A special gracEmail essay
A widely-syndicated opinion piece by Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. published on March 16, 2007 provides opportunity for a useful exercise in critical thinking. Under the title “Don’t ask this general about morality,” Mr. Pitts takes to task Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who four days earlier expressed publicly his personal conviction that “homosexual acts” are “immoral.”
The general made his comments during an interview with the Chicago Tribune in which he explained why he opposed repealing the present “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allows homosexual persons to serve in the U.S. armed forces so long as they don’t engage in homosexual acts and keep their sexual orientation secret from others. His upbringing and personal sense of morality have taught him that some types of conduct are immoral, General Pace said, and that includes sleeping with another man’s wife and engaging in homosexual acts.
Columnist Pitts went ballistic at this revelation from the President’s principal military advisor. People who say such things, he declared, are “gay-haters” and “bigots.” They “bypass intellect and detour around critical reasoning.” They dishonestly label “instinct” as “principle” and confuse a “visceral” reaction with “morality.” And what, we might wonder, prompts such an instinctive and visceral outburst from this public proponent of objective reasoning? In the remainder of his column Mr. Pitts reveals four underlying concerns.
First, he says, it is not immoral merely to find oneself to be “bonded” with others in a particular racial, religious, sexual or geographical “commonality” or category. For example, says Pitts, there is nothing wrong with being Jewish, or male, or originating in Idaho — or being homosexual in orientation.
Here I believe Mr. Pitts misses an important distinction, not from erroneous logic (given his premises) as much as from lack of information. Had he also included biblical revelation in his mental landscape, the columnist could have recognized that while same-sex “orientation” alone (apart from forbidden conduct) — like Jewish genes, “Y” chromesomes and Spud State origins — is morally neutral, it differs from those other categories in being both a sign and a consequence of our fallen world.
In fact, since the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prohibits but does not prevent clandestine homosexual “acts,” and since it equally silences celibate and promiscuous persons of gay orientation, Mr. Pitts could legitimately have asked General Pace how retaining the current policy suits the general’s aversion to homosexual “acts” any better than would its repeal. However, rather than making this logical point, the columnist merely excoriates all who find themselves bonded with the general in the commonality of objecting on moral grounds to homosexual acts.
Mr. Pitts’ second concern is that anyone might base a moral judgment on “an obscure Old Testament passage,” since the Old Testament by his reading “also requires the death penalty for disrespectful children, forbids the eating of meat cooked rare, and obligates the man who rapes a virgin to buy her from her father and marry her.” This objection is passing strange since General Pace never mentioned the Old Testament in his Chicago Tribune interview to which columnist Pitts reacts. If Mr. Pitts truly engaged in critical thinking, he would acknowledge that one can easily come to regard homosexual acts as immoral with no reference to or dependence on the Old Testament whatsoever.
The third concern prompting Mr. Pitts’ diatribe is General Pace’s disclosure that he grew up on the teaching that some things are wrong whether or not we fully understand why that is the case. Ethicists sometimes call this the “prescriptive motif” as a basis for moral judgments. If Mr. Pitts practiced the rigid honesty of reasoning and expression which he preaches, he just might admit that he personally rejects this approach altogether, basing his own moral judgments entirely on his own reasoning ability (the “deliberative motif”) and the interpersonal effect of a particular conduct on those to whom he relates (the “relational motif”).
Were he to say that aloud, we could then inquire into the wisdom of determining right and wrong on so narrow a basis, in the first instance, and point out, in the second instance, that the overwhelming majority of Americans who are theists regard their past and ongoing encounters with God as sufficient grounds for carefully considering what they believe to be divine declarations of right and wrong. Mr. Pitts might wish to reject such a position but he could at least discuss it openly and honestly.
Mr. Pitts’ fourth concern — and, judging by the level of passion, perhaps his greatest, is that as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Pace is part of that “Team Bush” which “misled the nation into war against the wrong enemy” with tragic results for all concerned.
That is a legitimate and even an important issue for debate, but it is not the purported subject of Mr. Pitts’ column under consideration. Truth be told, he would stand a better chance of winning points on that topic if he addressed it openly and foursquare, rather than allowing his own bitterness it has generated to cloud his thinking and poison his pen on the subject his headline told us he intended to discuss.