Moral Truth: A Lesson from the Donald Sterling Affair


When we make moral judgments, we implicitly and unavoidably acknowledge that there are objective standards of right and wrong to which we ought to conform our feelings and actions.

There is an important lesson to be drawn from the racist remarks made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and the public indignation that followed. I do not here have in mind a lesson about the role of racism in our society, or about the proper scope and limits of privacy. Those are important themes, but they have been discussed a good deal already.

The lesson I have in mind is far more elementary: a lesson about the rational status of our moral judgments. This lesson is worth drawing out because, despite being elementary, it is very important. It is also often overlooked these days, and the fact of that neglect has been critical to certain changes in our society—changes that we must reconsider to glean the lesson that the Donald Sterling affair has to teach.

Sterling’s Offense

We must first figure out the exact nature of Sterling’s offense. While some have noted that his recent remarks are part of a pattern of racist conduct, it is clear that most of the indignation directed at Sterling arises from the remarks themselves, in which he admonished his girlfriend not to associate publicly with African Americans.

What, then, was wrong in those remarks? The most obvious answer is that they were demeaning to African Americans. This is true, but it does not yet get to the key issue. Properly applied, moral condemnation requires a voluntary act. However reprehensible we may find these particular remarks, Donald Sterling did not voluntarily direct them as an insult at all African Americans. His remarks were taped in the context of a private conversation, and the tape was then leaked to the press without his consent.  Sterling did not choose to make these remarks in such a way as to offend anybody who was not a party to the conversation at the time. And an act that is not chosen cannot be blameworthy.

Again, then, we ask: what wrong was presented by what Donald Sterling said in that argument?

This, I think, brings us to the key point: there is public indignation at Sterling because his comments revealed him to be a racist, or at least to have racist tendencies. We sense that there is something wrong in just being a racist, apart from any consequences that may or may not follow from that status. Put another way, he showed himself to have improper feelings about African Americans, a generalized disdain that a whole race of people could never actually deserve. Indignation cannot reasonably arise from the insult delivered by the remarks, because it is obvious that he did not intend the insult. Our indignation arises, instead, from our sense that his feelings themselves are culpably out of line.

Can Feelings Be Morally Wrong?

Can our feelings be culpably out of line? Undoubtedly they can, and we can see this more clearly if we reflect for a moment on one possible line of defense that Sterling might try, but which would certainly fail. He could observe that he has usually taken care to conceal his racist feelings from the public, and has therefore behaved responsibly in protecting his fellow human beings from them. But as for the feelings themselves, he might continue, “They are what they are. I can’t control my feelings themselves, nor is there any standard by which I, or anybody else, can judge my feelings to be bad.” As Woody Allen once said, “The heart wants what it wants.” Sterling might recall that remark and remind his critics of its corollary: “The heart rejects what the heart rejects.”

Nobody, I think, would accept this argument. Everybody, instead, would stick to their original insight that the feelings are blameworthy and deserve condemnation as unreasonable and unjust.

Here, then, we encounter the elementary lesson with which the Sterling affair should reacquaint us: when we make moral judgments, we implicitly and unavoidably acknowledge that there are objective standards of right and wrong independent of our feelings, and to which we ought to conform our feelings. Put another way, the public reaction to Sterling’s remarks reminds us that—whatever some of us may say when we find an appeal to moral relativism convenient—we are, as human beings, by our nature moral realists, believers in ethical standards that we hold to be true, and not just a projection of our own feelings or sentiments.

It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of this elementary lesson because many of us—in other contexts than the problem of racism, and for other purposes than combating it—have been trying to deny it for a long time. The effort was underway almost seventy years ago when C.S. Lewis—in his indispensable little book, The Abolition of Man—refuted, and examined the dangers of, the belief that reason plays no fundamental part in our moral judgments, that such judgments are nothing more than projections of our subjective feelings.

This view is as dangerous as it is erroneous, Lewis contended, because in the long run we will be unable to sustain our commitment to moral principles that we believe are nothing more than manifestations of our feelings. The issues at stake go far beyond academic moral philosophy. Civilization, Lewis warned, depends on moral realism. Events in the western world have tended to confirm this warning, even though things have not progressed (yet) to the complete collapse of morality about which Lewis was concerned. The implications of the denial of moral realism have been contained because the nations of the West have applied the denial selectively.

If It Feels Good, Do It

Nevertheless, where it has been applied, it has been applied with vigor, and with exactly the results that Lewis predicted. The sexual revolution has made its breathtaking strides on the basis of appeals to the subjectivity of feelings and the supposed impossibility of objective moral judgments about their value. Traditional standards of sexual morality, which were based on the assumption that there is a rationally discernible order by which we can judge our sexual desires to be properly or improperly directed, have been overthrown by the assertion, repeated until it has come to be widely accepted, that nothing but our feelings counts when it comes to sex.

The expression “if it feels good, do it” is a well-known caricature of the ideology of sexual liberation. Only it is not really a caricature so much as an apt description. The predominant argument by which easy divorce, premarital sex, adultery, and finally homosexual conduct have been legitimized has always depended on the claim that these things simply could not be wrong if they were pleasing to the feelings of those who wanted to do them.

The Sterling affair should remind us that this claim is both dangerous and unpersuasive. It we really commit ourselves to the idea that the feelings are themselves the source of moral principles, then there is no basis on which to condemn Donald Sterling’s feelings. If there are no objective moral standards that reason can perceive, we have no business telling Sterling what he ought to feel. We might try to evade the necessity of moral realism by appealing to the feelings of the majority and holding that everybody will simply have to conform to them. Most of us think that racism is repellent, we might say, and we are simply acting out our own feelings when we condemn a Donald Sterling. This approach is obviously inadequate, however. It obliterates the distinction between a just public order and a tyranny of the majority, since it recognizes no standard other than the majority’s feelings by which to be guided. In this view, we would have to concede that Sterling’s racism was appropriate and just, back in the days when it was shared by most people.

But if moral realism must be acknowledged in order to make sense of our moral judgments about racism, then it also must be acknowledged, at least potentially, in relation to our judgments about sexual morality. This is not to say that the acknowledged evil of racism proves the truth of traditional sexual morality. It is to say that the claim by which traditional sexual morality has been popularly debunked—the claim that feelings are the source of our judgments about what is fitting—is disproven by our experience of making moral judgments, such as our moral judgments about racist attitudes. There is, after all, no principled way to hold that our feelings about race—divorced from any intended overt actions—must be subject to rational moral judgment, while our feelings about sex or anything else can be peremptorily exempted from such analysis.

Perhaps the proponents of sexual liberation could prevail against an argument that our sexual feelings are subject to moral judgments informed by our rational knowledge of the nature of things. But they certainly should not be allowed to avoid that kind of argument entirely by the claim—disproven by our common moral experience—that reason has no authority to judge our feelings at all.

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity.


Related Reading


Web Briefings