Code: BD-2



by Patrick Shade

Rhodes College

Memphis, TN 38112



I propose a discussion of Carlos Ballís recent book, The Morality of Gay Rights.† Ball argues that defending the rights of gays to marry and to adopt requires a fuller conception of the good life than we typically find in such views as neutral or pragmatic liberalism.† Developing a position he calls moral liberalism, Ball contends that gays have the same needs and capabilities as their heterosexual counterparts and so deserve the same rights as heterosexuals to marry and adopt.† He also develops a sexual ethics consonant with this moral liberalism that prioritizes openness, mutuality, and pleasure.† Ballís topic is very relevant to the national debate concerning gay rights which was reignited by the June 2003 Supreme Court decision; the voices of American philosophers at a conference focusing on religion and civil rights should prove insightful in critiquing and developing Ballís position.




I propose a discussion of Carlos Ballís The Morality of Gay Rights (New York: Routledge, 2003).[1]† The book is relevant both to the contemporary national debate concerning the rights of gays to marry and adopt and to the 2004 SAAP conference theme, "Religion and Civil Rights."


Ballís book was published prior to the Supreme Courtís June 2003 decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, but it goes beyond the privacy issues that were at the heart of that case.† Ball argues that progress in securing gay rights requires making a fuller case for the morality of gay rights.† He contends that a defense of the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry and to adopt will be limited unless we go beyond the moral neutrality of traditional liberalism.† Conservatives argue against gay rights on the basis of moral arguments, and Ball believes proponents of gay rights must offer their own moral arguments.


Neutral liberalism, such as that of Rawls or Dworkin, brackets moral questions concerning the good and accounts for the neutral values of tolerance and equality.† Such a view fails to provide a sufficiently rich conception of the moral life needed to support the rights of gays to marry and adopt.† Ball contends that similar problems beset the pragmatic liberalism of Rorty; more particularly, in eschewing metaphysics, Rorty overlooks elements of common humanity we all share.† Instead, Ball offers a general argument in favor of gay rights that grows out of a needs/capabilities approach, such as the one Martha Nussbaum offers.† Gay men and lesbians have needs and capabilities (concerning basic living as well as forming intimate relationships and raising children) similar to their heterosexual counterparts; meeting these needs and exercising these capabilities makes possible a full human life.† The rights that protect and support those needs are just as applicable to homosexuals as to heterosexuals, and so they should be guaranteed to all.† Ball calls this position "moral liberalism."† It is moral because it offers a rich moral vision of the good, yet it is also a form of liberalism in its embrace of autonomy.† Ball argues that our relationships to others are integral parts of how we, as individuals, live autonomous lives; hence, autonomy does not conflict with the social nature of individuals.† Ball criticizes communitarians, however, for they overlook the significance of choice in forming communities; communities of choice are central to gay lives.† Ballís moral liberalism embraces the value of autonomy while also acknowledging the social nature of the individual.


Ball completes his argument by turning to the insights of Foucault, whose philosophy helps us develop a sexual ethics that differs from the typically Christian sexual ethics of conservatives.† The point of this ethics is to contest the view that the lives of gays and lesbians are, especially in their sexual acts and relationships with one another, devoid of any moral value.† Christian sexual ethics locates morality in specific sex acts that are defined by gender and specific body parts.† By contrast, the key ingredients of a gay and lesbian sexual ethics are openness (being honest about our lives), mutuality (engendering trust and confidence in others), and pleasure that is creative and transformative.† Ball argues that all three of these elements of a sexual ethics acknowledge and promote dignity and self-respect.


Ballís book is very timely and fits nicely with the SAAP conference theme.† Gay rights have been a significant part of the national debate for nearly a decade, and the discussion has only intensified since the Supreme Courtís decision in June.† Ball addresses the positions of religious conservatives and offers an alternative in support of the rights of gays and lesbians.† His position is radical, going beyond that of most commentators by offering an explicitly moral argument in favor of gay rights.† It is also comprehensive in scope, drawing on and addressing the positions of, on the one hand, liberals and conservatives and, on the other, analytic, pragmatic, and continental philosophers. †Ballís book should be of interest to American philosophers, especially because his moral liberalism criticizes the liberalís conception of the atomic individual that is what it is prior to community.† While Ball himself appears to have limited knowledge of American pragmatism (he mentions Dewey but does not explore his differences from Rorty), the pragmatic tradition offers valuable resources in addressing his themes of needs, capabilities, and communities.† In particular, recent attention by pragmatists to habits, emotions, and community are all relevant to this issue. †While Ball mentions most of these themes (though habits play little role in his discussion), the voices of Dewey, Addams, Royce, and Mead as well as contemporary American philosophers[2] should offer insights that help us critique and enrich Ballís intriguing position.† A discussion of his book would, I believe, spark many ideas and prompt a fruitful consideration of this timely topic.

[1] Carlos Ball is Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Ė Champaign.

[2] Larry Hickman has argued, for instance, for a functionalist interpretation of the family in "Making the Family Functional: The Case for Legalized Same-Sex Domestic Partnerships," Philosophy of the Social Science 29 (1999): 231-247.