Some Socially Conservative thoughts from a Liberaltarian
I like to think of myself as a liberaltarian. I think I would qualify for the label because I’m big on the Rawls-Hayek fusion thing (Or more accurately, the Rawls + public choice + economic consensus). Yet, I have certain affinities with a social/cultural conservatism. Here are some of my social conservative thoughts. (No, not an oxymoron)
1. Romantic Love destroyed the institution of marriage.
Prior to the valorisation of Romance, marriage served many purposes, for property, for the production and rearing of children, for political alliances, to satisfy their elders, etc etc. What was distinctive about marriage was that sexual relations on the part of the woman outside of marriage was absolutely taboo no matter the reason. The notion of irreconcilable differences being a valid reason to dissolve a marriage didn’t really exist either. There was nothing wrong with a marriage in which the husband and wife found that they had nothing in common. The institution of marriage as it existed before the valorisation of romance was therefore considered to be absolute. The only possible reason for separation was a lack of children (or male heirs) (Henry VIII) (or cuckoldry) and even then such would have been scandalous. If marriage is primarily an institution through which you transfer property to offspring, then of course a lack of such offspring would obviate the need for such an institution. (Note, this is also why social sanction is important to marriage. Property is a social kind of thing. The whole point of a marriage is/was to tell everyone else in the village that this person is going to become my wife and that my property by default is going to go to the offspring of this union when I die etc etc. )
Romantic love changed all of that. Once the notion of Romantic love became one of the ideals of relationships, then striving after this ideal therefore become a virtue. It therefore became a virtue to break the covenant of marriage if said marriage had become stale and a new dashing prince charming came along. It became a virtue for a don juan to approach another man’s wife with the aim of destroying her married life if the paramour to be was in love. There is therefore supposed to be something heroic about Mellors and Lady Chatterly’s affair: It is not merely heroic to strive against social rules that you may feel stifle you. It is heroic and virtuous if the goal is worthy. The crippled impotent husband, according to Lawrence, is the villain of the piece for refusing to dissolve the marriage and make way for Constance and Mellors.
Romantic love de-stigmatised pre-marital sex. Even if Romeo and Juliet had boinked a bit on the sly, then this was just an expression of romantic love for each other. The whole bloody aim of the story is to get us to root for the couple. That is why it is tragic when they both die. We are kept in suspense till the very end wondering how they will overcome their families’ objections. Romantic love also destroyed the family. Romeo and Juliet disobeyed their parents and failed to accord them due respect.
The valorisation of romance of course resulted in the sexual revolution and the de-stigmatisation of divorce. The whole point of the sexual revolution was to love as thou wilt without any social restrictions. However, without the valorisation of romance, the 60s would not have been the same. With the high rate of divorce, cohabitation, pre-marital and extra marital sex in modern western society, it is hard to say that the institution of marriage is not in trouble.
Of course, I’m not recommending any policy position here. I don’t think the fate of the institution of marriage is any business of the state. That’s why I’m still a libertarian. The above is just a bit of doom and gloom and a bit of musing about the decadence of western civ. Every socially conservative complaint about liberal attacks on the institution of marriage can be traced to the original sin of making romantic love the primary basis of the marriage covenant.
2. Abortion is one of those things which the state should take action to prevent (or at least the case is not so easily dismissed)
Let’s get a few things straight, just because something is immoral doesn’t mean that it should be prohibited by the state. Similarly, just because something is morally permissible doesn’t mean it should be permitted by the state. When it comes to questions of abortion policy, there are roughly 4 (or 3 depending on whether you think I’m repeating myself) considerations.
- What should people legally owe each other?
- What should people legally owe minors?
- From the viewpoint of a liberal state (i.e. one that does not endorse any particular comprehensive conception of the good), do embryos and foetuses count as the kinds of entities to which legal duties may be properly owed?
- Do some or any of the acts that we call “abortion” violate the above legal duties?
Let’s answer these in order.
What should people legally owe each other?
People should be legally obligated to respect each other’s rights (to property, person, religion etc) as well as to pay taxes (not too large an amount) to maintain essential state functions like defence, security, other kinds of public goods and even a small social safety net if necessary. (This is pretty standard stuff for political philosophy in the liberal tradition)
- What should people legally owe minors?
This gets a bit more complicated. Political theorists rarely touch on the issue of children and the disabled. Political theory often concerns itself with how to deal with those who are equals (roughly speaking). i.e. people who are fully responsible for their actions. Yet, we often don’t hold children responsible for their actions. Yet, some of their rights are safeguarded, and yet others are permissibly abridged. Consider, taking your kid to a place where he doesn’t want to go (i.e. the dentist) is acceptable where doing the same to an adult would violate his rights. Similar with making your children eat their vegetables. Instead of systematically deriving what we owe children from first principles, I will just say that the principle that seems to unite our considered judgements about what we owe children is that they are to reach their majority as intact autonomous beings. That’s why we don’t allow freedom of contract to minors because we don’t want them to arrive at their majority already burdened by prior special commitments. This is also why we don’t allow minors freedom of religion if such freedom threatens their continued survival. That’s why a 21 year old can legitimately refuse a blood transfusion in a way that a 12 year old cannot. But because children aren’t able to take care of themselves, we also owe them shelter, food, education etc at the very least until they reach their majorities so that once they are adults, they as autonomous beings can choose to live their lives the way they want (If we have a cradle to grave welfare state it may be that we owe people all this stuff even beyond their majority).The legal notion of parenthood is therefore in place to create a division of labour wrt how a society raises its young. That’s why it is the responsibility of legal parents and guardians to provide these things. All of this is rather anodyne from a liberal perspective. Of course, we should note that the duty is not absolute come hell or high water. Rather, the duties are quite legitimately sensitive to the potential burdens. You are not legally required (generally shouldn’t be) to significantly risk life or bodily injury for the survival of the minor whom one is responsible for. Although at least for now, I don’t have a way to go about drawing a line as to how much risk we can legally obligate someone to bear. What I will put forward is that we owe more to our own children than we owe to our fellow citizens.
- From the viewpoint of a liberal state, do embryos and foetuses count as the kinds of entities to which legal duties may be properly owed?
I will try to approach this from a generally Rawlsian perspective. So let’s imagine ourselves as beyond a veil of ignorance. We do not know who we are going to turn out to be. We are faced with the task of choosing the principles of justice. These principles will say what kind of fundamental social institutions would be the most just. Part of this involves determining what kinds of rights and liberties we ought to have. I will also take for granted (even though I have argued here before) that we will use maximin as a decision criterion. i.e. we choose the principles which, if adhered to provides the best prospects to the worst off. (I propose that we accept this as a rough approximation even if we think that it may be implausible under circumstances where large benefits are foregone by the better off in exchange for minute increases in prospects of the worst off. We can just suppose that the approximation doesn’t work in such circumstances).How do we go about comparing whether a person is better or worse off? Instead of taking a look at any particular time slice, we look over an entire lifetime. Not only that, we don’t just look over the lifetime, but we look at what a person can legitimately expect over a lifetime if he were reasonable and rational. (i.e. if he adhered to the principles of justice and observing the relevant constraints, took the best available means to his ends). Now, given that it is some version of our lifetime prospects that are important, then an important question to ask is how parties in the original position should view when life starts. It is easy to see why we cannot say that this has nothing to do with justice. If we supposed that life started at conception, then parties in the original position would have to take seriously the possibility that they could end up as an aborted foetus. However, if life started at birth, then any unborn just do not get counted as the kinds of things which they may end up as. The set of possible outcomes thus depends on how we define the parameters for said outcome. So, how do we solve this problem? We can neither ignore it nor bypass it.I will list out 5 possible starting points: conception, foetal neural development, viability, birth and early infancy. Given the way I have set up the problem, the question is not about when one has sufficient psychological resources to be counted as a person. Rather, the question is what the starting point of the life of an entity which will over time develop to be a person is. Obviously, by early infancy, the entity in question has already been alive for some time. The difference between birth and viability is basically about positioning, not about its distinctness as a separate entity. The mere fact that something happens to be in one of your orifices doesn’t mean that it is a part of you. Before viability, the issue is just about a matter of dependency. The mere fact that one entity is dependent on another does not mean that it is a part of that other. (Although it is possible to argue that until viability, the entity is exceedingly ephemeral in such a manner that its existence as a 4-dimensional being cannot be ascertained with any definiteness) Nevertheless, we can narrow down a range of starting points between fertilisation and viability. There is still one more question to answer: whether the living thing in question will in fact over time develop into a person. This is the place where I think ephemerality matters. One complicating factor is that if aborted the living thing will not become a person. i.e. even if life begins at conception, any aborted foetus will in virtue of being aborted not develop into a person. The problem with such a line of argument is that it argues too much. The question we face is whether people in the original position can count things that happen to pre-adults as harms even such things prevent the pre-adults from ever becoming adults. Whatever answer we come up with, it will be the same whether the pre-adult is a viable foetus or a 3 year old child. This is because as discussed above, there is not principled reason to stop at birth when discussing the beginning of the life of the entity in question.
- How does all of this apply to abortion?What we do is look at the central cases where a mother to be may want to abort her child. I will for now ignore cases where we are getting rid of the defective before they are born (I leave that to Mr Van Dyke who has done a very good job of it). So, in the range of cases in front of us, we will see some cases where the mother’s life is in imminent danger from pregnancy and others where the risk of complications, while non-zero, is sufficiently small as to be negligible (Dr Saunders can correct me if I am wrong). In the latter, the most that expectant mothers may face is some back pain, bloating, nausea, discomfort etc. Perhaps most of this is in the latter stages of pregnancy where the foetus is already viable. Another issue is about methodology. Is abortion more like killing or letting die. Whether there is in fact any moral difference between the two, the state (at the minimum as a matter of practicality) does make the distinction. Killing requires a larger burden than letting die. However, since the pregnant woman would also tend to be the lea parent of the foetus (by default), she faces a higher burden when letting that foetus die than she does of some random child. But, all these are rather intuitive observations. And intuitions about whether the burden on pregnant women is sufficient to justify killing or letting die one’s own unborn child can differ (See Judith Jarvis Thompson on Abortion for someone whose intuitions about this differ from mine) Instead, we go back to behind the veil of ignorance and ask ourselves. If we don’t know whether we are going to be a woman with an unwanted pregnancy or the child she was pregnant with, would we suppose that there was a right to an abortion? Hint: the parties in the original position use a maximin heuristic. The fate of the pregnant woman, as horrible as it may be if abortion were criminalised most cases (with exceptions made for the woman’s health etc), is still far less horrible than the fate the foetus that would have been aborted. The freedom to abort is therefore a freedom of the slightly less badly off to dominate the worst off.
Of course in the original position, you are also going to see that everyone would be better off if the expectant mother had the resources to raise the child or send it for adoption depending on her preference and would not be forced into either option. Other things that might seem useful is to allow pregnant teens to continue their education etc etc. (I may be socially conservative on this one but I’m not a monster. Of course she should have a safety net. But is should be carefully set up in order to avoid perverse incentives) None of this is to suggest that abortion is in fact morally wrong (although it might be) All my argument shows is that laws permitting abortion using particular methods and/or in certain kinds of situations (which perhaps occur fairly often) are unjust. It could sometimes be unjust to permit behaviour which is morally justified.
Note: I thought about adding something about privilege, but my thoughts on that are too confused for even myself to understand. So, instead of having 3 nice grenades to lob, I’ve got 2. Well, Happy New Year and if nothing here is worth commenting upon, consider this an open thread.
Yes, the double standard was horrible in the bad old days. Yes, women were treated as property. (What kind of monster do you think I am?) My point is this: If you think the longevity of the union is important, then the key point of weakness in the institution is romantic love. Change everything else: no of partners, sex and gender of partners, age of partners (mo more child marrriages), make it more egalitarian and the institution would still not have weakened and you would still have a more laudable institution today than you currently have.