Monday, August 08, 2005

Whited Sepulchres

Further proof, if more were needed, that even well-educated people can have their heads so far up their asses that they can kiss themselvs on the lips from the inside. Mario Cuomo, like many "Catholics" in the public eye, seems almost to think of Catholicism as a liability rather than a strength. But more problematic even than that is the very assumption that it is somehow possible to sit on the SCOTUS without having any background assumptions about moral truth.

Indeed, the view that Cuomo appears to endorse seems to be that every decision can only be reached by a kind of prudential, hypothetical moral reasoning grounded in the notions of harm and benefit, rather than in genuinely moral reasoning grounded in necessary truths. This view has characterized many well-known decisions, going all the way back to Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), where it was decided that as long as blacks were not being "harmed" then there was nothing wrong with treating them differently from whites. Although that particular decision is obviously repugnant, the same sort of reasoning characterizes other decisions with which we might be tempted to agree. For example, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1930) struck down a Missouri law that provided for law-school education for blacks outside of the state of Missouri, where blacks were not admitted to law school. The Missouri law was a kind of "separate but equal" statute, but the Supreme Court found that it denied blacks a putative benefit, namely, a home-grown law school education. But the Court's reasoning could easily have worked against itself, if the law schools in the neighboring states had been better than the ones in Missouri. In that case one could not reasonably strike down a law on the grounds that it was denying a benefit to blacks. The only legitimate grounds for striking down such a law in the fact that it treats blacks differently from whites in spite of the fact that there can be no rational justification for doing so.

In the Plessy case the Court did not give any such categorical warrant for its decision. In fact, it argued that might makes right. When the plaintiff noted that "separate but equal" legislation might backfire against whites if blacks ever gained a majority in the state legislature, the decision of the majority noted that if blacks were to become the majority in the state legislature again, and try to put in place laws that treated whites unfairly, the white folks simply wouldn't stand for it. One can only imagine what the Court had in mind, but one need not do much imagining to see that the Court had either morons or racists in the majority. Certainly the Court was too cowardly to declare that it is a princple of morality that all human beings are created equal, and ought to be treated as such before the law.

Even the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be accused of utilitarian, hypothetical reasoning. It argued that "separate but equal" statutes harm interstate commerce. The reasoning here is clearly hypothetical rather than categorical: If we want interstate commerce to flourish, then we ought to treat blacks equally. Well, what if we don't particularly care about interstate commerce? Are we then free from the burden of treating blacks equally?

Of course not. The reasoning must be categorical, not hypothetical: we ought to treat blacks in precisely the same way that we treat everyone, and as we ourselves want to be treated, simply by virtue of the fact that they do not differ from us or any other human beings in any meaningful respect--all humans beings are, necessarily and by definition, equal (that is, they are all the same kind of thing).

The idea that all human beings are equal is not necessarily a religious idea, but it is in fact a tenet of Roman Catholicism, and it is the grounds for asserting that all human beings deserve the same treatment regardless of race, nationality, gender, handicap--or stage of development. And let's not beat around the bush--it is obvioulsy the prohibition against abortion on demand that Cuomo has in mind. He wouldn't care at all if we were talking about racism. The Catholic Church is against racism, too, but presumably Cuomo would not mind if Roberts were to speak out against racism. What he cares about is abortion, and, like John Kerry, he sees nothing wrong with a political agenda that pushes for easier access to abortion.

In fact, that's the "law of the land" right now, and Cuomo, like other hypocritical pseudo-catholics, isn't happy with folks who don't toe the party line on this one. In the 1960s, of course, it was regarded as admirable to work for the abolition of Jim Crow laws that treated blacks differently from whites even though those laws were the "law of the land". But to work for the repeal of Roe v. Wade is somehow morally suspect, since it is an attempt to "legislate morality".

But of course morality is the only thing that can be legislated. Compelling everyone to treat blacks equally is to impose a certain moral view about the equality of persons. To leave Roe on the books is to legislate the permission of abortion--clearly a moral judgment that abortion ought to be permissible. To overturn Roe is to open the door to legislation that would restrict access to abortion--just as clearly a moral judgment that abortion ought not to be as accessible as it is. Both sides are trying to legislate morality--but there's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, since morality is the only thing that can be legislated. What is wrong is the idea that only one sort of morality ought to be given the opportunity to express itself in the Public Square.

There's nothing wrong with allowing one's religious beliefs to shape one's moral judgments, just as there is nothing wrong with allowing one's secular or atheistic beliefs to shape one's moral judgments. All moral judgments come from somewhere--they do not form in a value-free vacuum. It is, of course, wrong to force all persons to declare allegiance to any particular religion, but there is nothing at all wrong with putting forward a moral view that you just happen to believe is true. It doesn't matter why you believe it is true. You can convince others that it is true without converting them to your religion, and you are not necessarily promoting your religion if you do convince them that your view is true.

But all of this is lost on folks like Cuomo, who are either too cynical to grant that this is the case, or too stupid to see that it is the case. Either way, he is not exactly a poster child for integrity, even as he attempts to pose as one.

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