The values of a society change over time, in response of forces internal and external. America is in the throes of many changes, but at the moment one particular change seems to be seizing more than its share of attention. The general issue of gay marriage doesn’t seem to be going away. Like the unresolved abortion issue before it, gay marriage divides the nation all too sharply into two cultures – the progressive, largely urban left, and the traditional, largely rural right. The major political parties have made the most of this issue to fire up their respective bases, and we await some eventual pronouncement by the fatally divided government. If the congress decides this issue either way, either by declaring marriage to be between a man and woman, or simply between two adults of either gender, it is committing a deliberate act of social engineering – more precisely defining an official culture of the state. This is not a trivial matter.
I have already offered a perspective on the specific issue of gay marriage in a previous post. I will summarize by saying that, in my view, all marriages and civil unions should be synonymous from the government’s perspective, and should solely entail the recording and oversight of a legal contract. It should not be the government’s role to adjudicate what either is or isn’t a valid sacrament, anymore than it should rule on whether or not the pope is divine, witches should be burned, or the tooth fairy’s gifts should be taxed. If there is a God, he, she or it certainly does not need the government’s help defining what is or isn’t sacred. If there isn’t a God, the government should not enforce the dictates of anyone’s mythology. The US constitution made this a secular country. We are free to entertain, or not to entertain, any religious belief, but not to impose our particular beliefs on our neighbors using the authority of the state as a cudgel. Our head of state is not the head of a state church. If you like that sort of thing, move to England – or better yet, to Iran.
I do not believe there is a god, but I find the exercise of going out of my way to bash the religious right both unproductive and uncivilized. I know full well that nothing I can say is going to change their minds, and that any effort to convert them to my perspective tends to make them feel besieged and erode any common ground that might exist between us. That, frankly, benefits no one. I find that it is perfectly possible for someone to harbor the most flimsy and naïve sort of beliefs and still be a very decent human being. The world, in fact, is full of people like that. I have no doubt that the ill-informed comprise the world’s majority. I have no doubt that under the right circumstance flimsy, naïve ideas can become dangerous ones – but I see all too clearly, too, that to make war on ideas, even incorrect ones, is more than a little dangerous in itself. Anyone who is sure enough of the truth to be willing to impose it on someone else is a fanatic – even if that person actually knows the truth. Soon, the idealist will metamorphose, spontaneously and invisibly, from being an advocate of the truth to being the author of the truth. Human beings, even well-educated ones, are seldom as wise as they think. History is piled thick with the victims of the noblest ideas. Ideas cannot be hurt, perhaps – but flesh and blood invariably can. Doubt is a precious commodity, probably worth more than certainty.
I have nothing against gay or lesbian persons, either as a group or as individuals – at least not on the basis of their sexual orientation alone. I will not say that I have plenty of gay and lesbian friends, because, at least to my knowledge, I don’t. I have had a few acquaintances who were gay, and they were good, bad, or unremarkable in about the same proportion that any random collection of non-gay people are good, bad, or unremarkable. I find gays and lesbians irritating in proportion to their tendency to be true to stereotype, but I also find evangelicals, business people, Appalachians, blacks, New Yorkers, and Californians irritating in proportion to their tendency to be true to stereotype. If one must have an identity, it is usually more ingratiating to at least invent one’s own rather than pulling a one-size-fits all identity off the rack. This, of course, is simply my view and is not intended to be proscriptive. Mildly annoying other people is a privilege no one should be entirely denied.
In discussing the values of a society, though, annoyance is no offhand joke. It is often the crux of the matter. The gay marriage debate is essentially a conflict between those who want the state’s seal of official approval on their relationships and those who want to see, at least at the symbolic level, a measure of official censure imposed on homosexual relationships. This is wholly a cultural conflict, a matter of whose particular set of preferences is going to be favored and whose isn’t.
There is a perception by the left, a part of their cultural narrative, that more tolerance and more equality are always better. They have a marked tendency to keep the concepts of tolerance and equality rather vague, but this is in the nature of any cultural belief. Freedom is a popular buzz word for many cultures around the world, but there are dozens of different definitions of freedom, all substantially different. So it is with tolerance and equality as they are bandied about by the liberals of America. In practice, it means advancing the cause of people would who have the minimum number of certain offending traits. Those offending traits are, typically: being white, being male, being Christian, being affluent, and (now) being heterosexual. You can have two or even three of these traits and still be numbered among enlightened – provided you are prepared to do a public penance of repudiation of your personal and hereditary sins. If you have few or none of these reprehensible traits, you are welcomed into the liberal tribe pretty much without regard to your behavior – even if, ideologically, you’re a conservative.1 Catholic Latinos and misogynist Muslims are Ok. The uneducated will not be invited to the wine and cheese parties of the leadership, of course. As George Orwell astutely observed – “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” – but don’t worry, uneducated tribe members are always on the beneficiaries list. Yes, I know – I should not be so intolerantly mischievous toward the left. I simply cannot help myself. It isn’t that the average conservative is fundamentally smarter or better – it’s just that they’re a little more likely to at least be honest about their basic tribalism, swathing themselves in the usual tribal accoutrements of flags and scriptures, rather than in tired narrative dressed up as scientific truth. Denying the truth is one thing, but inventing it while pretending to be fair and neutral is something else. But I digress.
Supporting gay marriage is not straightforwardly a rational decision. It is simply a cultural one. The arguments for allowing gay marriage are the same as those for gay rights generally. These can be succinctly summarized as a combination of naturalism and the harm principle.
Much has been made of the idea that being homosexual is an innate characteristic of some individuals – like being tall, or having red hair. Since I take the position that we have no free will in any absolute sense, I won’t even argue this point. Whether people are gay because of their genes or because of factors in their life experience, I believe they are gay for fundamentally causal reasons. A thorough acceptance of naturalism must entail that everything is what it is for causal reasons. In this view, the whole idea of moralities based on choice becomes senseless. If it is unfair to deride the homosexual for being homosexual – then it is equally unfair to deride the bigot for being bigoted. Where there is no choice, in an absolute sense, there is no responsibility, in an absolute sense. People simply have the behavioral and moral predispositions they do until external circumstances cause them to acquire different ones. We become unhappy when we discover that the universe has not molded others to be in harmony with our beliefs. This rule applies to both the homosexual and the homophobe. Morality, viewed objectively, is just some congeries of beliefs held in common with a big enough group to constitute a culture.
To cast this in a rather different light (one that does not require that you accept my position on free will) the fact that a characteristic is innate should not, even under some principle of fairness, absolutely preclude a society from condemning it. Consider the case of the serial murderer, Jeffrey Dahmer. The consensus of opinion, even expert opinion, is that Dahmer’s psychopathic tendencies were in some way organic – that nothing in his experience or upbringing could have brought them about. That said, no group of semi-rational jurors, with the facts of seventeen murders laid before them, could have concluded that, since it was not his fault that he liked to murder people, he should have been set free to do it again. Any society that hopes to survive must be prepared to protect itself against established threats – whether the threatening individuals are acting by choice or not. This is not to say that gay marriage in particular, or homosexuality in general, are proven threats. It is to say that the matter of whether or not gays have any choice about their orientation should not be the final desiderata of their status. In fact, the matter of whether or not homosexuality really does pose any sort of threat to the survival of society would be difficult to determine, and in practice no one tries. The culture of the left just knows it doesn’t and the culture of the right just knows it does. Tribal knowledge prevails in either case.
Let’s now move on the mushy old harm principle:
According to J.S. Mill:
“…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others… …Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."
The argument for gay marriage, then, would be that it harms no one and should therefore be allowed. I have already stated that a pluralistic secular government cannot justifiably limit any individual’s right to define his or her own relationships in whatever mystical terms one happens to chose, nor should such a government curtail an individual’s worship of imaginary beings – provided, I suppose, that such imaginary beings do not require frequent sacrifices in non-imaginary human blood. To codify a relationship in any extralegal sense – to say that it either is or isn’t a sacrament – is to create an official state culture. This certainly interferes with exactly the individual liberty that Mill was concerned about.
A thorough application of the harm principle would, however, produce consequences much more far reaching than a tolerance of gay marriage. I think we have to assume that Mill did not consider merely offending someone as causing them harm. If offense is harm, then authority is justified in banning any activity with causes anyone offense. Since the act of banning the activity will probably cause offence to the person whose pet behavior is banned, we reach an impasse very quickly. Such impasses, of course, have really occurred. To insult a recognized minority is hate speech, but to stage a gay pride parade in front of a Catholic church on Easter Sunday cannot be any less an exercise of hate. Offensive as both activities might be, invoking the harm principle to censure only one or the other is hypocritical. Censuring every conceivable offence, on the other hand, would be unbelievably oppressive and, thankfully, impossible.
If harm only means physical harm, we are on at least a little better ground. Though one can find impasses and definitional problems here too, at least they don’t crop up in practically every case. All right then, if Carla and Susan want to get married, that doesn’t cause me or anyone else any obvious physical harm – and anyone who wants to say it does is going to have quite a difficult case to make. I think one should always be free to argue such a case, but “my deity will smite us if we allow it” doesn’t constitute much of a start for me. Of course, if we are drawing the line there, I am free to follow Carla and Susan around and shriek insults at them all day for any reason or no reason, and authority has no right to stop me as I am causing them no physical harm. I’d feel like a pig and my throat would get sore, but neither of those eventualities have any bearing on the harm principle.
Drawing the line at physical harm has plenty of other ramifications too. Take the case of the avid nudist. Many have expressed the feeling that they find clothing both dishonest and constrictive. If the harm principle is to guide us, public nudity should never be officially constrained. Seeing a person nude does not cause anyone physical harm. What argument could one make in favor of requiring people to wear clothing in public? Public nudity violates tradition or community standards? Please – that’s merely a bigoted, intolerant view. You don’t want your kids to be exposed to nude adults, perhaps leering at them from the edge of the playground? Well, if they feel shocked or threatened it is only because you raised them to be narrow-minded; that is not the fault of the nudist. And you can obviously forget the argument that nudism is unnatural. Neither can you argue that, while unrestrained nudism might be fine in principle, society is just not ready for it at this time. The harm principle abhors such flimsy rationalization. Public nudity now, public nudity tomorrow, public nudity forever. Prudes and bigots can all move to somewhere cold.
Public nudity is really only the mildest of examples one might use. Forgive me if the following strikes you as tasteless, but we cannot be squeamish over matters of high principle. Bestiality, indeed public bestiality, would also prove unassailable under a rigorous application of the harm principle. I argued this point to a friend once. He was trying to make a philosophical justification for the normalization of homosexuality that would not equally justify a broad range of other behaviors, many of which he personally found offensive. His initial argument against bestiality was that it constituted a physical imposition on the animal. This is insufficient. Some animals, so I hear, are willing to interact with humans in that fashion. Then he insisted that animals lack the intellectual capacity to consent. This is certainly a debatable claim, but even if I were to accept it without argument it must also be true that cats do not consent to be declawed, horses do not consent to be ridden, and pigs certainly don’t consent to being eaten. Am I to accept, from a free-thinking, sexually-tolerant liberal that there is something special about sex that needs to be constrained, but the life or death of an animal is a matter to be shrugged? People who invoke the harm principle invariably use it to justify whatever particular behavior they would like to promote or engage in, but not to justify the full range of behaviors that it must ultimately allow.
My position is not that homosexuals are no different than bestiaphiles, but that determining what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable is a cultural matter, and not an impartial evaluation. Societies have existed that have tolerated or encouraged practically the full gamut of possible human behaviors. Genes may change slowly, but societies are much more plastic. My objection to the current thrust of change in western society is not that all the changes are “bad” in any absolute sense, but that all of the changes are cloaked in a protective halo of kindness, fairness, and inevitability are not rationally justified. To begin with, unlimited tolerance and anti-traditionalism are mutually exclusive. Saying everybody in the global village is just fine, except for western conservatives, simply cannot be an objectively rational position.
Considered from a very general and rather abstract perspective, contemporary western liberalism is neither a movement toward fairness nor equality, but simply a movement to reject traditional norms. It is a social movement whose end product in continual upheaval. If western liberalism were truly rooted in the principles of fairness and equality, it would not have spawned affirmative action, which is discriminatory on its face. It would not have created the new category of hate crimes, which in effect make the lives, or even emotional sensitivities, of certain designated minorities more important under the law than the lives and sensitivities of those who are not so designated. Contemporary western liberalism does not protect the individual, for it is the consistent advocate of the sacrifice of individual rights for the sake of redressing historical wrongs inflicted on particular collective groups. While it is true that blacks continue to suffer from the disadvantages of poverty and poor education, it is hard to imagine white Appalachians suffer any less from those conditions – yet they are part of the enemy camp, so there are no affirmative action programs or protective hate crimes laws for them. How can this be fair or equal?
It would be easy to convince oneself that my earlier examples of public nudity and bestiality were merely offensive rhetoric, and that such outlandish things would never be advocated by anyone other than the occasional crank. Given the nature of contemporary liberalism’s anti-traditional thrust, however, these things are serious possibilities. Imagine you could go back in time, and tell the serious, dignified, well-dressed and well-mannered civil rights marchers in Memphis that the lineal descendents of their movement would be protesting for the rights of homosexuals to marry one another. They would have been both incredulous and deeply offended. As the culture changes, for whatever reason, we get used to things that our parents or grandparents would have found unthinkable. Perhaps our descendents will not give a second thought to seeing neighbor humping fido in front of his house. Historically, people have become indifferent to far more harmful and even more peculiar behavior. And, as time progresses, it will certainly require a higher threshold of deviation to offend the increasingly numbed and fatigued fraction of the population that would have to fill the role of the conservative enemy.
It is fair to say that, already, much of what is seen by the left as positive change in our culture is more the product of moral fatigue than humane impulse. Consider the products of our entertainment industry in the last few decades. More than a generation has grown up watching the likes of Silence of the Lambs and Kill Bill. The first was a loving homage to the pleasures of psychotic cannibalism; the second included the rape of a nearly paralyzed woman, who killed her assailant by pulling his tongue out with her teeth. Can people who consider such depravity “entertainment” possibly object to anything on moral grounds? I suppose one can be persuaded into different views by humanists like Martin Luther King or intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, but the plain fact is that Howard Stern and Quentin Tarantino create a cruder but more far-reaching form of tolerance by making hash of morality altogether. And religious conservatives are not to be left out in the general brutalization of society. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was nothing more than a sadistic blood orgy for the faithful. Our culture has lost the grounds on which to even think coherently about morality. Atrocity is cool. Little wonder we object so little to having a public policy of torture. The only wonder is that people don’t demand that it be televised.
In the end, I believe the continual creation of upheaval is a very questionable guiding principle on which to found a culture. A culture is, in fact, nothing but a set of constraints that allow people to have stable expectations of one another’s behavior. If these social constraints are too many and too excessive, they may indeed make life a misery – but the utter annihilation of social constraints is the annihilation of society itself. Without rules, even arbitrary ones, we have no culture to defend or even discuss. If you do not care if you offend me, you cannot reasonably expect me to cooperate with you. Societies live in a continual uneasy balance between individual freedom on the one hand, and collective identity and shared standards on the other. Those which overemphasize the latter are oppressive. Those which overemphasize the former are unsustainable.
1 My wife points out, quite correctly, that black conservatives are the exception to this rule.