Bohanon: Adam Smith on RFRAs

April 13, 2015

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

Travel back to 1956 to a professional meeting of psychiatrists. Most in the group are smoking cigarettes, thinking nothing of it. Most also agree that homosexuality is a mental disorder. Fast forward to 2015 to a similar group. No one dares light up a cigarette and the overwhelming majority thinks being gay is not a disorder and are appalled by the suggestion that it is.

Yes, how times and social mores change. And just so you know — I don’t think being gay or a smoker is a mental disorder — but that is not my focus. The issue I’d like to raise is — why do people of all perspectives seem to go absolutely bat-guano bonkers over all this? My favorite philosopher, Adam Smith, gives some insights.

In Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith argues that humans keenly desire the approval of others and as adamantly do not want the disapproval of others. This all works pretty well when everyone is on the same page as to what is right and wrong. But what about when people disagree about what is right and wrong action?

Smith tells us “unmerited reproach” is “very severely mortifying”: this is 18th-century language that if A condemns B’s actions and B does not think B is doing anything wrong, B is going to be outraged, understandably so. Moreover, Smith tells us “… if you have … no indignation at the injuries I have suffered … we become intolerable to one another;” this means that if you, third party C, do not confirm that B is in the right, she is going to defriend you on Facebook. The whole thing gets nasty.

Who are A and B? A is the religious conservative who believes gay marriage is sinful and refuses to bake a cake for a gay wedding — and B is a gay person who is about to get married to her partner. Or the identities can be reversed with no damage to the point: sparks are going to fly between A and B and most everyone around them.

I suspect the heated rhetoric about this issue will not subside and will continue for quite a while. Like the abortion issue in which both sides make claims to the moral high ground, there is little room for conciliation. When each side thinks the other is wicked, tolerance is difficult.

But there are some voices of reason and generosity. Gay Californian Courtney Hoffman donated $20 to Memories Pizza, the small-town pizzeria “outed” by an ambitious television news-team into confessing it would not cater a gay wedding. Ms. Hoffman and her partner operate a small kettle-corn stand, “and if they were asked to set up at an anti-gay marriage rally, they would have to decline.” In the post that accompanied her gift she stated, “As a member of the gay community, I would like to apologize for the mean spirited attacks on you … I know many gay individuals who fully support your right to stand up for your beliefs and run your business according to those beliefs.”

It is also a hopeful sign that many of the conservative Christians who oppose gay marriage are also condemning the hate that often comes from their side of the aisle. The Wesleyan Church deems all sexual activity outside a monogamous heterosexual marriage as sinful. But it also affirms “we also do not, cannot and will not endorse condemning, hate-filled, self-righteous attitudes toward those in the gay community.”

Many conservatives are recalling that the iconic and beloved Christian writer C.S. Lewis married a divorced woman against the canons of the Anglican Church of his time. Quite a sin on his part; oh, but that was in 1956. Is marrying a divorced woman a sin today? Not so much now. How things can change.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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