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 AmericaBlog.com 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.