The immorality of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

NATHANIEL FRANK is senior research fellow at the Michael D. Palm Center at UC Santa Barbara.

WHEN MARINE Gen. Peter Pace said this week that he opposed letting gays serve openly in the military because homosexuality is “immoral,” he raised important questions about the role of individual moral codes in shaping broad social policy. But even more elementary is the question of what “morality” actually is. For a concept that’s thrown around in discussions including abortion, global warming and the war in Iraq, there’s often very little reflection about what it truly means to call a person or an act immoral.

The word “moral” shares a Latin root with “mores,” which refers to generally accepted norms and customs. But this gives us only limited insight into how most people use the word “morality” today. After all, some cultures and historical eras found acceptable behaviors that most people now find grotesque, such as genocide in Nazi Germany or slavery in the Old South.

The modern meaning of “moral” is broader than this, referring to standards of goodness and rightness in character and conduct. To put it simply, something that is moral is beneficial to society, and something that’s immoral causes society harm.

Pace said his opposition to homosexuality was grounded in the beliefs he was taught as a youth. “My upbringing is such that I believe that there are certain … types of conduct that are immoral,” he said, citing homosexuality and adultery.

Although people often conflate religion and morality, the two are not the same. Religion is about faith; morality is about goodness. Yet both are often invoked to express strongly held beliefs. Without offering an explanation of what is actually wrong with homosexuality, Pace, like those who invoke the Bible to oppose gay rights, is merely parroting dogma he inherited, not making a reasoned argument.

This may be, of course, all that Pace wanted to do. Dogma is not always a bad thing, as putting your every belief to the test of careful thought can be exhausting. But dogma shouldn’t be the sole basis for forming a moral position. And when it comes to public policy, no debate can be confined to the moral code or religious faith of one particular group.

Pace later indicated that he should have kept his personal beliefs separate from his support of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but the fact is that the policy is intimately bound up with the personal, moral beliefs of the political and military leaders who created it. That’s because it is based on the assumption that service members, like Pace himself, find homosexuality so morally objectionable that they would not want to serve with gays and that cohesion would suffer as a result of accepting gays.

So what is the role of moral beliefs in a discussion about military service? Can we use logic, evidence and data to determine if something is immoral?

With some large philosophical issues (When does life begin? When is war justified?), the debate may be little more than a battle of opposing moral views. But for more practical issues — ones like whether homosexuality impairs the armed forces or whether gay parenting hurts children — we can indeed ask whether homosexuality is immoral by examining whether it harms society.

In the case of the military, those against gay service generally haven’t relied on Pace’s argument that homosexuality is immoral per se. Instead, they claim that enough people find it immoral that allowing gays to serve openly would undermine the cohesion of fighting units and harm the military.

Social science evidence, however, shows clearly that this argument is incorrect. Twenty-four nations now allow gays to serve openly, including our major allies fighting in the Middle East, and detailed reports conclude that there is no effect on operational effectiveness. In some cases, those nations shared the kind of homophobic climate found in the United States. Within the U.S. military, studies show that thousands of straight soldiers, sailors and Marines know of gays in their units, and no harm to unit cohesion has been observed.

Opinion polls also show that Americans now overwhelmingly — up to 79% in a recent Gallup survey — support letting gays serve openly in the military, which further weakens the argument against gay service. In surveys of military personnel, a majority (72% in a Zogby poll from late 2006) is “personally comfortable” around gays. This increased comfort with homosexuality has pulled the rug out from under the unit-cohesion argument.

The same holds true in the debate over same-sex marriage, which many oppose because they presume it harms families and children. But no reputable study shows any harm whatsoever to children living in same-sex households.

So if homosexuality isn’t actually harmful to important institutions in American life — the military and the family — how is it immoral?

Social science evidence will not persuade millions of people to change their moral code, especially those who are content to adopt without question the morality they were raised with. But if you’re going to say something is immoral, I believe you should be willing to consider why — to examine what is bad or hurtful about it. More people are harmed in this world, I would submit, by the refusal to look and to see than by the wish to ask and to tell.