absolutist ethic, we have no response. Our only response is that there is an objective human nature, which makes us what we are, and defines what it means to flourish. Therefore we are not free to choose any sexual "identity" we wish. If Weinstein wants to self-identify as a sexual predator, we must say he is simply misguided. In his essential nature he is not a sexual predator, regardless of what he may think. Therefore, living as if this chosen "identity" is reality will not foster his wellbeing (or the wellbeing of others). (See here for more on this in virtue of what we are as human beings.) But this response to Weinstein has force only if we are willing to be consistent and say the same is true concerning self-identifying with other alternative sexual identities.
Weinstein could argue that his actions are morally justified because he was “born this way.” Therefore he has no choice but to treat women as he does. He could argue we must treat him with the respect and freedom to express "who he is" in the same way we treat others claiming to have been born with other alternative sexual identities.
Our response to Weinstein is that not all inborn proclivities are good. For instance, those born with the tendency to become alcoholics aren't encouraged to "be true to yourself" and therefore embrace and act on this tendency. Quite the contrary, we help them acknowledge these tendencies are problematic and won't lead to their flourishing. We encourage them to seek help so they can overcome these tendencies and not become alcoholics. In the same way, if Weinstein was born this way, he needs help to live contrary to these proclivities and thereby flourish.
But again, this response is only effective if we are consistent. We must be willing to say there are other inborn tendencies that are equally harmful to one's flourishing and the common good, because they too are contrary to our very nature. Therefore, when one is born with any proclivity contrary to our nature, affirming these tendencies does not lead to the person's flourishing or the common good. (Again, I discuss this more here.)
In our current cultural milieu being consistent in these ways in order to promote human flourishing and the common good requires a great deal of thoughtfulness, courage, and hard work. Unfortunately, this scares many away. And our inconsistency provides Weinstein et al. justifications for their actions.
A Challenge for the New Year
We have many examples of those who had the courage to stand for a moral absolute in a sea of moral relativism. This is what William Wilberforce did in his day. He dared to say the British Empire’s slave trade was wrong (not just wrong for him or wrong for his culture). The movie Amazing Grace superbly illustrates how he did so in a winsome and persuasive manner, and how his commitment to this moral absolute led to human flourishing and the common good.
This New Year may we be the type of men and women who, like Wilberforce in his day, find ways to do the same. May we think well about these ethical issues. May we understand why embracing objective moral values is in everyone’s best interest. And may we communicate these truths gently, winsomely and persuasively in our interactions with others.
Until next week, grace and peace.