Should anyone accused of sexual harassment be allowed to hold public office? This is a question Americans are addressing in, what I hope, will be a meaningful way. The downfall of the powerful Hollywood figure, Harvey Weinstein, has unleashed an avalanche of accusations from women who claim abuse by men in power (not to forget the men who have come forward claiming abuse by both women and gay men). Our once hidden views of sexual harassment are being exposed as we see how different Americans respond to accusations against their favorite politicians. Sadly, many people are willing to attack, or support, the accused based upon their perceived political advantage more than they are willing to support the women out of genuine compassion or concern for justice.
Most Americans are familiar with the recent charges against Republican politicians like Roy Moore alongside charges against Democratic leaders like John Conyers and Al Franken. Looking back to the 2016 election, Americans were given the terrible choice between Donald Trump, who had groped women, and Hilary Clinton who vilified the women who had accused her husband President Bill Clinton of rape.. Another case that did not receive much national attention was when the Democratic Mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner stepped down in 2013 amidst admitted charges of sexual assault. Most disturbing to me was that several local political groups defended Filner saying, “even if he assaulted these women, I’ll support him because he has always been a supporter of our cause.” This is my paraphrase of what I heard here locally at the time, but it illustrates a much bigger problem. According to reports, Democrats knew of Filner’s abusive behaviors for decades, but kept silent because they shared his political ideology. This brings up the serious question for both Democrats and Republicans, “Do we really care about the women who are sexually harassed and assaulted, or do we only care about how we can use their pain to gain more power?”
How then should we answers these questions of ethics? Looking back to my recent post, “Is,” “Ought,” and “Will be”… in search of meaning, I want to frame the original question using the following image:
The primary question being asked in our newspapers and around the office cooler is:
#1. Should anyone accused of sexual harassment be allowed to hold public office?
This is a question of applied ethics. However, we cannot answer this question without first asking a question pertaining to our normative ethics:
#2. Is it right to impose my own ethical standard on others through politics?
Both questions #1 & #2 lie within the “ought” (a description of what we would like to world to look like). We, as a nation, are trying to decide what is acceptable behavior and what behaviors disqualify someone from holding political office. To properly address these “ought” questions, we first need to move into the realm of “is.” Is there a truth that is universal that can guide our decisions? Is there any way we can know this truth? Question #1 is really a question of ethical meaning and that leads us into the realm of epistemological meaning through metaethics (epistemological ethics) where we must ask ourselves the following:
#3. How is sexual harassment defined? Does the Bible give moral knowledge that applies?
The challenge as I see it is that the general discourse has yet to leave the arena of politics (applied ethics) and move into the arena of metaethics where we take the time to define our terms. How can we ever hope to have a meaningful dialogue when we are unwilling to even define our terms? But the challenge gets bigger. We cannot answer question #3 until we address the question of metaphysics which undergirds our epistemology. This brings us to the most fundamental question:
#4. Are men and women ontologically equal? On what basis is value ascribed?
Here is the key question of origin that everyone must answer before they can consistently answer the questions of meaning. If I were to craft my own answer to this set of questions, it would go something like this:
Sexual assault is morally wrong. Women are not helped by politicians or pundits or entertainers who use victims as tools to gain political power. Women are not toys. Any politician guilty of sexual harassment or assault while in office should not be allowed to keep their position of power. Any politician who defends the guilty party is devaluing the victim to keep their power and should not be trusted to hold political office. I make this conclusion because I believe that women are humans of supreme value, equal to men, made in the image of God, and therefore should always be treated with respect.
The use of the image above makes it clear that no one can have a consistent answer to questions #1 and #2 unless they have solid answers to questions #3 and #4. My answer is rooted in a Christian worldview, but how will other Christians answer the question? How will atheists answer the question in a way that makes their answer consistent and universal?
The questions presented in the image above are a work in progress so feel free to share your own answers or revised version of the questions. I would love to hear from you as we, as a nation, seek to address the problems of sexual harassment and sexual abuse and answer the question, Should anyone accused of sexual harassment be allowed to hold public office?