Ethics Trumps Morality: Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Almost lost in the din of President Obama’s defiant State of the Union address was his promise to finally end “Don’t ask, don’t tell” as military policy. There is no ethical argument against this long overdue move. It has always been a policy based on the political expediency of politicians afraid to do the right thing.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is unethical. The law treats gay Americans in a biased and discriminatory manner, reinforcing negative stereotypes and the irrational fears. It also hurts the military and the nation by robbing it of able soldiers and military personnel.

The opposition to “Don’t ask…” is not based on ethics, but morality. In fact, the whole “Don’t ask, don’t tell” fiasco is an excellent case study of the inadequacy of pure morality and the tragic consequences that result when we fail to adjust morality with experience, reason and ethics. Right now, the United States does not dismiss openly gay soldiers because they pose a threat or can’t do their jobs. It dismisses them because ancient moral codes still followed uncritically by millions of people around the world declare that homosexuality is a sin—not because it is harmful to society, but because God, a god, or a religious authority said so. In Uganda, the government is currently considering a law that will make homosexuality a capital crime punishable by death. Pastor Rick Warren, the Evangelical minister whom President Obama chose to do the Invocation at his Inauguration, has refused to condemn the Ugandan initiative, which is consistent with the moral code he preaches. The difference between the military’s policies on gay personnel and Uganda’s proposed law is degree. They spring from the same moral source: a religious declaration that being gay is wrong.

Ethics, which is the study of what makes conduct right or wrong, allows us to escape the moral trap. (Aside: After a TV appearance in which I discussed this issue, I was sent several angry e-mails, and many from one individual in particular who kept accusing me of engaging in “weighed morality,” a term I had never encountered before. In our exchange—you can even learn valuable lessons from zealots—I learned that “weighed morality” meant having the audacity to challenge a divine declaration with reason, facts and analysis. I plead guilty.) There is no rational argument to justify treating gay military personal differently than any one else. It is unfair, disrespectful, and irresponsible. When you “weigh” morality regarding homosexuality, its heft is all tradition, misconception, bigotry and fear.

I am confident that in time most religions will adjust their moral codes condemning homosexuality, just as they have done regarding inter-racial marriage, the role of women in society, and other matters. Centuries of religious belief cannot be altered overnight, but that does not justify preserving a discriminatory policy in the military of the United States of America. Ethics demands that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” end now.

2 thoughts on “Ethics Trumps Morality: Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

  1. Ending DADT has practical benefits that go beyond moral philosophy. Each dismissal due to DADT represents a waste of resources used to train them. Furthermore, several of the people who have been dismissed under DADT have been Arabic translators, which the US Military badly needs since they are fighting in Iraq.

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