Moral Lessons from Virginia

February 11, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for the political leadership in the state of Virginia.  The state’s lieutenant governor seems to be in the most peril after he was accused by two women of sexual assault.  His colleagues are now considering whether or not to impeach him.  The state’s attorney general is embroiled in a scandal of his own after he admitted to dressing up in blackface at a party in 1980.  But all the trouble began with the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam.  His name first hit national news after he ran interference on a local radio show for Virginia House Bill 2491, introduced by Virginia delegate Kathy Tran, which, according to the delegate herself, might theoretically allow for a baby to be aborted while a woman was in the process of giving birth.  This sparked national outrage, with many arguing that the governor was defending nothing less than infanticide.  But more trouble was on the way for the governor.  Two Fridays ago, a website published a personal yearbook page of his from 1984, which featured one man in blackface alongside another man in Ku Klux Klan garb.  When the photo came to light, the governor first apologized for the photo and then denied he was in the photo.

Many progressives remain supportive of the governor’s position on abortion, but stand aghast at the picture in which he, ostensibly at least, appeared.   I have also read some conservatives who are outraged at his stance on abortion while remaining more agnostic about how offensive the explicitly racist photo on his yearbook page is.

The issue, morally, in both of these scandals surrounding Ralph Northam is, at root, the same:  a person, either because they are in the womb or because of the color of their skin, is not worthy of the same status and security as they otherwise would be.  A pregnancy can be terminated right up to the point of birth because the will of a person who is pregnant outweighs and outranks the life of the baby she is carrying.  A portrayal of black person that uses explicit symbols of hatred, lynching, and murder can be chalked up to an awkward joke at a college party.

We must be clear.  These things are wrong.  These things are inexcusable.  These things rob people of their dignity and have robbed people of their very lives.

I do not doubt that many people sincerely believe that abortion is a moral good because it is presented as empowering to women.  I also do not doubt that students in their twenties in the eighties may have not fully understood how what they perceived as a bit of tomfoolery was really a deeply entrenched cruelty.  This is why it is so important that we continue to describe and define the barbarous realities behind abortion and racism.  More people must know.  More people must understand.

Thankfully, there is a reflexive revulsion on the part of many to the idea of abortion in general and late-term abortion in specific as well as to the dismissive and diminishing attitudes involved in racism.  We should heed what our reflexes are trying to tell us.  In an article on the ethical entailments of human cloning, Leon R. Kass describes the importance of the human “gag reflex” in determining what is moral and what is not:

Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it … It revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound.  Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous and rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity.  Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

Theologically, we would say that our gut-level moral disgust at certain things is triggered by the requirements of God’s law, which Scripture says are written on every human heart (Romans 2:14-15).  In this way, our guts can give us valuable insights into transcendent moral realities.  But, as Leon Kass so critically notes:

Repugnance need not stand naked before the bar of reason.

Moral feelings are often astute, but they can also sometimes mislead us.  We must check our moral feelings against the bar of moral reasoning.  We can study the development of a baby in utero and we can draw reasoned conclusions about the life of a child.  We can watch anyone of any race erupt in laughter, burst into tears, tremble in fear, or sacrifice for love, and we can draw reasoned conclusions about their humanity.

The hard question that stands before us, then, is this:  have we really so clouded our hearts and minds by political ravings and selfish cravings that we have become blinded to what ails us?  Are we overlooking what should be morally obvious?

Perhaps Ralph Northam’s blunders can remind us of what we should already know:  that life is precious – be it the life of a baby in the womb, or the life of a person of any race.  And perhaps, if we reflected on that moral reality for a while, we’d see more pictures of ultrasounds and fewer pictures in yearbooks.

That certainly sounds like a better world to me.

 

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