Gay Marriage Combat Flashback: “When A Boycott Is Unethical”

Prop 8

Prolific commenter Steve-O suggested that my previous post, Planet Ethics To Earth’s Gay Marriage Combatants: “You’re Mean, You’re Disgusting, And You’re Embarrassing The Human Race”, would have done more good if I had written it a few years ago. That’s hindsight bias, of course, but I did point out the unethical nature of similar tactics more than a few years ago, when gay marriage advocates announced a boycott against the state of Utah. ( I also, more than a decade ago, explained why this debate would be intense and emotional, and suggested the only chance, admittedly a faint and likely futile one, that the anti-gay marriage forces had to prevail.) Steve’s suggestion is also fanciful, in that Perez Hilton’s inane pronouncements on a Lindsay Lohan Instagram carry about 100,000 times more weight and influence than anything written here, and probably more than anything written about ethics issues anywhere, by anyone.

With that sad fact noted, the renewal of the problem of punitive and unfair boycotts as well as the escalation of brutal tactics in the gay marriage wars justifies a re-print of this essay from the Ethics Scoreboard from 2008, shortly after Proposition 8 was voted into law by Californians. As an aside, I note with some nostalgia the sober style in which Scoreboard posts were written. Therein lies the difference between an ethics website that posted essays composed over several days, and an ethics blog that attempts to keep up with multiple issues a day. The former is certainly more professional in tone; the latter is more personal and unfiltered, and, as a result, more read.

In the wake of California’s popular vote to over-ride its Supreme Court and establish marriage as restricted to heterosexual couples, gay rights advocates are urging an economic boycott of the state of …Utah.

Why Utah? Well, the Mormon Church, based in Salt Lake City, encouraged its members to work for passage of California’s Proposition 8. Thousands of Mormons worked as grass-roots volunteers and Mormon contributors gave tens of millions of dollars to the campaign. “At a fundamental level, the Utah Mormons crossed the line,” said gay rights activist John Aravosis, whose is urging the boycott. “They just took marriage away from 20,000 couples and made their children bastards. You don’t do that and get away with it.”

Mr. Aravosis, like much of America’s gay community and many other fair-minded Americans as well, is upset with the results of the California vote, and with justification. As the Scoreboard has explained before, there is no good ethical reason not to allow gay couples to marry, form families, and do everything else heterosexual couples can do. The problem is morality, not ethics—the various moral codes, such as that of the Mormon Church, that declare homosexuality “wrong.” Ethical verdicts need reasons, based on analysis of principles and consequences, but morality only needs one reason: “Because the moral code says so.” Further debate is neither necessary nor relevant. Wrong is wrong.

The battle between morality and ethics is an old one, but ultimately, ethics and reason usually prevail. Sexual relations outside of marriage was wrong, said the codes. Mixed race marriages, even mixed faith marriages, were “wrong.” Working on Sunday. Divorce. Moral codes have their place in the civilization process, but if they don’t adapt to accumulated logic and wisdom, they become obsolete. Still, you can’t rush the process. Those who follow a moral code are not “haters,” as Aravosis called the whole state of Utah on his blog, nor is their judgement personal. The Mormon Church teaches a moral code that homosexuality is a sin, and the code dates from a time when this was, by far, the majority opinion. Neither Mr. Aravosis nor anyone else has a right to punish people for their beliefs, or their lawful participation in the democratic process in support of those beliefs. Contributing funds and volunteering for a cause on the ballot is not wrong, no matter how much the other side believes in its own cause.

This proposed boycott is wrong in many ways. It’s wrong because it is a misuse of the boycott tactic, which is properly used to pressure organizations that are, for example, supporting human rights abuses abroad in pursuit of profits. When a boycott is used for economic bullying, however—to “punish” states that voted for Bush, for example, or to “punish” a company that sponsors a racy TV show—it is ethically indefensible, the equivalent of bending someone to your will at gunpoint. It is especially offensive to use the boycott as a response to an electoral defeat. This is a democracy: everyone agrees to abide by the results of the election. If you think a result was wrong, you better get to work and change some minds for the next vote. Leave for Canada? That’s responsible and disrespectful of the legitimate opinion of others. But punishing those who beat you fair and square is despicable. And unfair. If that’s going to be your response to losing an election, I’d rather see you flee the country, because you don’t respect democracy unless you’re on the winning side.

The Utah boycott also reeks of its own bigotry. The boycotters don’t want to go after California, although it’s that state’s voters who did the offensive deed, because, well, a lot of the boycotters and their friends live there. So they take out their anger on a tangential participant, Utah, which is a “bad state”…that is, a state that has a majority of people radically different from the boycotters. And it’s a small state, more economically vulnerable, easier to boycott than California. “Let’s attack the weaker, smaller opponent even though it didn’t vote; it’s easier, and we don’t like the Mormon Church anyway.” That’s as cowardly as it is unfair.

Indeed, boycotting anything as large as a state is inherently wrong, especially so in this case. Aravosis wants to “punish” the Mormon Church, but his proposed boycott is of the state…which he blames for …what, tolerating the church? Giving the Church a home? Having so many Mormons? Utah itself didn’t get involved in California’s election: that would be illegal. Why punish Utah, then? Why punish Utah’s many non-Mormon businesses and citizens? Why punish the children of Mormons thrown out of work because of economic harm to the state, if those Mormons did nothing to defeat Proposition 8?

There are no reasonable, ethical answers to these questions. The punitive boycott of Utah, if it occurs, will be a tantrum, not a political statement, and a blatantly unethical act. Proposition 8’s passage was a setback to civil rights, logic and fairness in America, but not everyone understands that yet. The ethical response now is to explain and educate, not to punish.



5 thoughts on “Gay Marriage Combat Flashback: “When A Boycott Is Unethical”

  1. “The battle between morality and ethics is an old one, but ultimately, ethics and reason usually prevail. Sexual relations outside of marriage was wrong, said the codes.”

    Where is the accumulated wisdom, logic, or reason that proves that moral principle to be incorrect? Since the Sexual Revolution, Americans are now lonelier than ever, with fewer confidantes, by every objective measure. More people live alone, the nuclear family is breaking down, and more kids than ever are having to be raised by grandparents. Living together before marriage correlates with higher marriage or partnership failure, domestic violence, and child abuse. Casual sex has a positive correlation with dozens of psychological problems. It’s been nothing but a blessing to sexists and the objectification of women. Psychologists and researchers are talking about a “loneliness epidemic” of social isolation, and how it’s harming people’s physical health on a large scale.

    All of these negative correlations can possibly be attributed to other factors (though with that much data, it’s unlikely), but where is the evidence that a belief that sex is sacred and reserved for the institution of marriage, in any way, proven illogical or unreasonable? Shouldn’t that be amended to “proven very unpopular?” The people who are actually doing it are thriving.

    “Mixed race marriages, even mixed faith marriages, were “wrong.””

    In the less-than-200-year-old Mormon moral code, and only until about the 70’s. But never in the 2,000 year old Bible. Race is completely immaterial there. And mixed-faith marriages are not encouraged in the Bible, but Paul counsels Christians in a mixed-faith marriage to stay committed. I may not actually be disagreeing with you as much as nitpicking, since people’s moral and legal codes and the Bible have never exactly been synced. But I’d rather chalk up distaste for mixed-race marriage to the common vice of racism than anyone’s “moral code.” We didn’t eliminate a moral code there so much as we started living up to a very old one.

    “Working on Sunday”

    A cultural tradition that has come and gone, due to not being anywhere in the Bible. If you’re Amish, then yeah, that might be part of a moral code. The Jewish prohibition of work from Friday night to Saturday night is definitely there, but even they wouldn’t describe working on Sabbath as morally wrong, like murder. It’s a religious observance applicable only to them. It was never meant to be based on common logic. Although Jewish thinkers do present excellent evidence-based arguments for a rest day as beneficial and healthy. If anything, accumulated wisdom has validated the Sabbath concept in the form of weekends. Not as a moral imperative, but as a great idea.


    The general statement “divorce is bad” has been proven true 1000 ways from Sunday (so to speak), especially when the well-being of children is taken into account, hasn’t it? And there were provisions for divorce in past Western moral codes. Where is the evidence that easier divorce has improved society? Wouldn’t that be necessary to make the judgement that the moral code was misguided? Morals aren’t laws, so we aren’t talking about whether or not divorce or promiscuity should be illegal here. I think if you were making the case that moral codes, however logical and useful, should not always be legislated, you’d have a stellar argument. And you could easily champion gay marriage from that platform, even without evidence that gay marriage is logical or wise.

    Eh. I’m pretty much agreeing with you on the difference between ethical and moral codes. But I’d hate to have everyone drop those “obsolete” moral codes, seeing as those still sticking to them appear to be propping up civilization at this point.

    • Moral codes are valuable, especially to keep those on the straight and narrow who are not prone to critical thought or considering the consequence of their action to others. They are almost always based on accumulated experience. No doubt: if we could restrict sexual activity to married people, many problems would vanish. But a rule that is impossible to enforce and counter to human instinct and nature is going to encourage violation, which has its own corrupting consequences. Abstract rules aren’t ethical, because they don’t work, and a rule that doesn’t work does more damage than good.

  2. Some rules that are counter to instincts and nature are both hard to enforce and very necessary. They are contained in the basic tenants of religions because they ultimately cause the best outcomes. Religion, that is, belief in a supreme being that wants us to be happy and to return to Him came first. Cultural proof came afterward.

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