Question for the day: Is morality a private matter?

Ours is a pluralistic society.  We accommodate many voices and points of view, which frequently contradict one another.  We do this by enshrining, and on occasion mandating, tolerance as a virtue, and we justify tolerance, even in the face of important disagreements about how live together, by making most life decisions a matter of “conscience,” which it would be wrong and hypocritical to coerce.

In the Western tradition, the most destructive conflict of opinions took place over religion, and the model for pluralism became religious tolerance, as best argued by John Locke in the Letter Concerning Religious Toleration.  Locke made a simple but compelling case.  He began with a psychological observation:  “everyone is orthodox to himself.”  To compel an individual in matters of religion is to require of that person the grossest hypocrisy, which is hardly conducive to salvation.

And who shall do the compelling?  The church shouldn’t, because it is concerned only with spiritual things.  The state can’t, because it is concerned only with organizing the affairs of this world.  Church and government, the sacred and the profane, are separate spheres, and neither has authority over the other except in its own sphere.  “Nobody, therefore, in fine, neither single persons nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other upon pretence of religion,” Locke concluded.

The Founding Fathers agreed, and implemented a thoroughly Lockean approach to government.  Jefferson, in his long preamble to the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, noted almost casually that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”  The division of the sacred from the profane, at least at the Federal level, became an American constitutional principle with the first words of the Bill of Rights:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

If religion could be privatized, it took little effort to envision a world in which most personal preferences, whether in morality or in matters of taste, were protected not only from the power of the state but also from the stifling pressure of conventional opinion.  In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued for such a world, devising a formula for personal freedom that has reverberated to this day:  “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.”  The principle applies to social pressure no less than to state power:  we may try to persuade, but never condemn, one who isn’t harming others.

Mill made a fetish of individuality.  He came from Dissenter stock, and it seemed to him that the highest purposes of human life required a defiance of convention.  Though an atheist and utilitarian, he retained a belief in the power of the individual conscience to interpret, eccentrically, the holy book of the world.  He preached “liberty of tastes and pursuits, of framing a plan of our life to suit our own character, of doing as we like. . . without impediment from our fellow creatures. . .”  He had a penchant for abstractions, and wrote of “experiments in living,” as if an individual’s existence were a solution in a beaker, waiting for the right temperature to crystallize.

The ideas he expressed in On Liberty have had a long, eventful career, and are with us still.  They buttress what we now call libertarianism, a perspective that, interestingly,  straddles our political and ideological divides.

On the right, it is manifested by a passion for gun ownership and self-protection, home schooling, and a fundamental aversion to all government that reaches its most curious extreme in the self-styled “militias” – an attempt to privatize the police power.  On the left, postmodernism has happily endorsed the Millean notion of “experiments in living,” pushed it to a logical conclusion with an endorsement of “personal” moralities or no morality at all – then crossed a point of no return with “transhumanism,” self-described as follows:

You will not find a more militantly open, tolerant bunch on the planet. Adam and Steve want get married? We’ll be the groomsmen. Joan wants to contract with Jill for surrogacy services? We’ll throw a baby shower. Bill and Jane want to use ecstasy for great sex? We’ll leave them alone quietly. John wants to grow a new liver through therapeutic cloning? We’ll bring over the scotch to help him break in the new one.

“Do no harm” quickly mutates into “anything goes.”  I suspect Mill, a typically self-disciplined Victorian, would not have approved, but under his own formula neither could he have condemned.

And as Mill’s critics have observed, the formula itself offers little in the way of practical guidance.  It’s an abstraction, hovering above the sweat and grime of human life.  Every serious moral or political choice entails harm to someone.  Who arbitrates?  Does the pregnant woman’s harm trump the unborn child’s?  Is the loss to the taxpayer compensated by the gain of a welfare recipient?  And how does one measure my harm against yours?  I may be exquisitely sensitive – most of us insist we are – and your loud voice, or your appearance, or your attitudes and beliefs, may be painful to me.  Again, who arbitrates?

Mill gave few examples of how he expected his formula to work, none very helpful.  A quiet drunk should be tolerated, he maintained, but not an aggressive or disorderly one.  But what if yesterday’s brawler is getting quietly drunk today?  Can we act preemptively to prevent harm?

Mill’s formula is useless, and can only serve to justify a preconceived notion of right action.  Libertarianism, as a social principle, has never been implemented, and never can be, except on the margins of community life.  But, universally, we now consider the privatization of morality a noble achievement, like freedom of worship, and we use the words moralistic, judgmental, and discriminating to represent undesirable states of mind.

I believe the privatization of morality poses fundamental problems for liberal democracy and pluralism itself.

The Founding Fathers, I noted, designed the constitution along Lockean lines.  Individuals received explicit rights and protections.  The government was restricted to a limited sphere of authority.  So far, so good.  But to maintain this arrangement, certain specific behaviors are required of the citizenry.

Too many Enrons, and the free market ceases to exist.  Too much corruption in government, and the ballot loses its value.  Too many unwed mothers and absent fathers, and the state will take over the family’s place.  The larger the private sphere of freedom, the stronger the moral impulse must become in the individual:  that may sound like a paradox to us, but it was a truism to the Founders.

Madison was typical of his generation when he wrote, “To suppose that any form of government will secure happiness or liberty without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”  When Madison’s friend and neighbor, Thomas Jefferson, wrote about  “the pursuit of happiness,” he meant the perfection of virtue.

What did the Founders mean by “virtue”?  That is the question we should be asking of ourselves.  Pluralism requires tolerance, not indifference, in matters of morality.  Otherwise, we leave the survival of pluralism to mere whim and personal preference; we make it possible to invoke pluralism in order to opt out of it.

Morality entails shared limits on behavior.  What are the limits?  Which are so important as to require the police?  Which should be left to the praise or condemnation of society?  Because, once indifference disappears, and the stakes of the game are known, praise and condemnation will follow:  that pressure of conventional minds, unloved by Mill, despised by postmodernists, which is the glue that holds together the kind of community that can absorb, without fear or violence, a peddler of impractical abstractions such as Mill, and a tribe of academic nihilists such as the PoMo People.


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