The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.
Hey, and let’s have serial killers define their own morality for themselves as well. It’s hard to see how Carmon could object to that, except to say it doesn’t fit her definition.
I agree that morality isn’t whatever we say it is (i.e., I’m not a moral relativist.). But let’s see if there might be a worthwhile point lurking around here.
Here’s one plausible (I think) account of what ethics is: a goal-oriented activitiy aimed at reducing suffering, increasing happiness, facilitating social coordination, increasing fairness, and cultivating virtues, among other things.
On this account, the purpose of ethical rules is direct us toward these ends. Obeying them isn’t good in and of itself; rather, following them helps us acheive the goals that morality is concerned with.
If this is the purpose of ethical rules, then as we learn more about the world and about human nature–about the sorts of things that lead to suffering, happiness, fairness, etc.–certain longstanding ethical rules could turn out to no longer make sense. That is, we learn that some rules are not as conducive to human flourishing as we thought and require revision or abandonment.
To take one fairly obvious example: much of force of the traditional prohibition on homosexual activity came from beliefs that it was associated with vice, suffering, and ill-health. But we now know that this isn’t the case, so the old rules seem–at least to many of us–obsolete. Note that this isn’t a form of moral relativism, but rather a revision of moral rules as our understanding changes (and, we hope, improves). (If the reader disagrees that the traditional prohibition on homosexuality is wrong, then she can substitute another outmoded moral rule of her choosing.)
Clearly this isn’t the only way to think about ethics. But, as I said, it’s a plausible one–and one that I think helps account for sentiments like the ones expressed in Irin Carmon’s piece.