General Pace and Immorality
General Pace’s remark that homosexuality is "immoral" has been widely condemned—and rightly so. Still, it is a little disconcerting that even Senators Clinton and Obama, who have staked out claims to be friends of gays, cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that homosexual conduct is moral.
At all events, the incident served to remind me that I did not treat immorality in my Homolexis. The reason was, I suppose, that conduct pertaining to this expression is not restricted to homosexuality. In principle, immorality covers the widest possible range of improper behavior, any behavior that (as the dictionary tells us) "conflicts with generally held moral principles." Just so, I suppose. Yet we do not usually label as immoral an act like that of the man who assaulted a 101-year old woman on the streets of New York a few days ago. That was a criminal act. Immoral behavior can comprise, and often comprises things that are not against the law, but are inappropriate nonetheless. Still, a man whose gambling addiction seems out of control is not generally called immoral. Similarly, alcoholics. In both these cases, the disease model seems now to prevail.
Without anyone decreeing any formal limitation, the label immoral, uttered without any qualifier, now seems to connote sexual misbehavior, be it fornication, adultery, or homosexuality. This narrowing recalls that of the concept of sin. According to the standard medieval analysis there are seven Deadly Sins. Lust is only one of them. If we hear, though, that someone is a “sinner” we do not usually think of gluttony or anger, but of sexual transgression.
We tend to look to the Greeks and Roman for guidance on ethical matters. Yet their views seem to have been very different regarding the contrast of morality vs. immorality. The ancient Greeks recognized a dichotomy between physis and nomos. Physis is the world of nature, which goes on its way without any regard for human affairs. The contrasting term nomos, meaning custom or convention, refers exclusively to the human sphere.
The latter concept also informs the Latin mos, mores, custom(s). Customs may be good or bad (recall Cicero’s famous lament: “O tempora, o mores”) However, the classical Latin language does not record a word “immoralis.” The reason is that mores are what one doesn’t depart from. One can deface or pervert one or another aspect of the realm of mos, but one never leaves that world.
Interestingly, the word immoral appeared in the same year (1660) in French and English. The motive seems to be to find some secular equivalent of the concepts of sin or vice. The French language has preserved a version of the original core word, in moeurs, so that there can be an "offence des moeurs," meriting legal sanction. There are also some curious expressions for homosexuality: moeurs arabes, moeurs levantins, etc. All these words are ethnophaulism, that is, they suggest that “those people” adhere to their customs. Fortunately, they are not our customs, or should not be.
One might say that those who are immoral do not depart from the realm of morals, but only adopt bad morals. In that case, the proper word would be “dysmoral.” However, the rhetoric that suggests that the immoral person sets himself completely against the world of morals is all too tempting. In that respect the word recalls another bugbear, unnatural.
At the end of the nineteenth century Friedrich Nietzsche figured as the arch opponent of morality—as the immoralist par excellence. Not only did Nietzsche challenge the existing moral structure, he proposed an “Umwertung aller Werte,” an inversion of all values. (More than anyone else, Nietzsche is probably responsible for the current vogue of the expression “values.”)
At all events when André Gide published his novel L’Immoraliste in 1902, no one was in any doubt that the hero was falling into sexual immorality. Of what sort, Gide did not specify. Given the circumstances of the writer's own life, however, one is inclined to read homosexuality into the equation.
This brings us back to General Pace. If homosexual conduct is immoral, especially in the military, what about heterosexual fornication? Should not that transgression be punished by exclusion from the service? Pace mentions adultery--he's against it. But how many heterosexual adulterers in the military have actually been drummed out of the service? Alas, such a policy would probably cause us to lose three-quarters of our military personnel. So why then does "homosexual immorality." when detected,merit automatic disqualifation from service?
It seems then that "immorality" does have a special connotation with homosexuality. Other forms of immorality in the military usually spell only a letter in one's file. Once disclosed same-sex behavior merits dismissal. Unless of course soldiers are needed to risk their lives, as is happening in Iraq. We have not just a double standard but a triple one. There are three categories: 1) the behavior is deplorable but requires no action; 2) the behavior normally merits severance, but the authorities will look the other way in wartime: 3) the behavior, once disclosed, disqualifies the individual from military service. Another trifecta comes to mind,
In my early days in the ROTC, I was told that there are three ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way, and the army way. General Pace is a marine, but I would not limit instances of his approach to the military.