No Pluralism In Moral Matters

This article was first published in the Wheaton College publication Discernment, Winter 1994. It later appeared under the title "Homosexuality, Pluralism, and Inclusivism," in Understanding Homosexuality (pp. 40-42), a 52-page booklet published by the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, 1995.

Pluralism urges us to regard alternative ways of being and acting as equally acceptable. But Does the idea of pluralism make any sense as applied to morality? Or does pluralism become an issue only so far as morality is not at issue?

Recently a member of the armed forces who had been discharged because he admitted his homosexuality stated on national television that to discriminate against homosexuals was like discriminating against eye-color. This is an intriguing argument, for it presupposes that if being homosexual did make a significant difference in life--as being blue-eyed does not--then it might be justifiable to discriminate against the homosexual.

Here is an important point to keep in mind in current discussions of pluralism or 'inclusivism'. No one really supposes that we ought to take an 'inclusive' attitude toward what is morally wrong--least of all, perhaps, those who argue that it is morally wrong to be socially and morally 'exclusive'. Pluralism only applies on the assumption that the behaviors or life-styles concerned really are morally indifferent. Of course there remain possible disagreements over how someone who is immoral shall be treated. But these are not the ones which come into play in our usual discussions of pluralism today.

It is now generally agreed in this country that differences of sex, race or religion, for example, are not inherently moral differences. Thus they do not automatically imply differences in the human worth or moral standing of persons involved. A Hindu, for example, is not, as such, better or worse, as a human being, than a Christian or Muslim, nor is a woman better or worse than a man. It is therefore wrong to treat the one as if they were somehow more deserving or more to be favored than the other.

But is one who is financially dishonest to be 'discriminated' against in employment, housing or social preferment, in favor of those who are scrupulously honest? Would it be an offense against pluralism or inclusivism to decline to rent an apartment to someone who has had to be legally removed from their last three residences, for non-payment of rent or vandalism, in favor of someone with an impeccable report from the credit agencies and shining personal references? Very few would think so. Is it "insensitivity" not to allow a convicted child molester to baby-sit your children? Hardly!

Pluralism simply is not an issue so far as admitted moral distinctions are concerned. Morally evil and irresponsible persons are to be treated differently in contexts where things of value are at risk. That is, simply, a part of what it means to be an evil or irresponsible person--which of course does not mean that such persons are "fair game" for whatever may be inflicted upon them.

This makes clear the deceptive character of the most common discussions of pluralism or inclusivism today. They are not really about pluralism at all. Rather, under the guise of a discussion about pluralism--which most people can be counted on to favor--some morally questionable behavior or style of living is seeking to authenticate itself as morally acceptable.

For example, 'illegitimate' sex, abortion, and active homosexuality are now widely practiced. They have, for most purposes, been decriminalized today--at least so far as enforcement is concerned--and we have moved as a society a great distance toward outright government support for them, through various tax and welfare arrangements. They are also 'celebrated'--which is by no means too strong a word--in our popular culture, and endorsed by the intellectual system that rules our society. In elite society today, no one would think of marking someone as morally corrupt merely for discrete adulteries, abortions or same sex sex.

But that is not enough. Those who engage in such sexual behavior, traditionally--and sometimes literally--branded as evil, want to be explicitly recognized as morally on a par with everyone else. And if you refuse so to recognize them, you will very likely be morally attacked as a bigot and as someone opposed to tolerance, pluralism and cultural inclusivism. The assumption of these attacks is that you are drawing a moral distinction between persons where there in fact is none, and that you therefore must be opposed to pluralism. Which means that you are most likely also a racist and a sexist.

That, however, just begs the very question at issue. Are those who engage in these sexual practices truly as good morally, everything else being equal, as those who do not? We cannot settle this question by shouting about who is or is not a bigot, for whether or not one is a bigot here largely depends on the moral status of the fornicator, abortionist or homosexual. If they are indeed morally reprehensible, one is not a bigot for saying so and treating them accordingly. Just as, if it truly is morally wrong to condemn homosexual behavior, one is no bigot for applying "homophobe" and other terms of moral condemnation to those who do.

Now in today's context we will very likely find that those defending or attacking the moral status of a certain practice do not have any clear idea of what it is, in general, that makes acts right or wrong, or persons good or bad morally. Indeed, a part of the weight back of the push to "pluralism" is the widely accepted view that moral distinctions are "in the eye of the beholder," or at least that no one can claim to know what is really right or wrong. Thus your mere suggestion that some practice is wrong is enough to draw the charge that you are "imposing" your values on others--imposing because moral judgments are acts of will, not expressions of knowledge.

Accordingly, even to pretend to know that a certain action is wrong, or that a certain type of person is evil, marks you for some today as presumptuous and bigoted. That you are so 'intolerant' as to presume to judge something or someone morally wrong will leave no doubt in the minds of many that you would be against pluralism and inclusiveness.

But the effect of this is, quite simply, to defend pluralism, not as the moral position to take, but at the expense of morality in general, and to lose all grounds for regarding exclusivism and anti-pluralism as immoral. Only if moral distinctions are real and knowable will we be able to advance moral grounds for pluralism. So far from urging that the moral and the immoral be equally tolerated and accepted, it makes the moral point that people should not be assigned a different status and worth as persons because of factors in their lives which are morally indifferent.

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