I would also like to have a go at a couple of his critics, such as psychology Professor Jost blithely asserting that there is a consensus among philosophers that the two categories of morality that liberals acknowledge are the right ones, the others extraneous. I’m running lists in my head…Spinoza, Kant? Wittgenstein, Nietzsche? Bertrand Russell or TH Green? Kipke? Hobbes? Rousseau? Mill? Maybe he means Plato, Socrates – nah, they’d be against him. I’m not seeing this consensus. Maybe Russell. I cynically suspect that Jost means “people like us who think about philosophical stuff and are smart, not those yahoos over at Fox News.” I did think some criticisms were valid, BTW, but I find myself rooting for Haidt against others.
All that by way of introduction to two current moral discussions, same-sex marriage and forcing Catholics (and others) to pay for contraception and even abortifacients. I won’t be arguing, particularly, just observing the arguments. But my sympathies will no doubt show, and that’s the point. We pretend to be objective, even try to be, but outsiders can usually tell where our sympathies lie. It becomes especially messy when issues have become polarised and folks conclude that you don’t really agree with them at all unless you put things just that special way, with proper obeisance to key concepts.
One way this shows up is telegraphing that you because you don’t think something is really wrong, it isn’t really wrong, and all this accommodating the differing moral ideas of others is (ultimately) artificial nonsense. We say that we respect other people’s moral choices, that we hear them and understand, but we just don’t. We may want to, and have even convinced ourselves that we do, but our phrasing gives us away. Most people don’t think that contraception is really wrong, so they don’t get that lots of Catholics really do. In their imaginations, it becomes an idea that Catholics don’t prefer it – that they find it distasteful or something, but not Really, Really Wrong – because it’s not wrong, so they couldn’t really.
OTOH, making women have babies, or expecting them to have babies, or looking at them as if they should be having babies – that’s Really Really Wrong. That’s like saying it’s all they are good for, or even like rape, and we have to nip in the pre-budding stage any thought like that. The actual practical difficulties of a woman getting contraception are not the issue, the symbolism is. Someone is hinting she shouldn’t have it, and that cannot stand.
The freedom of conscience issue quickly reveals itself as a which-system-shall-rule question. Certain religious people are saying “I can’t stop this in the world, but you can’t make me participate. You can’t make me touch it.” The government is very clearly saying “Oh yes we can make you touch it. You will touch it and you will like it. We can make you eat it if we want.” This is couched in language that says “We wanted you to do this voluntarily. We didn’t want any fuss, we aren’t mean people, we are nice people who want good for all. But you wouldn’t do it the easy way, so now you’re getting it the hard way.”
If that sounds unnecessarily accusing of the government, it was an intentional set-up on my part. When religious groups have held the whip hand, they have done the same thing. And as vicious as I have made personified “government” in this instance, they did exactly that “We can too make you touch it” routine when it came to integration. And most of us now think it is a good thing that they did. Had to be done. Folks wouldn’t do it, or not fast enough, voluntarily. Lot of excuses and whining. Had to make ‘em.
More mildly, some defenders of the government insistence (even the compromise carries an insistence) take the view that any opposition imperils the whole, so people should swallow their objections and pipe down. Getting that health care out to those starving babies is a good thing and you don’t want to jeopardise that, do you? Don’t make waves. Powerful Forces are against us, and you don’t want to help Them.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think it’s because government people hate religion, or hate anyone, especially. Systems naturally expand, and begin to act like human beings. It’s uncanny, sometimes. This particular powerful system is encountering resistance to its growth and wants the resistance to go away. It would prefer it go away peacefully, co-operatively, with minor cost or inconvenience. But the system itself wants the resistance to go away, and will switch to Plan B – the hard way – if necessary, unless the cost is too high for the system in general. All systems believe that any opposition is bad, and could turn into Powerful Forces if not eliminated or neutralised.
Obama is a person who believes deeply that the government system should rule the others. He’s hardly the only one, and I don’t think you can claim liberals are even the main offenders. Systems do this. It is their nature to expand. “Churches” as a generic category used to be a powerful system of their own in this country – much less so now, and they resent it. Even in its own category it has been replaced by “religion,” or even “freedom of religion,” much vaguer and less unified ideas.
Over at Volokh, 50% of the discussions seem to be about same-sex marriage at present. The libertarian writers there are unanimously in favor of it, in case you didn’t know. It is interesting to note how they treat opposing arguments. Ilya Somin, who I very much like to read, is trying to answer the objection from tradition. In his own mind, I suspect he thinks he is bending over backwards to be fair to the argument, giving it its due. Yet because I am one who assigns a good deal more weight to that argument than he does, I see quite rapidly that he can’t give it its due, not quite. He wants to and tries to, because he wishes to be an honest broker and a logical person. Yet ultimately, because he doesn’t think that SSM is wrong, and that trying to prevent it is wrong – is in fact Really, Really Wrong – that leaks out. He notes, for example, that other moral ideas from tradition have been discarded, and those are good things. He cites a variety of rights for women – certainly likely to get a lot of assent in modern America. But it’s a variety, a list, of lessened rights for women in other times and places. None of them is universal throughout history. It is generally, almost unanimously true across time and space that women have had fewer rights than men in society. But the specifics vary widely, so its not quite the same thing as the universal prohibition against SSM until recently. It’s related. It’s interesting. But it’s still an apples-to-pears argument, if not quite an apples-to-oranges one.
I don’ think Ilya means in the least to be unfair to the argument. And in fairness, those arguing with him haven’t stressed this enough to force his attention. He naturally roots for one side, he sees things a certain way. At root, he sees all objections to SSM as essentially artificial, and can’t stand outside that belief. Neither can any of us, or not very well or for any length of time.
In any area where people are claiming a freedom of conscience, we like to think we are evaluating such claims according to fair, objective criteria. Check yourself. You may find that at root, you are against the freedom because it’s not Really, Really Wrong and some other effect of the refusal Really, Really Is. Sad but true. It’s who we are, sumus quod sumus. But we can at least try to do better, or we are reduced to the insanity of Whoopi Goldberg saying “But it’s not rape rape” about nonviolent child molestation by talented artists, but anti-abortion policies are “like rape.”
*See 1) environmental or regulatory positions that are more aesthetic than measurable or more about symbolic rather than actual purity/pollution, 2) underdog or minority images/photos/expressions, and 3) social-science “authority” encroachment into scientific areas. Concrete, individual authorities, such as policemen or churches are resisted; social, understood, informal authority is expected to be obeyed. It is a cultural difference in approach, but still authority.