This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In the last post, I began to explore the meaning of justice to see whether it could stand alongside love as a core ethical principle, or whether justice was simply an application of love.
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Living in Community
I want to turn now to aspects of justice relating to communities. Often we have ethical obligations to groups as well as to individuals and it can be hard to decide how to treat people relative to one another. I’m a firm believer that organizations, both secular and religious hold fast to principles such as liberty, equality, and responsibility and yet I see them primarily as ways we deal with general policy, but not specific cases. Often there are too many relationships involved to deal with on a one-by-one basis and we are forced to average our ethical concerns over a community. It’s painful, but necessary. This does not mean that we can then fall back on the rule when troubles arise, but it does allow us to generate more general policies.
Consider public restrooms as an example where generic ethics need to be applied in regards to sex and sexuality. I take it as given that public buildings need to provide restrooms and that, in many cases, the volume of people makes it impractical to construct a separate restroom for every individual. At the same time, there are a number of reasons to separate men and women. I hope to return to this subject in detail later on, but for now, let me say that one of the most important reasons, from my perspective, has to do with the (unfortunate) power differential between men and women (in our society) and the need for women to have spaces they can go where men cannot follow. It is not simply a matter of gender roles or clothing requirements. In small communities I might be able to assess both power and gender dynamics of all members and come up with another solution (perhaps mixed sex bathrooms with closed stalls). In large communities, I have to do the best I can, envisioning the most common as well as the most dangerous situations. As I do so, liberty (the ability of everyone to find a toilet), equality (equivalent accommodations for everyone), and responsibility (strict expectations about who uses which room) will be important criteria.
The common solution, of course, presents difficulties. How do we accommodate transgender members of the public? Some people do not have matching gender (social role/clothing/…) and sex (biology/anatomy). [For details of language, see here.] Occasionally – when sex obviously does not match gender – a transgender person may have difficulty dealing with social expectations for which bathroom to use. These situations call for loving concern for the particular people involved, not retrenchment in the rules-of-thumb we invoked earlier. The easiest solution is often to have a one person, gender-neutral restroom available.
I only sketched my moral reasoning here. The point of the example is, rather, to demonstrate the difference between the core ethical principle of love and the pragmatic rules-of-thumb: liberty, equality, and responsibility. The latter are necessary when dealing with large numbers of people, but only so that we can apply the core principle reliably. They yield to love when conflicts arise, and thus should not be considered core ethical principles.
As I explore several more aspects of “justice” in the next post, keep an eye out for where they might apply for communities and whether they will ever arise as issues for individuals.