Friday, August 13, 2004
General and particular
As you probably know, McGreevey gave a speech yesterday in which he both came out as gay and announced his resignation as the governor of New Jersey. The connection between those two facts is a little bit unclear. Preliminary reports seem to indicate that McGreevey had an affair with a man by the name of Golan Cipel, gave Cipel any number of jobs that he didn't deserve (including New Jersey's top Homeland Security post), and was facing a $5 million dollar sexual harrassment suit from Cipel. This is all on top of a history of credible allegations that McGreevey was more than a little muddy when it came to political patronage.
If you look at the particulars of the scandal, then it's pretty hard to deny that McGreevey would have been in extremely hot political water even if the affair had been with a live woman. For myself, I'm inclined to believe that (a) the same scandal with a live woman would have ended McGreevey's political career; and, (b) McGreevey's actions are sufficiently egregious that the people of New Jersey are well rid of him.
At the same time, I think it's just ridiculous to take these two points and conclude from them that McGreevey's sexual orientation isn't politically relevant. I've read folks around the web claiming that his sexuality was an open secret and asserting that the good people of New Jersey wouldn't have allowed a little buggery to cloud their voting preferences. This is just bullshit. You can condemn McGreevey's actions from a standpoint that's neutral with regard to sexual orientation, but I doubt very much that they can be understood without first acknowledging the fact that we live in a deeply homophobic culture. As far as the electoral prognostication goes, I'll believe it when the first openly gay politician is elected to statewide office anywhere. Until then, save it.
But I said that there was tension for me here. Let me try to explain. Here's a paragraph from a (very rough) draft of a paper I'm working on:
First, it rules out of court the possibility that we might regard ourselves as having reason to act, and even moral reason, in cases where we are not prepared to articulate a principle on which we are acting. Given the complexity of particular moral decisions, it’s not clear that we will always be willing to locate or endorse such a principle. The point is that any principle we find will, necessarily, simplify the situation. This means that by committing ourselves to acting from principle, we commit ourselves to acting on reasons which are less fine grained than are the situations in which we find ourselves.In the quoted graf my main contention is that we should seek to understand each moral situation through close attention to its idiosyncratic particularity, rather than through the lens of more general principles of interpretation. My analysis of the McGreevey case, though, appears to conflict with my theoretical commitment. In the McGreevey analysis my contention is that paying too close attention to the particulars of the case will block from view more general facts that we ought to attend to. As it happens, I'm confident that this apparent tension can be reconciled. I think, that is, that the right thing to say is that we misrepresent the idiosyncratic particularity of the McGreevey case if we bracket off facts about the status of homosexuality in American culture. But while it's clear enough what I want to say, it seems to me that I have to put a lot more thought into the issue of how we conceptualize the particular.
It's a puzzle.