9 Jun

Free Trade Zone for Preferences

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/09/01

Philip Turner, the former Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and currently the Vice President of the Anglican Communion Institute, examines "The Episcopalian Preference" in the November 2003 issue of First Things. The occasion for the article is the controversy surrounding the consecration of V. Gene Robinson as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, USA, the first candidly homosexual bishop in the denomination. (ECUSA) Turner looks at the failure of ECUSA since the mid-1960s to discipline its priests and bishops, a failure inspired by a desire to protect the image of the denomination as an open, inclusive, progressive body. But Turner sees larger cultural forces at work, forces that threaten American churches of every creed and style: "the subversion of Christian belief and practice by the logic of autonomous individualism, and the churches' transformation into simulacra. Make no mistake: what has happened in ECUSA is not a problem limited to a once (overly) proud denomination. Rather, it provides an exemplary case study of the subversion and transformation that, in one way or another, threatens all American denominations today."

Turner summarizes the critique of liberalism offered by Alasdair MacIntyre (in After Virtue and in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) in which he argued that "the tradition of liberalism cannot allow for a single notion of the good to dominate 'the public square,' since liberal society must remain morally and theologically neutral. What one can express in public are not notions of good, but rather preferences. Of course, some way must be found to order preferences both in respect to individual life and to social policy. No rational way can be found to achieve this goal, however, because there is no common notion of the good to which public appeal can be made. Hence, one establishes preferences in the public arena primarily by bargaining. Everything in private as well as public life becomes a 'trade-off.' Social life becomes a sort of free trade zone for preferences."

MacIntyre labeled this dominant attitude toward moral understanding "emotivism," defined precisely (in After Virtue) as follows: "Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character." [p. 11f.] Later, MacIntyre observed: "[T]o a large degree people now think, talk and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint may be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture. But of course in saying this I am not merely contending that morality is not what it once was, but also and more importantly that what once was morality has to some large degree disappeared—and that this marks a degeneration, a grave cultural loss."

Philip Turner points out that since, in the framework of emotivism, assumptions about identity and the nature of moral agency are radically different than they were in the classical and Christian understanding of the moral life, the current arguments about legitimating homosexual behavior in the churches and in society at large are quite predictable.

"It is precisely this sexualized notion of moral agency and personal identity that makes the Robinson election so predictable. Here is a unique individual, who is a self with a particular history, and a person with a right to express his preferences and put his talents to work in the social world he inhabits. To deny him that right on the basis of sexual preference is to deny his personal identity. This notion of moral agency also makes understandable why the issues of abortion and euthanasia take their place alongside self-chosen sexual expression as centers of moral controversy both within the churches and without. At the heart of each of these arguments lies the characterization of moral agents as individuals, selves, and persons who have the right to pursue their own preferences, whatever they may be.

"In the culture wars that rage over abortion, euthanasia, and sexuality, defenders of more traditional Christian teaching and practice often miss the fact that they must confront American culture on a deeper level than any of these specific issues. If they are to be effective, they must take on the very way in which Americans think of themselves as moral agents. The 'socio-logic' that stands behind ECUSA's recent action beckons thinking to a deeper level than the sad history of this church's search for a distinctive place on the spectrum of American denominationalism. It tempts Christians to adopt a vision of moral and social life that runs counter to the very foundations of Christian thought and practice. And it raises the question of whether we inhabit a moral universe governed by an order we are called upon to understand and to which we are required to conform, or whether that universe is a mere product of preference-pursuing individuals, selves, and persons who create a social world suited to their self-defined goals through an elaborate process of moral bargaining."

Philip Turner has written earlier pieces that look in greater depth at the ideas of identity and moral agency as they relate to the understanding of sexual ethics. In "Undertakings and Promises: An Anatomy of Sexual Ethics" (First Things, April 1991, pp. 36-42), he argues that current thinking about sexual ethics is rooted in the "contractarian moral philosophy of Hobbes and Locke." Whereas traditional sexual ethics understood that the ends of sexual activity were rooted in the purposes of God, contemporary sexual ethics assumes that the ends are rooted in the choices of those engaged in the activities. And in "Sex and the Single Life" (First Things, May 1993), he comments further on the subjectivization of sexual ethics as concern about "commitment," "vulnerability," and "care" eclipses the reference points of God's revelation and the moral order of creation. [Posted December 2003, KAM]