Deliberating Moral Issues in Public Policy

Lenara Kahn and Jadzia Dax kiss

Since the Supreme Court struck down DOMA (i.e., the Defense of Marriage Act), marriage equality and civil rights for the LGBT community in the US has advanced at a rapid pace. Illinois and Hawaii recently approved marriage equality, and the Employment Non-discrimination Act of 2013 handily passed in the US Senate this week. If signed into law, the act would prevent discrimination against employees because of their sexual or gender identity. The act is now burning a hole in the legislative pocket of House Republicans. Whether the Republican caucus will have the courage to bring it forward for a vote is anyone’s guess.

From my point of view, this is a welcome advance in our ethics and politics. All people should have a place in our moral-political community regardless of their race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, creed, religion, nationality, physical ability, or sexual identity. Treating people as human beings with an intrinsic moral value demands no less of us.

Still, I have many religious and conservative acquaintances and colleagues who are uncomfortable with this line of reasoning, They are not hateful people, and do not want LGBT people to be victimized. While their homophobia is not of a violent kind, they cannot accept differences in sexual and gender identity as good for individuals or society. I disagree completely on ethical and policy grounds. Yet how ought we as citizens and fellow human beings discuss such issues? How ought we treat people with whom we might disagree vociferously, but are not evil or malicious people.

I recently read an article on Camus that suggests an ethical way forward.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French Algerian famous for his absurdist philosophy and atheism. While nothing he said would create a dust-up in today’s academy, he was active during at a time of overt Christian belief in the intellectual elite of Europe and North America. He seemed radical and dangerous to many in his day. I suppose he still does to far-right and fundamentalist ideologues of many stripes.

Camus’s approach to atheism was quite different, however, from the New Atheism represented by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Instead of belittling believers as ignorant and superstitious, and viewing religion as a prime source of evil, he adopted a more complex view. Right or wrong, Camus thought believers were trying to creating meaning in their world, and religion could be a source of good or evil depending on how it was interpreted and lived.

So he advocated a posture of constructive engagement and respectful disagreement. Camus thought differences of religious commitments should not prevent us from cooperating on meeting larger obligations to individuals and society. At the same time, such cooperation should not prevent us from honestly airing our theological differences in a mutual search for a deeper and better understanding.

This is an interpretive lesson that applies to all ethical and policy differences whether theological or political in nature. It recognizes our common humanity with others, avoids demonizing those we disagree with, yet does not shy away from straight up debate over doing right by other citizens and human beings.

In a world suffuse with partisan politics and violent fundamentalisms, this seems like sound advice to me.

So I try to live this advice with acquaintances and colleagues who are not committed to equality as I understand it. I have little doubt that over time controversies over sexual and gender identity will seem irrational, and these individuals or their children will change their minds. In the meantime, I want to treat them with respect, even as I continue to contend with their beliefs.

Image: Jadzia Dax and Lenara Kahn kiss on the Star Trek franchise Deep Space Nine, copyright Paramount Studios.

The episode “Rejoined” was first aired on 30 October 1995. Both Dax and Kahn are members of the Trill, humanoids that join with a symbiotic life form to create a merged personality. Trill who host the symbiots are termed “joined Trill” and it is regarded as the highest of honours to do so. The symbiots themselves are extremely long lived, and exist for generations in one humanoid body after another. The symbiots are also indifferent to questions of gender or sexuality. Over time they inhabit both male and female bodies which may be heterosexual, homosexual or otherwise. Thus diversity in gender and sexual identity is normal and expected amongst the Trill.

Yet the Trill also have a cultural prohibition on the “reassociation” of symbiots. Joined Trill often have romantic and familial relationships. Yet when a Trill host dies and the symbiot is transferred to another host, the Trill believe it is “unnatural” for the symbiots to reassociate with each other in their new form. Violators are banned from the home world, and the symbiot is banned from being transferred to a new host. This is effectively a death sentence.

In the episode, Jadzia and Lenara are joined Trills whose symbiots were part of a married couple before their respective hosts died. Reassociating is forbidden, but their love for each other is abiding, and questions of their current gender and sexuality are irrelevant. Jadzia wishes to reunite, knowing they will ultimately pay with their lives. Lenara wishes to do so too, but at the end of the day, cannot bring herself to do so. She leaves Jadzia to conform to the conventions of her culture.

It is a deeply moving episode that intentional portrays the bias against reassociating as being akin to the prejudice of homophobia. This is a typical trope of sci-fi, shifting the ecology and culture of a situation just enough to facilitate an indirect critique of contemporary issues and encouraging the audience to think outside the norms of convention. This episode generated a huge flurry of conversation amongst my graduate student and working class friends, and an outcry amongst conservative religious and political organizations.

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