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Bruegel's painting of blind men stumbling showcases the dangers of the slippery slope fallacy in misguided leadership.

The Illusion of Neutrality: Beyond ‘Live and Let Live’

As society embraced same-sex marriage, many believed it wouldn't impact traditional views. However, this shift wasn't neutral, leading to the sidelining of traditional beliefs.
“The Blind Leading the Blind” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1568)

For a long time, secular progressives said that changing the definition of marriage to recognize same-sex unions would have no negative effect on people who believe otherwise. In countless conversations, I and others were assured that conferring the legal status of marriage on the relationship of Jim and John or Helen and Harriet would have no adverse impact or alter in any way the status of people (be they Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, LDS, Muslim, or other) who held to the traditional understanding of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.

I suspect that some of these people were sincere. Others were dissembling. Either way, the arguments they were making were utterly unsound—the neutrality to which they appealed and which they promised was an illusion, an impossibility. It was never about “live and let live.” Never. That claim was a lie from the start. No society or polity will be, or indeed can be, neutral on basic questions of morality and the human good. Claims of neutrality will be, at best, a pretense and usually a pretext. A “comprehensive” view (to use language from the influential late political philosopher John Rawls)—a view about the human good, about what makes for or detracts from a valuable and morally worthy way of life—will inform laws, policies, and cultural understandings, norms, and practices. That comprehensive view will be incompatible in at least some important ways, and perhaps in many profoundly important ways, with competing comprehensive views.

When it comes to sex and sexual morality, the goal was always about establishing a “new morality” to displace and replace the old and embodying that morality in law and policy at every level. It was not about “equality,” “equal liberty,” or “equal concern and respect.” All that talk, like the talk about “neutrality,” was a smokescreen. It was about disempowering and marginalizing those classes of people—above all traditional religious folk, be they Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or other—who refused to go along with or yield to the dominant forms of secular progressive ideology.

It was never about “live and let live.”

We are now seeing further evidence of where this logic leads. Mike and Kitty Burke are a Catholic couple in Massachusetts who applied to be foster parents. According to one report, “During their application process, the Burkes underwent hours of training, extensive interviews, and an examination of their home. Mike and Kitty completed the training successfully and received high marks from the instructors. However, during their home interviews, the Burkes were troubled that many questions centered on their Catholic views about sexual orientation and gender dysphoria. In response, the Burkes emphasized that they would love and accept any child, no matter the child’s future sexual orientation or struggles with gender identity.” Their application was denied, and their home study included this line: “Their faith is not supportive.”

This should surprise no one. Anyone who has listened to advocates of liberal sexual ideology could see it coming, for have we not been told time and again that failing to affirm someone’s gender or sexual identity is a way of denying their “existence,” indeed, a kind of abuse or violence that sets them up for self-loathing and suicide? On this view, parents who don’t buy into liberal sexual ideology pose an acute threat to the health and well-being of their children who might be [fill in the blank sexual orientation/gender identity believed in by promoters of liberal sexual ideology]. 

Nor does this logic stop with prospective foster parents. As my friend Francis Beckwith observed years ago, “If a married Christian couple is unfit to be foster parents because they would teach their children that homosexual conduct is immoral, then it would follow that a married Christian couple who teaches their natural children the same lesson is just as unfit.” Beckwith was able to predict what has now come to pass (see, e.g. AB 957 in California) not because he looked into a crystal ball like Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz but for the very reasons he set forth at the time in predicting it. He didn’t “get lucky”—as if he happened to draw an inside straight. What he did was attend to the logical implications of treating traditional Jewish and Christian (though not merely Jewish and Christian) beliefs about sexuality and sexual morality as a threat to children.

Some will say now, as they have said before, that I am committing the “slippery slope fallacy.” The idea that slippery slope arguments are necessarily fallacious was itself shown to be fallacious in Douglas Walton’s 1992 Oxford University Press book, Slippery Slope Arguments. As Beckwith recently explained: “Not every slippery slope is a fallacy. To be sure, causal slippery slopes are, e.g., if you begin doing pot, you’ll eventually move on to heroin. But logical slippery slopes aren’t, e.g., if you defend the decriminalization of pot based on an absolutist view of bodily autonomy, you have no limiting principle to prohibit the same for heroin.” Still, the idea that such arguments are necessarily fallacious is one of those things many people continue to believe—it’s like an old wives’ tale. 

Some conservatives foolishly believed there could be a kind of “grand bargain” on marriage—the state could recognize same-sex marriage, and everything else would continue on unchanged. Those conservatives got played. (At a certain level, I have to salute those on the other side for playing them so expertly.) What anybody should now be able to see—including the people who got played—is that the neutrality idea was never for real (even if some people—John Rawls himself, I believe, is an example—were sincere in advancing it). There can be no neutrality between competing understandings of marriage and sexual morality. A society will, in its laws and cultural norms, and in its policies and practices, embrace one or the other—and certain things will follow logically (he who says A says B) depending on which is embraced.

To my conservative friends, I say: Do not in the future allow yourselves to be played. The neutrality claims are magicians’ tricks. I made that point (and, I believe, demonstrated it) time and again. So did others. We’re now far behind in the culture war because our liberal friends did a great job in performing those tricks, so we have a lot of ground to recover. We have to be about the business of recovering it. We should not try to do that by proposing our own version of “neutrality.”

We need to argue for the merits of our substantive views (about, e.g., marriage, sexuality, and sexual morality) and persuade our fellow citizens in the forums of democracy. Secular progressive ideas (bought into by some religious believers) largely displaced and replaced our ideas; our goal needs to be to displace and replace them. We can do that while respecting true principles of civil liberty (such as freedom of speech) for our opponents as well as ourselves, but it’s time to recognize what was done, often in the name of “neutrality,” and undo it.

The neutrality idea was never for real.

Neutrality has a way of mainstreaming acts and beliefs that even some of neutrality’s advocates later regret. At every step of the sexual revolution, liberals (including those liberals advertising themselves as conservatives) have said, in effect, “this far, but certainly no farther.” For example, “soft porn,” but certainly not hard porn; pre-marital intercourse for committed though unmarried (or not-yet-married) couples, but not promiscuity; same-sex “marriage” but not polyamory; transsexual surgeries for “consenting adults,” but no amputations of the genitals or breasts of children. Some of these liberals, perhaps most, were sincere, or so I’m willing to believe. But they were naive—naive to the point of silliness. Radicals chortled at them—understandably and, indeed, justifiably. They knew, every bit as well as I and other critics of sexual liberalism knew, that the revolution had a logic that made the “but no farther” claims laughable. He who says A says B. Eliminate the principled basis of a moral stricture, and the stricture will not stand. Things fall apart.

Of course, some people were carried along on the logical waves. They now forget their earlier “this far, but no farther claims.” Others, however, don’t like where they’ve been taken. They’re not on board with polyamory, mastectomies for adolescents, males in girls’ showers and changing rooms and dominating girls’ athletic competitions, and in women’s shelters and prisons. And yet, few acknowledge that “reforms” they themselves advocated unleashed the logic or that others—to both their left and their right—told them at the time where the “reforms” would inexorably take us.

And the logic of those “reforms” will take us to further places still.

About the author

Robert P. George

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. He is the Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He has served as Chairman of USCIRF and as a Judicial Fellow at the U.S. Supreme Court. He holds MTS and JD degrees from Harvard and those of DPhil, DCL, and DLitt from Oxford.
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