Toronto
2 min

The peril of immutable morality

People are moral creatures. We learn from an early age, either though observation or because we’re taught, to assign moral value to all kinds of behaviours. We build our individual moral frameworks like stone buildings: one experiential block at a time, each course supported by the previous one, with the whole structure only as strong as its weakest element.

A lesson once learned, a moral value once assigned, often becomes axiomatic. We are loath to apply rational examination to it, to ask why we think a thing morally indefensible, even in the face of new and significant variables and arguments. Most of us come to believe that what’s right is right, what’s wrong is wrong and that our most basic underlying values are immutable.

Even when confronted with overwhelming evidence leading us to re-examine and reevaluate moral positions, we are likely to resort to bizarre ethical contortions to uphold our established paradigms. With the support and validation of people around us, of our societies, those contortions can devolve into mass delusion.

Billions of us, for example, assign moral weight, completely a priori, to religious fairy tales.

If you live on the fringes of morality, on the wrong side of mass delusion, life can be extremely difficult and frustrating. Gay and lesbian people know very well the challenges inherent in turning the hearts and minds of a civilization that believes absolutely that any behaviour contrary to the norms of heterosexist orthodoxy is morally wrong.

It has taken decades for us sexual outlaws to come as far as we have but there remain too many examples of glaring double standards and overt discrimination against gay and lesbian people.

I want to draw to your attention two stories in this issue of Xtra in which the protagonists, even with the high ground of right and rationality, are victims of irrational ethical contortions.

The first is Scott Dagostino’s story about the Toronto Compassion Centre, Outlaw Compassion.

Marijuana does not cause nicotine rage or bar fights. People don’t drop dead from marijuana overdose or resort to armed robbery in desperation for their next joint. People smoke marijuana to relieve pain and nausea, to regulate sleep, to temporarily escape anxiety or depression and as a social lubricant.

The creative boost that comes from smoking marijuana actually helped me to get better marks in my philosophy coursework in university. To this day, given a choice, I would much rather be stoned than drunk.

Marijuana should not be illegal. There’s simply no good reason that freethinking people in a free society should be exposed to holier-than-thou derision, criminal persecution or harassment by thugs and thieves for growing, buying, selling or ingesting cannabis.

Discussions of weed as medically necessary are ethical contortions analogous in my mind to arguments of homosexuality as pathology and the pointless debate about whether people are born gay or become that way due to environmental factors.

It’s all just nonsense on the road to doing the right thing.

The second story is Greg Beneteau’s interview with Elizabeth Pisani, Taking the AIDS Industry to Task, about her experiences as a field researcher in the battle against the global AIDS epidemic, or, as Pisani calls it, against the global AIDS industry.

It’s a simple equation: HIV/AIDS prevention efforts that teach people in high-risk groups — men who have sex with men, people who have multiple sex partners, intravenous drug users and sex workers — about how to constructively minimize their risks are effective. Prevention programs that browbeat people with irrational religious ideology, that teach that gay sex, sex work and drug use are wrong, simply aren’t very effective.

Yet billions of dollars are wasted and millions of people are sick and dying as a result of misplaced scruples that ignore the realities of human sexuality and behaviour and overwhelming evidence about what works.

Humanity can sometimes truly be its own worst enemy.