Personal choice, moral imperatives

The focus of this blog is on the relationship between freedom, which entails an openness in choices, and the behavioral imperatives imposed on anyone who seeks the good life.  To the degree that we are unfree, our choices lack moral weight; to the degree that we assert our freedom in defiance of custom and tradition, our choices will lack any standard beyond self-interest with which to judge good and evil.

Every human life is therefore a problem, and the struggle toward goodness a tragic condition:  in the crossed axes of freedom and morality, the further we travel down one virtuous path, the more alienated we become from the other.

A comment string over at Creative Destruction, started by a light-hearted post of mine, tiptoes around both the problem and the tragedy.  My post cited an article by Philip Longman, claiming that cultural liberals were failing to reproduce — and I added, without much reflection on the matter, that it would a cosmic joke if evolution fell out of favor in a century or so, as an outcome of natural selection.

Well, I have been thoroughly taken to task by several of the CD commenters, who insist that political ideas are a matter of personal choice, not reproductive success.  I even stand accused of confusing Darwinian evolution with social darwinism:  “ideas are not genes,” argues one commenter, quite correctly; “they can be passed on in ways other than biologically.”  Here is a question of fundamental importance to this blog.

I am interested in “ideas” only so far as they influence behavior.  If we grant Longman’s data on the infertility of cultural liberals, the behaviors in question are an acceptance of abortion, gay marriage, sex outside marriage, and so forth, and a concommitant rejection of traditional marriage and parenting.  The question is whether such behaviors arise spontaneously and at random in each generation, or whether they are linked to specific family trees.

Let’s conduct a mind experiment.  Suppose that tomorrow all native Europeans died of acute postmodern malaise, and their places were taken by Muslim immigrants from the Middle East.  Would ideas about homosexuality and adultery return, in the next generation, roughly to where they are today among our postmodern Europeans?  The most ardent believers in free will would consider that unlikely.

Suppose, then, that all of us non-Mormon Americans keeled over tomorrow, and left the country in the hands of the Latter Day Saints.  With a greater degree of freedom than is the norm in the Muslim Middle East, the next generation might indeed see some individualists and free-thinkers who deviate from church teachings.  But would they approximate the numbers of cultural liberals today?

Imagine, finally, that cultural liberals went extinct in a generation.  Those who remained would follow a more traditional way of life.  The next generation, let me suggest, would find many more sheep straying from the fold of tradition than would be the case in an all-Mormon America — but anyone who believes that the culturally liberal population would resume its present numbers is mistaken about the nature of personal freedom and the individual’s relationship to his moral community.

Ideas that influence behavior never exist in isolation.  They are not like mathematical formulas, to be accepted or rejected at pleasure.  Instead, they exist in a matrix of traditions, and resemble nothing so much as parts of an architectural structure:  reject one piece, and the whole edifice is liable to come tumbling down.  As with architectural styles, many aspects of every tradition have no more reason for being than history.  They are what they are because we have been where we have been.

Traditions shape behavior because they are believed to lead to happiness and success.  They are not an option:  every human alive belongs to some tradition, and strives in a particular style for some particular vision of the good life.  That is true of Arab Muslims, and of Mormons, and of cultural liberals as well.

Traditions are not learned from a manual.  They are taught in the school of family life, and in the shared rituals of the community.  They are not a matter of intellectual assent or reasoned proof.  We feel the moral vision implicit in our traditions in the form of powerful emotions, which link our lives to the larger story of the community, infuse them with meaning, and seem, not infrequently, worth dying for:  dulce et decorum est.  In a very literal sense, morality commands our biology.  (Those interested in the biological drivers of morality, check the work of Antonio Damasio and Jonathan Haidt.)

A moral community is one that shares a similar set of traditions.  It moves in parallel, toward similar goals.  Membership, by and large, is handed down the family tree.

Every moral community at some level competes with every other.  It isn’t a war of all against all — at least, not necessarily — but it is a slow-motion collision, a stately process of cultural, rather than natural, selection.  Is this social darwinism?  Only if we disbelieve that cultures, in the words of Jared Diamond, can end up as winners and losers.  The weight of human history stands against such disbelief.

If the moral community we call “cultural liberalism” physically vanished tomorrow (and I have no idea if this is really in the cards), it would take with it all its traditions, rituals, and habits.  The chance of these being reproduced spontaneously in the next generation approximate the chances of spontaneous Muslim generation, should all believers in that religion somehow vanish instead.

What is the place of freedom in this scheme of things?  I said tradition is not learned in a manual.  Morality isn’t a series of yes-and-no questions.  The complexity of human life is too immense for such methods.

Personal freedom is the motor of moral evolution:  the way we adjust our public traditions to our private needs, and to the everlasting puzzle of the social environment.  Not being a social darwinist, I don’t believe moral evolution is necessarily for the good, whether “good” is considered in terms of good and evil or of worldly success.

Moral communities can grow exhausted and decay.  Plato thought this was the inevitable effect of the exercise of freedom.  We Americans think differently.  Only through the application and defense of freedom can we attain full citizenship in the moral community envisioned by the Founders.


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