Edward Feser

Facets of Liberty

Liberty is not a “thing” or a kind of Platonic ideal; it is a modus vivendi. Roger Scruton captures its essence in this pithy paragraph:

People are bound by moral laws, which articulate the idea of a community of rational beings, living in mutual respect, and resolving their disputes by negotiation and agreement. (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, p. 112)

Fittingly, Scruton’s observation comes at the beginning of the chapter on “Morality.” I say fittingly because liberty depends on morality — properly understood as a canon of ethical behavior — and morality, as I argue below, depends very much on religion.

Where is libertarianism in all of this? Read on:


LIBERTY: ITS MEANING AND PREREQUISITES

Liberty can be thought of as freedom, when freedom is understood as permission to act within agreed limits on behavior.

Liberty, in other words, is not the absence of constraints on action. In a political context (i.e., where two or more persons coexist), there are always constraints on the behavior of at least one person, even in the absence of coercion or force. Coexistence requires compromise because (I daresay) no two humans are alike in their abilities, tastes, and preferences. And compromise necessitates constraints on behavior; compromise means that the parties involved do not do what they would do if they were isolated from each other or of a like mind about everything. Compromise is found in marriage, in friendships, in social circles, in neighborhoods, in workplaces, as well as the formal institutions (e.g., Congress) that one usually thinks of as “political.”

Where there is liberty, social norms are not shaped by the power of the state (though they may be enforced by the state). Rather, where there is liberty, social norms consist solely of the ever-evolving constellation of the voluntary compromises that arise from “non-political” institutions (i.e., marriage, etc.). It is the observance of social norms that enables a people to enjoy liberty: peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior.

Self-styled libertarians (about whom, more below) seem to reject this reasonable definition of liberty, and its antecedent conditions. They can do so, however, only by envisioning a Utopian polity that comprises like-minded persons who are for abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and open borders, and against war (except, possibly, as a last-ditch defense against invading hoards). They are practically indistinguishable from “liberals,” except in their adamant defense of property rights and free markets. (And some of them are lukewarm about property rights, if the enforcement of those rights allows discrimination based on personal characteristics.)

In summary, only where voluntarily evolved social norms are untrammeled by the state can individuals possibly live in peaceful, willing coexistence and engage in beneficially cooperative behavior — that is to say, live according to the Golden Rule.

What are the key attributes of those norms? Jennifer Roback Morse says, in “Marriage and the Limits of Contract” (Policy Review, No. 130, April 1, 2005):

[l]ibertarians recognize that a free market needs a culture of law-abidingness, promise-keeping, and respect for contracts…. A culture full of people who violate their contracts at every possible opportunity cannot be held together by legal institutions, as the experience of post-communist Russia plainly shows.

But whence “a culture of law-abidingness, promise-keeping, and respect for contracts”? Friedrich Hayek knew the answer to that question. According to Edward Feser (“The Trouble with Libertarianism,” TCS Daily, July 20, 2004), Hayek was firmly committed

to the proposition that market society has certain moral presuppositions that can only be preserved through the power of social stigma. In his later work especially, he made it clear that these presuppositions concern the sanctity of property and of the family, protected by traditional moral rules which restrain our natural impulses and tell us that “you must neither wish to possess any woman you see, nor wish to possess any material goods you see.”[1]

“[T]he great moral conflict… which has been taking place over the last hundred years or even the last three hundred years,” according to Hayek, “is essentially a conflict between the defenders of property and the family and the critics of property and the family,”[2] with the latter comprising an alliance of socialists and libertines committed to “a planned economy with a just distribution, a freeing of ourselves from repressions and conventional morals, of permissive education as a way to freedom, and the replacement of the market by a rational arrangement of a body with coercive powers.”[3] The former, by contrast, comprise an alliance of those committed to the more conservative form of classical liberalism represented by writers like Smith and Hayek himself with those committed to traditional forms of religious belief. Among the benefits of such religious belief in Hayek’s view is its “strengthening [of] respect for marriage,” its enforcement of “stricter observance of rules of sexual morality among both married and unmarried,” and its creation of a socially beneficial “taboo” against the taking of another’s property.[4] Indeed, though he was personally an agnostic, Hayek held that the value of religion for shoring up the moral presuppositions of a free society cannot be overestimated:

“We owe it partly to mystical and religious beliefs, and, I believe, particularly to the main monotheistic ones, that beneficial traditions have been preserved and transmitted… If we bear these things in mind, we can better understand and appreciate those clerics who are said to have become somewhat sceptical of the validity of some of their teachings and who yet continued to teach them because they feared that a loss of faith would lead to a decline in morals. No doubt they were right…”[5]


LIBERTY IN TODAY’S WORLD

Social norms and socializing influences (like religion) are essential to self-governance, but self-governance by mutual consent and mutual restraint — by adherence to the Golden Rule — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons. Why should that happen? Because mutual trust, mutual restraint, and mutual aid — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loath to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters are not involved.

More generally, there is a human tendency to treat friends differently than acquaintances, acquaintances differently than strangers, and so on. The closer one is to a person, the more likely one is to accord that person trust, cooperation, and kindness. Why? Because there usually is a difference between the consequences of behavior that is directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that is directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of  doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”)  becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.

When self-governance breaks down, it becomes necessary to spin off a new group or establish a central power (a state), which codifies and enforces rules of behavior (negative and positive). The problem, of course, is that those vested with the power of the state quickly learn to use it to advance their own preferences and interests, and to perpetuate their power by granting favors to those who can keep them in office. It is a rare state that is created for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens from one another and from outsiders, and rarer still is the state that remains true to such purposes.

In sum, the Golden Rule — as a uniting way of life — is quite unlikely to survive the passage of a group from community to state. Nor does the Golden Rule as a uniting way of life have much chance of revival or survival where the state already dominates. The Golden Rule may have limited effect within well-defined groups (e.g., parishes, clubs, urban enclaves, rural communities), by regulating the interactions among the members of such groups. It may have a vestigial effect on face-to-face interactions between stranger and stranger, but that effect arises mainly from the fear that offense or harm will be met with the same, not from a communal bond.

In any event, the dominance of the state distorts behavior. For example, the state may enable and encourage acts (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) that had been discouraged as harmful by group norms, and the ability of members of the group to bestow charity on one another may be diminished by the loss of income to taxes and discouraged by the establishment of state-run schemes that mimic the effects of charity (e.g., Social Security).


LIBERTY VS. “LIBERALISM”

The dominance of the state is the essential creed of modern “liberalism,” which has been diagnosed, quite rightly, as superficially benign fascism.

What about the “liberal” agenda, which proclaims the virtues of social liberty even as it destroys economic liberty. This is a convenient fiction; the two are indivisible. There is no economic liberty without social liberty, and vice versa:

[W]hen the state taxes or regulates “economic” activity, it shapes and channels related “social” activity. For example, the family that pays 25 percent of its income in taxes is that much less able to join and support organizations of its choice, to own and exhibit tokens of its socioeconomic status, to afford better education for its children, and so on. The immediate rejoinder will be that nothing has been changed if everyone is affected equally. But because of the complexity of tax laws and regulations, everyone is not affected equally. Moreover, even if everyone were deprived equally of the same kind of thing — a superior education, say — everyone would be that much worse off by having been deprived of opportunities to acquire remunerative knowledge and skills, productive relationships, and mental stimulation. Similarly, everyone would be that much worse off by being less well clothed, less well housed, and so on. Taxes and regulations, even if they could be applied in some absolutely neutral way (which they can’t be), have an inevitably deleterious effect on individuals.

In sum, there is no dividing line between economic and social behavior. What we call social and economic behavior are indivisible aspects of human striving to fulfill wants, both material and spiritual. The attempt to isolate and restrict one type of behavior is futile. It is all social behavior.

If markets are not free neither are people free to act within the bounds of voluntarily evolved social norms.


LIBERTARIANS AND LIBERTY

Although most of today’s libertarians (rightly) pay homage to Hayek’s penetrating dismissal of big government, his cultural views (noted earlier) are beneath their notice. And no wonder, for it is hard these days to find a self-styled libertarian who shares Hayek’s cultural views. What now passes for libertarianism, as I see it, is strictly secular and even stridently atheistic. As Feser puts it in “The Trouble with Libertarianism,” these

versions of libertarianism … do not treat conservative views as truly moral views at all; they treat them instead as mere prejudices: at best matters of taste, like one’s preference for this or that flavor of ice cream, and at worst rank superstitions that pose a constant danger of leading those holding them to try to restrict the freedoms of those practicing non-traditional lifestyles. Libertarians of the contractarian, utilitarian, or “economistic” bent must therefore treat the conservative the way the egalitarian liberal treats the racist, i.e. as someone who can be permitted to hold and practice his views, but only provided he and his views are widely regarded as of the crackpot variety….

[T]here are also bound to be differences in the public policy recommendations made by the different versions of libertarianism. Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Those whose libertarianism is grounded in … Hayekian thinking are far more likely to take a conservative line on the matter. To be sure, there are plenty of “pro-choice” libertarians influenced by Hayek. But by far most of these libertarians are (certainly in my experience anyway) inclined to accept Hayek’s economic views while soft-pedaling or even dismissing the Burkean traditionalist foundations he gave for his overall social theory. Those who endorse the latter, however, are going to be hard-pressed not to be at least suspicious of the standard moral and legal arguments offered in defense of abortion….

By contrast, libertarians influenced by contractarianism are very unlikely to oppose abortion, because fetuses cannot plausibly be counted as parties to the social contract that could provide the only grounds for a prohibition on killing them. Utilitarianism and “economism” too would provide no plausible grounds for a prohibition on abortion, since fetuses would seem to have no preferences or desires which could be factored into our calculations of how best to maximize preference- or desire-satisfaction.

There are also bound to be differences over the question of “same-sex marriage.”… [A] Hayekian analysis of social institutions fail to imply anything but skepticism about the case for same-sex marriage. Hayek’s position was that traditional moral rules, especially when connected to institutions as fundamental as the family and found nearly universally in human cultures, should be tampered with only with the most extreme caution. The burden of proof is always on the innovator rather than the traditionalist, whether or not the traditionalist can justify his conservatism to the innovator’s satisfaction; and change can be justified only by showing that the rule the innovator wants to abandon is in outright contradiction to some other fundamental traditional rule. But that there is any contradiction in this case is simply implausible, especially when one considers the traditional natural law understanding of marriage sketched above.

On the other hand, it is easy to see how contractarianism, utilitarianism, and “economism” might be thought to justify same-sex marriage. If the actual desires or preferences of individuals are all that matter, and some of those individuals desire or prefer to set up a partnership with someone of the same sex and call it “marriage,” then there can be no moral objection to their doing so.

I do not mean to belabor the issues of abortion and same-sex “marriage,” about which I have written at length (e.g., here and here). But, like war, they are “wedge” issues among libertarians. And most (perhaps all) libertarians whose writings I encounter on the internet — Feser’s contractarian, utilitarian, and economistic types — are on the libertine side of the issues: pro-abortion and pro-same-sex “marriage.” A contractarian, utilitarian, economistic libertarian will condone practices that even “liberals” would not (e.g., blackmail).


RELIGION AND LIBERTY

The libertine stance of “mainstream” libertarians points to moral rootlessness. Such libertarians like to say that libertarianism is a moral code, when — as Feser rightly argues — it is destructive of the kind of morality that binds a people in mutual trust and mutual forbearance. These depend on the observance of actual codes of conduct, not the rote repetition of John Stuart Mill’s empty “harm principle.”

It is my view that libertarians who behave morally toward others do so not because they are libertarians but because their cultural inheritance includes traces of Judeo-Christian ethics. For example, the non-aggression principle — a foundation of libertarian philosophy — is but a dim reflection of the Ten Commandments.

As Roback Morse and Hayek rightly argue, a libertarian order can be sustained only if it is built on deeply ingrained morality. But that morality can only operate if it is not circumscribed and undermined by the edicts of the state. The less intrusive the state, the more essential are social norms to the conditions of liberty. If those norms wither away, the results — more rapaciousness, heedlessness, and indolence — invite the the growth of the state and its adoption of repressive policies.

The flimsy morality of today’s libertarianism will not do. Neither the minimal state of “mainstream” libertarians nor the stateless Utopia of extreme libertarians can ensure a moral society, that is, one in which there is mutual trust, mutual forbearance, and promise-keeping.

Where, then, is moral education to be had? In the public schools, whose unionized teachers preach the virtues of moral relativism, big government, income redistribution, and non-judgmentalism (i.e., lack of personal responsibility)? I hardly think so.

That leaves religion, especially religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:

The precepts [of the last six of the Commandments] are meant to protect man in his natural rights against the injustice of his fellows.

  • His life is the object of the Fifth;
  • the honour of his body as well as the source of life, of the Sixth;
  • his lawful possessions, of the Seventh;
  • his good name, of the Eighth;
  • And in order to make him still more secure in the enjoyment of his rights, it is declared an offense against God to desire to wrong him, in his family rights by the Ninth;
  • and in his property rights by the Tenth.

Though I am a deist, and neither a person of faith nor a natural-rights libertarian, I would gladly live in a society in which the majority of my fellow citizens believed in and adhered to the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them. I reject the currently fashionable notion that religion per se breeds violence. In fact, a scholarly, non-sectarian meta-study, “Religion and its effects on crime and delinquency” (Medical Science Monitor, 2003; 9(8):SR79-82), offers good evidence that religiosity leads to good behavior:

[N]early all [reports] found that that there was a significant negative correlation between religiosity and delinquency. This was further substantiated by studies using longitudinal and operationally reliable definitions. Of the early reports which were either inconclusive or found no statistical correlation, not one utilized a multidimensional definition or any sort of reliability factor. We maintain that the cause of this difference in findings stemmed from methodological factors as well as different and perhaps flawed research strategies that were employed by early sociological and criminological researchers.The studies that we reviewed were of high research caliber and showed that the inverse relationship [between religiosity and delinquency] does in fact exist. It therefore appears that religion is both a short term and long term mitigat[o]r of delinquency.

But a society in which behavior is guided by the Ten Commandments seems to be receding into the past. Consider the following statistics, from the 2011 Statistical Abstract, Table 75. Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population: 1990, 2001 and 2008.
Between 1990 and 2008

  • the percentage of American adults claiming to be Christian dropped from 86 to 76,
  • the percentage of American adults claiming to be Jewish dropped from 1.8 to 1.2 percent, and
  • the percentage of American adults professing no religion rose from 8 to 15 percent.

What is noteworthy about those figures is the degree of slippage in a span of 18 years. And the degree of religious belief probably is overstated because respondents tend to say the “right” thing, which (oddly enough) continues to be a profession of religious faith.

Moreover, claiming adherence to a religion and receiving religious “booster shots” through regular church attendance are two entirely different things. Consider this excerpt of “In Search of the Spiritual” (Newsweek, August 28, 2005):

…Of 1,004 respondents to the NEWSWEEK/Beliefnet Poll, 45 percent said they attend worship services weekly, virtually identical to the figure (44 percent) in a Gallup poll cited by Time in 1966. Then as now, however, there is probably a fair amount of wishful thinking in those figures; researchers who have done actual head counts in churches think the figure is probably more like 20 percent. There has been a particular falloff in attendance by African-Americans, for whom the church is no longer the only respectable avenue of social advancement, according to Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University. The fastest-growing category on surveys that ask people to give their religious affiliation, says Patricia O’Connell Killen of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., is “none.” But “spirituality,” the impulse to seek communion with the Divine, is thriving. The NEWSWEEK/Beliefnet Poll found that more Americans, especially those younger than 60, described themselves as “spiritual” (79 percent) than “religious” (64 percent). Almost two thirds of Americans say they pray every day, and nearly a third meditate.

But what does “spirituality” have to do with morality? Prayer and meditation may be useful and even necessary to religion, but they do not teach morality. Substituting “spirituality” for Judeo-Christian religiosity is like watching golf matches on TV instead of playing golf; a watcher can talk a good game but cannot play the game very well, if at all.

Historian Niall Ferguson, a Briton, writes about the importance of religiosity in “Heaven knows how we’ll rekindle our religion, but I believe we must” (July 31, 2005):

I am not sure British people are necessarily afraid of religion, but they are certainly not much interested in it these days. Indeed, the decline of Christianity — not just in Britain but across Europe — stands out as one of the most remarkable phenomena of our times.

There was a time when Europe would justly refer to itself as “Christendom.” Europeans built the Continent’s loveliest edifices to accommodate their acts of worship. They quarreled bitterly over the distinction between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. As pilgrims, missionaries and conquistadors, they sailed to the four corners of the Earth, intent on converting the heathen to the true faith.

Now it is Europeans who are the heathens. . . .

The exceptionally low level of British religiosity was perhaps the most striking revelation of a recent … poll. One in five Britons claim to “attend an organized religious service regularly,” less than half the American figure. [In light of the relationship between claimed and actual church attendance, discussed above, the actual figure for Britons is probably about 10 percent: ED.] Little more than a quarter say that they pray regularly, compared with two-thirds of Americans and 95 percent of Nigerians. And barely one in 10 Britons would be willing to die for our God or our beliefs, compared with 71 percent of Americans. . . .

Chesterton feared that if Christianity declined, “superstition” would “drown all your old rationalism and skepticism.” When educated friends tell me that they have invited a shaman to investigate their new house for bad juju, I see what Chesterton meant. Yet it is not the spread of such mumbo-jumbo that concerns me as much as the moral vacuum that de-Christianization has created. Sure, sermons are sometimes dull and congregations often sing out of tune. But, if nothing else, a weekly dose of Christian doctrine helps to provide an ethical framework for life. And it is not clear where else such a thing is available in modern Europe.

…Britons have heard a great deal from Tony Blair and others about the threat posed to their “way of life” by Muslim extremists such as Muktar Said Ibrahim. But how far has their own loss of religious faith turned Britain into a soft target — not so much for the superstition Chesterton feared, but for the fanaticism of others?

Yes, what “way of life” is being threatened — and is therefore deemed worth defending — when people do not share a strong moral bond?

I cannot resist adding one more quotation in the same vein as those from Hayek and Ferguson. This comes from Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels), a no-nonsense psychiatrist who, among his many intellectual accomplishments, has thoroughly skewered John Stuart Mill’s fatuous essay, On Liberty. Without further ado, here is Dalrymple on religion:

I remember the day I stopped believing in God. I was ten years old and it was in school assembly. It was generally acknowledged that if you opened your eyes while praying, God flew out of the nearest window. That was why it was so important that everyone should shut his eyes. If I opened my eyes suddenly, I thought, I might just be quick enough to catch a glimpse of the departing deity….

Over the years, my attitude to religion has changed, without my having recovered any kind of belief in God. The best and most devoted people I have ever met were Catholic nuns. Religious belief is seldom accompanied by the inflamed egotism that is so marked and deeply unattractive a phenomenon in our post-religious society. Although the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are said to have given man a more accurate appreciation of his true place in nature, in fact they have rendered him not so much anthropocentric as individually self-centred….

[T]he religious idea of compassion is greatly superior, both morally and practically, to the secular one. The secular person believes that compassion is due to the victim by virtue of what he has suffered; the religious person believes that compassion is due to everyone, by virtue of his humanity. For the secular person, man is born good and is made bad by his circumstances. The religious person believes man is born with original sin, and is therefore imperfectible on this earth; he can nevertheless strive for the good by obedience to God.

The secularist divides humanity into two: the victims and the victimisers. The religious person sees mankind as fundamentally one.

And why not? If this life is all that you have, why let anything stand in the way of its enjoyment? Most of us self-importantly imagine that the world and all its contrivances were made expressly for us and our convenience….

The secularist de-moralises the world, thus increasing the vulnerability of potential victims and, not coincidentally, their need for a professional apparatus of protection, which is and always will be ineffective, and is therefore fundamentally corrupt and corrupting.

If a person is not a victim pure and simple, the secularist feels he is owed no compassion. A person who is to blame for his own situation should not darken the secularist’s door again: therefore, the secularist is obliged to pretend, with all the rationalisation available to modern intellectuals, that people who get themselves into a terrible mess – for example, drug addicts – are not to blame for their situation. But this does them no good at all; in fact it is a great disservice to them.

The religious person, by contrast, is unembarrassed by the moral failings that lead people to act self-destructively because that is precisely what he knows man has been like since the expulsion from Eden. Because he knows that man is weak, and has no need to disguise his failings, either from himself or from others, he can be honest in a way that the secularist finds impossible.

Though I am not religious, I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for us to live decently without the aid of religion. That is the ambiguity of the Enlightenment. (“Why Religion Is Good for Us,” NewStatesman, April 21, 2003)

The weakening of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America is owed to enemies within (established religions trying in vain to be “relevant”) and to enemies without (leftists and nihilistic libertarians who seek every opportunity to denigrate religion). Thus the opponents of religiosity seized on the homosexual scandals in the Catholic Church not to attack homosexuality (which would go against the attackers’ party line) but to attack the Church, which teaches the immorality of the acts that were in fact committed by a relatively small number of priests. (See “Priests, Abuse, and the Meltdown of a Culture,” National Review Online, May 19, 2011.)

Then there is the relentless depiction of Catholicism as an accomplice to Hitler’s brutality, about which my son writes in his review of Rabbi David G. Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis:

Despite the misleading nature of the controversy — one which Dalin questions from the outset — the first critics of the wartime papacy were not Jews. Among the worst attacks were those of leftist non-Jews, such as Carlo Falconi (author of The Silence of Pius XII), not to mention German liberal Rolf Hochhuth, whose 1963 play, The Deputy, set the tone for subsequent derogatory media portrayals of wartime Catholicism. By contrast, says Dalin, Pope Pius XII “was widely praised [during his lifetime] for having saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.” He provides an impressive list of Jews who testified on the pope’s behalf, including Albert Einstein, Golda Meir and Chaim Weizmann. Dalin believes that to “deny and delegitimize their collective memory and experience of the Holocaust,” as some have done, “is to engage in a subtle yet profound form of Holocaust denial.”

The most obvious source of the black legend about the papacy emanated from Communist Russia, a point noted by the author. There were others with an axe to grind. As revealed in a recent issue of Sandro Magister’s Chiesa, liberal French Catholic Emmanuel Mounier began implicating Pius XII in “racist” politics as early as 1939. Subsequent detractors have made the same charge, working (presumably) from the same bias.

While the immediate accusations against Pius XII lie at the heart of Dalin’s book, he takes his analysis a step further. The vilification of the pope can only be understood in terms of a political agenda — the “liberal culture war against tradition.” . . .

Rabbi Dalin sums it up best for all people of traditional moral and political beliefs when he urges us to recall the challenges that faced Pius XII in which the “fundamental threats to Jews came not from devoted Christians — they were the prime rescuers of Jewish lives in the Holocaust — but from anti-Catholic Nazis, atheistic Communists, and… Hitler’s mufti in Jerusalem.”

I believe that the incessant attacks on religion have helped to push people — especially young adults — away from religion, to the detriment of liberty. It is not surprising that “liberals”  tend to be anti-religious, for — as Dalrymple points out — they disdain the tenets of personal responsibility and liberty that are contained in the last six of the Ten Commandments. It is disheartening, however, when libertarians join the anti-religious chorus. They know not what they do when they join the left in tearing down a bulwark of civil society, without which liberty cannot prevail.

Humans need no education in aggression and meddling; those come to us naturally. But we do need to learn to take responsibility for our actions and to leave others alone — and we need to learn those things when we are young. Such things will not be taught in public schools. They could be taught in homes, but are less likely to be taught there as Americans drift further from their religious roots.

Am I being hypcritical because I am unchurched and my children were not taken to church? Perhaps, but my religious upbringing imbued in me a strong sense of morality, which I tried — successfully, I think — to convey to my children. But as time passes the moral lessons we older Americans learned through religion will attenuate unless those lessons are taught, anew, to younger generations.

Rather than join the left in attacking religion and striving to eradicate all traces of it from public discourse, libertarians ought to accommodate themselves to it and even encourage its acceptance — for liberty’s sake.

Related posts:
Hobbesian Libertarianism
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
Judeo-Christian Values and Liberty
Religion and Personal Responsibility
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and Public Morality
Evolution and Religion
Moral Issues
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Logic, and God
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
The Nexus of Conservatism and Libertarianism
The Big Bang and Atheism
A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
Religion as Beneficial Evolutionary Adaptation
Anarchistic Balderdash
The Political Case for Traditional Morality
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State
Anarchy, Minarchy, and Liberty
A Non-Believer Defends Religion
The Greatest Mystery
Objectivism: Tautologies in Search of Reality
What Happened to Personal Responsibility?
Morality and Consequentialism
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
On Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
The Unreality of Objectivism
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Line-Drawing and Liberty
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
The Left and Its Delusions
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Social Justice
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
A Digression about Probability and Existence
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
In Defense of Marriage
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Understanding Hayek
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
America, Love It or Leave It?
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian

Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”

Judge Vaughn Walker’s recent decision in Perry v. Schwarnenegger, which manufactures a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, smacks of Rationalism. Judge Walker distorts and sweeps aside millennia of history when he writes:

The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.

Judge Walker thereby secures his place in the Rationalist tradition. A Rationalist, as Michael Oakeshott explains,

stands … for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligations to any authority save the authority of ‘reason’. His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious; he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration…. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself….

…And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

At the heart of Rationalism is the view that “a problem” can be analyzed and “solved” as if it were separate and apart from the fabric of life.  On this point, I turn to John Kekes:

Traditions do not stand alone: they overlap, and the problems of one are often resolved in terms of another. Most traditions have legal, moral, political, aesthetic, stylistic, managerial, and multitude of other aspects. Furthermore, people participating in a tradition bring with them beliefs, values, and practices from other traditions in which they also participate. Changes in one tradition, therefore, are likely to produce changes in others; they are like waves that reverberate throughout the other traditions of a society. (“The Idea of Conservatism“)

Edward Feser puts it this way:

Tradition, being nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience, itself provides the surest guide to determining the most rational course of action. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?) (“Hayek and Tradition“)

Same-sex marriage will have consequences that most libertarians and “liberals” are unwilling to consider. Although it is true that traditional, heterosexual unions have their problems, those problems have been made worse, not better, by the intercession of the state. (The loosening of divorce laws, for example, signaled that marriage was to be taken less seriously, and so it has been.) Nevertheless, the state — pursuant to Judge Walker’s decision — may create new problems for society by legitimating same-sex marriage, thus signaling that traditional marriage is just another contractual arrangement in which any combination of persons may participate.

Heterosexual marriage — as Jennifer Roback Morse explains — is a primary and irreplicable civilizing force. The recognition of homosexual marriage by the state will undermine that civilizing force. The state will be saying, in effect, “Anything goes. Do your thing. The courts, the welfare system, and the taxpayer — above all — will “pick up the pieces.” And so it will go.

In Morse’s words:

The new idea about marriage claims that no structure should be privileged over any other. The supposedly libertarian subtext of this idea is that people should be as free as possible to make their personal choices. But the very nonlibertarian consequence of this new idea is that it creates a culture that obliterates the informal methods of enforcement. Parents can’t raise their eyebrows and expect children to conform to the socially accepted norms of behavior, because there are no socially accepted norms of behavior. Raised eyebrows and dirty looks no longer operate as sanctions on behavior slightly or even grossly outside the norm. The modern culture of sexual and parental tolerance ruthlessly enforces a code of silence, banishing anything remotely critical of personal choice. A parent, or even a peer, who tries to tell a young person that he or she is about to do something incredibly stupid runs into the brick wall of the non-judgmental social norm. (“Marriage and the Limits of Contract“)

The state’s signals are drowning out the signals that used to be transmitted primarily by voluntary social institutions: family, friendship, community, church, and club. Accordingly, I do not find it a coincidence that loud, loutish, crude, inconsiderate, rude, and foul behaviors have become increasingly prominent features of “social” life in America. Such behaviors have risen in parallel with the retreat of most authority figures in the face of organized violence by “protestors” and looters; with the rise of political correctness; with the perpetuation of the New Deal and its successor, the Great Society; with the erosion of swift and sure justice in favor of “rehabilitation” and “respect for life” (but not for potential victims of crime); and with the legal enshrinement of infanticide and buggery as acceptable (and even desirable) practices.

Thomas Sowell puts it this way:

One of the things intellectuals [his Rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important….

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet.

Calling those standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about the particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria, along with a parade of groups entitled to a sense of grievance, exemplified in the “race, class and gender” formula…. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)

And so it will go –  barring a sharp, conclusive reversal of Judge Walker and the movement he champions.

Related posts:
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Social Norms and Liberty
The Fallacy of Particularism
History Lessons
On Liberty
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection