Sunday, November 08, 2009

Mark T. Mitchell, Same-Sex Marriage, Abortion, and the Limits of Localism

He gives a response to a common paleo objection to involvement by the government in deciding the legal question of marriage:

Perhaps the government should simply get out of the marriage business altogether. But that doesn’t look likely, and so we are left with the question of culture. Can a society survive if the vast majority of the populace do not share a common culture and together affirm a collection of common ideas? Is an affirmation of “liberty for all”—where liberty means the freedom from any constraint or authority—an adequate foundation for a society? Or does, in fact, this sort of absolute liberalism consume itself in the very logic of its existence? Can a society exist when all that unifies it is the continual emancipation of desire? The obvious answer, it seems to me, is no. But where can one find a common culture? The affirmation of certain basic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness devoid of any metaphysical conception of what it means to be a human being falls short. Rights claims without acknowledgment of obligations and ends suited to human beings are little more than emotivist utterances that can be asserted and expanded with ever-increasing shrillness and incoherence. This is precisely where we are today. The same-sex marriage “debate” is the logical outcome of a society steeped in the language of rights where the understanding of rights has been separated from any notion of the human person as more than a bundle of expanding appetites. Such a “debate” cannot be won by either side, for winning a debate implies rational discussion, but in an emotivist context, the only victory is gained by force.

James Madison argued that the political system produced by the constitution of 1787 provided for certain institutional impediments to the demands of the majority but that ultimately the will of the people could not be stopped. As such, he argued that the virtue of the citizens was the primary bulwark against the usurpation of freedom. But a common consensus about virtue (and about freedom) implies a common underlying culture that consists of more than demands for individual rights. If the sole purpose of human existence is to liberate every desire, same-sex marriage is clearly a good thing so long as it is desired. If, on the other hand, there are ends and means proper to human persons and we are obligated to conform our actions to these norms, then same-sex marriage may not be within the realm of that which is morally good for human persons. It’s a question of culture that, as these questions do, goes to the heart of what it means to be a human. It is a question that cannot adequately be answered by recurring simply to competing rights claims.

Madison could imagine a national community united by a robust conception of virtue. As we have grown larger and more diverse in our thinking, that is no longer the case (if it ever was). We may generally agree on abstractions such as equality and individual rights but that is not enough to form a coherent community. So we are left with an incoherent national community (did such a thing ever exist?) and the possibility of more or less coherent communities of a smaller scale and even these will be difficult to maintain, for we all drink deeply from the fount of a popular culture where the liberation of desire is the first fundamental of the faith.


If he is saying that the National Government should be responsible for promoting a culture of virtue, then how is this National Government to be brought into existence? While one may find supporters for the virtue in certain parts of the country, representatives from other parts of the country would oppose these virtues, or at least supporting them through law, in the name of public agnosticism regarding what is good.


Ted V. McAllister, The Romance of Conservatism

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