A PECULIAR PEOPLE
February 11, 1979
In late December, 1978, I wrote a letter to
a philosophy professor in the east, during the course of which I
remarked: "I fear that you will find (Utah) to be something of a
moral backwater. The prevailing sentiments are strongly
anti-feminist, anti-abortion, politically reactionary and racist.
There is a great deal of concern about personal 'sin' and a profound
indifference toward social and institutional evil." This was an
off-hand comment in a letter that was devoted to other matters.
Thus I believed that this would be the end of it. Not so.
That correspondence found its way to the desk of a professor in
Utah, who promptly sent me a letter (with a copy to my
philosopher-friend) expressing "disappointment" in my view of Utah
as a "moral backwater." Indeed, he protested, he "couldn't disagree
with you more!"
The following is my reply to the local professor, with all
identifying references edited out.
April 11, 1979
Concerning my charge that "Utah is racist" (I prefer my original,
qualified, formulation: "the prevailing sentiments are . .racist .
. [etc.], I will let it suffice to have you talk with some people
I know at the local NAACP office, the Black Students Union, or the
University Law School. I will concede that if the local culture is
more than a bit racist, I seem not to notice it directly and personally
-- that is to say, I haven't been racially discriminated against -- so
maybe I shouldn't be concerned. But somehow I am. Concerning
my charge of "political reaction," I refer you to local public opinion
polls, the ACLU (if you can find any members here!), the voting records
in Congress, the docket at the Utah Legislature, and (again) the Law
School. About "anti-feminism," I assure you that my wife could
bend your ear a bit. But maybe a reading of Marilyn Warenski's
book Patriarchs and Politics will suffice.
While I do not wish to trade statistics with you, I might at least offer
a correction. Utah's homicide rate is not low -- actually, it
ranks thirteenth among the states. As the enclosed Utah Holiday
article will indicate, the statistics are a mixed bag. Selectively
used, they are supportive of all sides of the "quality of life" debate.
For instance, Utah is low in abortion and illegitimacy rates (hooray!).
But Utah has its own way of treating these problems. Thus, "about
60 percent of all teenage births in Utah are conceived pre-maritally."
(UH, p. 18). With such an abundance of shotguns in the
wedding parties, it is perhaps not surprising that the duration of
marriage in Utah (4.9 years) is the fourth lowest in the nation.
But now I am moving toward that point-by-point rebuttal that I had hoped
to avoid. Instead, I would rather place my major attention on two
points on the first page of your letter. Other remarks in your
note, eminently suitable for comment and refutation, will be reluctantly
Let us turn first to this matter of abortion. It is most
instructive of the sort of thing that I have in mind. To begin,
let me report that I have never met or read from anyone who is, strictly
speaking, "pro abortion" -- not Garrett Hardin, not Judith Thompson, not
even Michael Tooley, and, I assure you, not me. No one I know of
thinks that abortion is, prima facie a nice thing -- thinks, that
is that the world would not be a better place if, all other things
equal, there were no abortions. But all other things are
manifestly not "equal," and in this morally imperfect world, the price
of attempting to abolish all abortions may simply be exorbitant --
morally exorbitant. Indeed, the price of certain steps to reduce
abortions may be too high (while other steps to reduce their number,
e.g. contraception and sex education, might be quite acceptable).
You see, some "anti abortionists" (e.g. myself) believe that while
abortion is "bad," there are worse things than abortion; such things as
forced marriages, etc. The whole question is enormously complex
and subtle, as you well know. My complaint is this: precious few
so-called "right to life" advocates "know this very well." I grieve for
the aborted fetuses (not "persons," not "children," not "babies," but
fetuses"), but I grieve still more for the "abortion" of language, moral
circumspection, and simple common sense that has attended this "debate."
As a youngster I was taught, and believed, that morality consists in the
triumph of good (or "virtue") over evil. I have since learned that
it is much more than this. Perhaps the more significant arenas of
moral conflict and choice are between, not good and evil, but "good" and
"better," or among a selection of evils of which at least one must be
endured. In other words, some of our most agonizing moral
decisions involve options which, of necessity, require us to sacrifice
some "goods" in favor of higher moral payoffs, and which force us to
accept at least one of a menu of options, any and all of which might
have regrettable consequences. In such cases (possibly most cases
of moral choice) what is required is sobriety, intelligence, an
available fund of practical (i.e., "worldly") knowledge, in addition to
a kit of applicable moral principles and concepts. Unfortunately,
into this world of moral complexity and compromise, a world where wise
men tread with care and sobriety, the fools rush in. And God only
knows what damage has been done by well-intentioned, highly motivated,
moral simpletons! Faithful to their few (or single) maxims, maxims
bestowed on them by their "inspired leaders" they "do what is right and
let the consequences follow." Believing "virtue" to be the "triumph of
good over evil" they are content to identify an evil on one side or
another of a social issue, and that nicely and neatly settles the issue.
For example: "Martin Luther King? We can't support him, he's a
lawbreaker!" Or "Oppose the Viet Nam War? Why, that's treason!" Or,
"environmental protection? But that's Socialism!" Or "ERA? But they are
for abortion!" Or, "Abortion? Never! There is no excuse whatever for
killing babies!" Thus are the evils of racial discrimination, foreign
aggression, pollution and disease, sex discrimination, and illegitimacy
and child abuse perpetuated. These evils, and many more, are
tolerated and perpetuated through willful ignorance coupled with moral
fervor and the "best" of intentions. And add to all this a
rhetoric of moral indignation and incitement that is utterly heedless of
the facts, logic, complexities and particularities of the cases.
(See my 2003 essay,
The Paradoxical "Right to Life."
As an example of such irresponsible rhetoric, consider once again the
abortion case (albeit capital punishment, gun control, and a number of
other issues could serve quite as well). Surely, as a student of
moral philosophy you are well aware that the concept of a "person"
entails, minimally: (a) consciousness of oneself as a continuing
intentional being, (b) deliberative rationality, and (c) an ability to
act on principle (or "second order volitions," as Harry Frankfort calls
Because of these capacities, persons have rights, dignity, assume
duties, and are due moral solicitude. Should I encounter a
cockroach that displays these capacities, I shall conclude that he (it?)
is a "person" (but I doubt that I shall). Should I encounter a
fetus that has these qualities, I shall agree that it is a "person," and
my moral posture concerning abortion will be radically revised.
But I doubt that I shall ever encounter a pre-natal person because I
have found no infants that have such qualities. Now don't get me
wrong. There are many good reasons to preserve the lives of
fetuses, and much better reasons to cherish the lives of infants.
But present and actual "personhood" is not one of those reasons.
Yet there is now before the various state legislatures a constitutional
amendment which, if added to the Constitution, will stipulate that, by
law, the fetus is a human "person," due all the protection accorded
adult citizens. (I believe that Utah has enthusiastically ratified
this amendment). But let all the fifty states ratify this
amendment and I assure you that not one fetus will gain one iota of
deliberative rationality as a result. (We might as well pass an
amendment abolishing cancer). And this is only a sample of the
unthinking emotion, the conceptual folly, the moral myopia, that attends
this so-called "debate." Show me a community that responds to the word
"abortion" with cries of "murdered babies," with no thought as to the
enormous human cost of categorical legal prohibition, and no active
concern about diminishing the demand for abortion through sex education
and available contraception, and I will show you a community that has a
minuscule claim to moral sensitivity and sophistication. Charles
Frankel put it well: a man who is devoted to a single principle is not a
moralist, he is a fanatic. (A paraphrase -- I forgot the source).
The simplistic, uncritical, uncompromising, fervent attitude toward
abortion that I find here does not, as you phrase it, "redound to Utah's
good judgment." Rather, it testifies to a response that I will not
hesitate to call "fanatical."
Again, I have chosen above to examine the local attitude toward
abortion, not so much to dispute the content of these attitudes as to
examine the manner of moral thinking (or lack of thinking) that these
attitudes display. I could have done as much with local attitudes
toward civil liberties, economic justice, capital punishment, gun
control, etc. However, since you seemed especially interested in
the abortion issue, I chose to examine that issue as an exemplar of the
local level of moral thinking. Having done so, I should like now
to reflect more directly upon this question of the quality of moral
judgment evident in the local community.
In your letter you write: "It is true, of course, that Utah is opposed
to the ERA amendment. What I think has happened here is that the
amendment has become confused with issues like abortion, lesbianism and
feminist talk about renouncing marriage and men." Here you testify
eloquently in my behalf. Why has the amendment become thus
"confused?" Because, I contend, we reside in a community that it
prone to such confusion -- a community of individuals ill-prepared and
disinclined to think clearly, consistently, coherently, inclusively, and
autonomously about moral issues. And here we arrive at my central
point of dissatisfaction with the prevailing approach in Utah to moral
questions: less the content of the local moral principles and less the
balance thereof (albeit my complaints concerning these aspects of the
local ethos are now manifest), but more the manner of moral judgment, or
better, the level of moral development that is evident here. As I
read John Wilson, John Rawls and Lawrence Kohlberg, and then contemplate
my neighbors and students and their moral deliberations (as manifest in
"talk shows," letters to the editors, the Utah Poll, the state
legislature, and, of course, in my classrooms), or the moral
pronouncements of their moral and religious leaders, quite frankly, I
blush. Here we find what Rawls would call a "morality of
authority" and a "morality of association" rarely rising to the high
level of a "morality of principles" (see A Theory of Justice,
Chapter VIII). As I contemplate the evidence of local moral
sophistication and development, I am hard-pressed to place it above
level IV of Kohlberg's scale (i.e., "law and order" and "obedience to
authority"). Even worse, the high stages ("post-conventional"
autonomy, rationality, and obedience to abstract principles) are highly
suspect in the local culture, and those who march to these moral
drummers are outcast (they don't conform).
These are grave charges. Let me attempt a defense thereof.
Consider Rawl's hierarchy (close enough to Kohlberg's so as not to
require separate application). Now apply it to Watergate. A
morality of authority mandates allegiance to the man (Nixon) or perhaps
the "office" of the presidency. A morality of association calls
for loyalty to the party or to "the president's team." A morality of
principle requires adherence to the Constitution and "the rule of law"
(i.e., to the courts and to Congress). Interesting applications
can likewise be made to other social issues.
Now what were the great social and moral issues of the past decade?
Did they concern beds and bottles? I think not.2
Instead, these issues come immediately to mind: racial injustice, war
and peace, political corruption ("Watergate"), poverty and economic
injustice, environmental deterioration. When the Kings, Spocks,
Coffins, Ellsbergs, Siricas, Jowarskis, Naders and Commoners, etc.,
spoke and acted against these manifest social evils, where, among these
leaders, or even among their cadres, were the Utahns or the Mormons?
I will grant that they were not totally absent. (Jack Anderson and
Wayne Owens come to mind -- and whatever became of Wayne Owens?).
I do maintain that their numbers and voices were disproportionately
small. How small? How many Utahns rode in the "freedom
rides" and helped to integrate the lunch counters? How many
protested against the Viet Nam War? Conversely, how many maintained, to
the bitter end, their allegiance to Mr. Nixon as he resolutely defied
the "divinely inspired" Constitution, and dishonored his oath to uphold
same. How many Utahns today really care about preserving the
incomparable splendor of Utah's natural environment for the enjoyment of
their super-abundant posterity? (Hint: only one out of ten Utahns
who wrote to the Department of Agriculture regarding the RARE II survey,
wrote in defense of wilderness in Utah). The record, I submit,
gives me little inclination to place "prevailing Utah attitudes" in the
Very well, if the talented, educated and dedicated Utahns are (or were)
not proportionately represented in the freedom rides, the Peace Corps,
Vista, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and so forth, then where are they?
They are in the FBI, the CIA, ITT, the Howard Hughes organization and
other such places and institutions that prize unquestioning loyalty and
obedience, unfettered by abstract moral scruples or rendered
undependable by an unrelinquished moral autonomy.
I believe that I can claim some relevant personal perspective on these
matters. I was born and raised in the LDS Church and began my
college education at Brigham Young University. A
great-great-grandfather, Edward Partridge, was the first bishop of the
Mormon Church, and he died in Missouri before his fortieth year, his
health broken in his steadfast defense of his church. Another
forbearer, William Clayton, stood at the side of Brigham Young at
Emigration Canyon, that summer of 1847. And there were many
others. In short I have an insider's view. But I have
another view as well. I was brought up in New York and New Jersey
and have lived in Florida, New York City and Wisconsin. Because I
have found my native creed to be scientifically, intellectually and
morally inadequate, I have chosen to disassociate myself (though my name
is still "on the books"). Thus I am, by choice, an "outsider." But
I maintain a continuing interest in the attitudes and mores of the
Utahns and the Mormons. I have lived intermittently in Utah for
over thirteen years, seven as a student, four as a philosophy teacher,
and additionally as a radio "communicaster" and performing musician.
Thus I believe I am a moderately competent judge of local attitudes.
It happens that I do not find the people here to be more "neighborly" or
"cooperative" than, say in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But then, when my
wife and I returned to Utah we did not successfully pass the first test
when we were asked (almost inevitably and early-on) "Are you a member of
THE CHURCH?" (Such a question never arose in Wisconsin). We
are cordial and cheerful with our "home teachers," though we avoid
discussing our beliefs with them and routinely but politely decline
their invitations to "come to church sometime." We do have some close
and enduring friendships here, but find that we have to search them out.
In short, I can well understand your contentment and pleasure with the
"neighborliness" of the Utahns. But then, you are on the inside.
You don't quite see it our way. We are not, in the sense deemed
most important here, really "neighbors."
I could go on -- and on. But you have before you a sketch at least
of what I mean when I say the Utah is "something" (note, please, the
qualifier) "of a moral backwater." I did not say, nor do I believe, that
Utahns and Mormons are without many morally redeeming features.
The "great deal of concern about personal "sin", of which I wrote, has
many positive consequences. For example, I like to jog a mile or
so each night at about ten PM and sometimes later. I would not do
this in the back streets of Manhattan, where I lived for several years.
The "profound emphasis on the family" is a marvelous feature of the
local culture, albeit, like any virtue, it can become a vice in excess
(cf. the Emmanuel David family and the John Singer family).
And while I applaud the emphasis on the quality of family life, I have
deep misgivings about the emphasis on the quantity thereof -- and the
attendant indifference to the serious problem of overpopulation.
But now I am beginning to carp again. Suffice it to say that if I
were to become snowbound on an automobile trip, I could think of few
safer and more hospitable places than in the middle of a small town in
Mormon Country -- provided, that is, I didn't have a Sierra Club decal
in the window. (I don't and we are members. We took the
decal off after some friends had their car windows smashed while on a
backpacking trip in Southern Utah).
I love this state. I only wish that most of the inhabitants
thereof deserved it. (They deserve, say, North Dakota instead).
I admire the moral virtues of many of my neighbors and students, but I
cannot admire their moral callousness. It is all such a waste!
Such a high level of formal education, such native intelligence, such
industry! But to what ends? Many of my students will become
lawyers, but how many will go on to work for Ralph Nader, the ACLU or
the Sierra Club? Many will become physicians, but how many will
serve the developing nations, or even in the rural United States
(outside of Utah)? Some will earn MBA's but then they will go on to
Exxon or GM, rather than joining government service to help devise ways
of making the bureaucracy more manageable and more responsive to social
needs. They are so damned comfortable! No need to write
great novels or essays, or to create lasting works or art (but fine
performing artists -- that obedience to discipline and authority
again!). No call for new philosophies, just apologetics.
("When the prophet has spoken, brethren, the thinking has been done!")
Some will become teachers, but our School of Education refuses to list
courses in the Philosophy and Sociology of Education, so they will
continue to fall victim to educational hucksters and to the latest
educational fads. Habits of critical thought are suspect, as is an
acquaintance with the works and ideas of the great philosophers.
Thus it is that our College of over eight thousand students cannot
sustain even three full-time philosophy teachers. What a damnable
waste! Hundreds of thousands of industrious, resourceful and dedicated
souls, "dedicated," first and foremost, to producing ever more of the
same, through proselytization and procreation, and so engrossed in the
pursuit of their individual salvation, and the salvation of their
ancestors, that they will not devote their considerable talents to the
service of a world and a species the salvation of which is desperately
A deplorable waste! A community of voluntary dropouts from the
profound and prevailing moral issues of our age. "A moral
backwater!" I do not repent of that phrase.
If you wish to "discuss these matters further" with me, go ahead.
But I confess that I haven't much taste for such a discussion. I
have spent too much time on your letter already (much more than I
intended), and quite frankly I mustn't devote additional time and energy
in argument and outrage against local cultural idiosyncrasies. To
do so would be to narrow my concerns and thus to commit the very offense
that I have complained of in the previous paragraphs. No, my task
now, and for the foreseeable future, is to formulate and articulate a
principle of moral duty to future generations (a duty ill-served
locally), and, additionally, a coherent code of environmental ethics.
There is nothing that I can do to improve the lot of my ancestors --
least of all, collect their names for microfilming and subsequent
re-internment. I will leave the dead to the Almighty, secure in
the conviction that He does not require my assistance. On the
other hand, the future remains very much our responsibility. "We
cannot escape history" -- our moral responsibilities to our successors
on this despoiled and endangered planet.
1 "Freedom of the Will
and the Concept of a Person," Journal of Philosophy, 1/14/71. (See
also Mary Ann Warren, "One the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion," The
Monist, January, 1973). This analysis is considerably extended in
How is Morality Possible?,
of my book in progress, Conscience of a Progressive, this site.
2 Occasionally I must point out to my Weber State
philosophy students that when Plato and Aristotle and others write about
"virtue," they just might mean something besides "chastity".