Imposing Morality

TracingWoodgrains - [original thread]

Recently, some friends and I were discussing a news story that’s been trickling around the Mormonsphere: Two science societies removed BYU's job postings over the school’s Honor Code ban on ‘homosexual behavior'. I'd like to both lift some of their thoughts and provide some of my own, since my reaction to it is a bit complicated.


The major issue at hand, loosely put: When is it your duty to impose your morality on others? When is it optional, but acceptable? When is it wrong?

I think first growing up between Mormonism and the internet with their radically different views, then leaving the church and later falling in love with another man, has left me much more cautious about being prescriptive towards others in terms of morality that requires positive action.

So, for example, I have no problem expecting people not to do things: don’t use slurs, don’t mock people, what have you. But I’m reluctant to expect people to do things: you must use X pronoun, you must bake this cake, you must perform this marriage, etc. Most of all, I’m reluctant to expect certain thoughts: you must subscribe to this ideology, you must disown this way of thinking, so forth.

Part of it’s the thought that I could be wrong, but a much larger part of it is the realization that in the eyes of many I care about, I either was or am now horribly wrong. I don’t ever want to feel incapable of expressing my sincere thoughts without being hated, so I try to extend others the same privilege. By extension of that, I mostly hold an increasingly unpopular position on LGBT issues: There's nothing immoral about being gay, trans, bi, what have you, but someone shouldn't be ostracized for believing they're sinful.


Trying to generalize this into a principle with my friends led to a few thoughts on morality. A friend put forth the framing of first, second, and third-order morality in moral systems that I appreciate.

First-order negative morality: You should not do this. Theft and murder are two classic examples.

First-order positive morality: You should do this. Say, donating money to charity.

Second-order negative morality: You should expect others not to do this. BYU's prohibition against 'homosexual behavior' lands here. So do most criminal laws.

Second-order positive morality: You should expect others to do this. Stack Overflow's recent ToS change requiring specific pronoun use falls here.

Third-order morality: You should (or should not) step in when others enforce their second-order morality. This is where the job posting removal falls.

Throwing my immediate response from above into this framing: When it comes to enforcing second-order morality, "don't do this" is typically more defensible than "you must do this", though I can see a place for both. Third-order morality, on the other hand, requires much more certainty. You're effectively strong-arming your way into someone else's system and saying, "Your system cannot do this." It's not by nature wrong, but it can have intense ramifications.

Foreign intervention often falls under the third-order morality umbrella, as do various reformations and revolutions throughout history. On a smaller scale more often brought up in this forum, the outside push for tech companies to implement codes of conduct fits, as do various attempted cancelings.

Sometimes effective, sometimes good, but very dangerous.


I think there is definite right and wrong and a moral system needs to provide positive expectations to be worthwhile. One of my favorite parts of the LDS moral system was always how confident it was in making those positive prescriptions. That’s what kept me clinging to it as long as I did, more than anything else. It claimed to be that system. It had the path towards The Good, and it told me that as long as I aligned myself with that path I would stay in the right and could be confident. I wanted that to be true more badly than I have ever wanted–and most likely will ever want–anything else to be true. It nearly broke me when I realized I couldn’t reconcile all the flaws into an ultimately pristine whole.

Partially as a result of that, I have no confidence in any one group, at least not one with any real power, to provide a correct set of positive prescriptions. I don’t trust myself to provide that, either, at least not at scale. Every major ideology currently present in my world seems to have tremendous, overarching flaws that create horrifying blind spots. There’s a paradox here: We must have prescriptive positive morality to build good structures, but no single group can be trusted to provide it.

And so my distributist tendencies emerge socially: The more people an organization holds sway over, the less positive action it ought to prescribe. A city? A small faith like Mormonism? A Benedictine group? Go wild. Determine everything. Scale it up to the whole of society? Back off. You don’t know me. You don’t know what’s best for me. You don’t know why I am where I’m at, and you wouldn’t care if you knew. Don’t you dare make me do anything beyond a bare minimum to keep things functional.

(lest this is making me sound too libertarian, let me add that right now, things like companies and academia hold at least as much sway over society as a whole as governments right now. I don’t trust Google, Disney, Harvard, or Stanford as arbiters of The Good any more than I trust Congress. We have too many centralized, powerful entities right now, and I don't expect weakening government would improve that.)

There's a place for positive prescriptivism, but only if it’s tightly constrained and contains clear exit routes. The answer to “this ideology doesn’t work for me” shouldn’t always be “you’re broken. Change yourself until it works” or “the ideology is broken. Change it until it fits you.” Sometimes, a better answer is “find a different space, and let these people have theirs.”


Going back to the job posting removal that started this all:

If I was in charge of a society like that and removed job listings for every university I thought enabled reprehensible and damaging viewpoints, I would be surprised if a single university stayed. I have demanding and idiosyncratic moral standards that no large organization I know of meets. I think the removal of the BYU listings does more to stamp out diversity than to encourage it, enforcing a society-wide moral standard unrelated to the task at hand, thereby having at best a neutral effect and at worst an actively distortionary and damaging effect on the field as a whole.

My answer would likely be different if I thought LGBT people had trouble getting scientific jobs in general. I don't see that happening, though. That particular ship has sailed, and so this removal does not improve their opportunities in any meaningful way.

But in truth, it's hard to know how much of that is principle and how much of it is a reflection of my familiarity with the specific viewpoints at all. I get the challenge LGBT issues pose to Mormon theology, and the way apparently simple changes would throw the whole system into confusion. So far, my Mormon friends have been uniformly respectful and loving towards my position, and I'm optimistic that given time and space the system will adapt. Until then, I went and found a different space. The abstractions fall apart for me because the example is a personal one.

I'm not sure taking it back to the meta layer works perfectly, in other words. The specifics of the case are always going to matter, both as to what actually happens and as to what any given person finds acceptable. The more conservative institutions begin to diverge from the standards of society at large, though, the more this tension between personal and public morality will matter.