One can only hope that all of this talk over the controversial issue of “the liberty” of homosexuals to “marry” will get us to thinking a little harder about marriage and liberty.
Marriage is a more vulnerable institution today than it has ever been in the past, it is true. Yet I don’t think that this has much if anything to do with recent demands for “gay marriage.” In fact, if the demand for radically reshaping marriage so as to accommodate homosexuals can legitimately be said to signal a deterioration of marriage, then it is but the latest such signal, the culmination, perhaps, of a complex of marriage-imperiling trends that Western societies have long permitted.
Divorce and non-marital sex of various forms, to say nothing of illegitimacy, are just some of the things that we have been allowing long before anyone heard of “gay marriage.”
In an order of liberty like the United States of America was originally intended to be, perhaps it is impossible for us not to allow such conduct. Yet there is all of the difference in the world between refusing to criminalize divorce and the rest, on the one hand, and, on the other, romanticizing these activities. In fact, it is precisely for the sake of conserving our liberty that we must take care to conserve the cultural prerequisites—like marriage and family—undergirding it.
And what this means, at the very least, is that we must recognize conduct that threatens those prerequisites for the poisons that they are.
But far from sounding the alarm on these kinds of actions, we not only normalize them; we romanticize them (In some instances, like that of “the romance” genre, we literally romanticize them). From the Hollywood celebrity to the person next door, Americans (and Westerners) from all walks of life have acquiesced in, when they haven’t actively encouraged, trends that have considerably weakened marriage.
Most of these trends are the legacy of “the sexual revolution.” Some of them, like the popular notions of “falling in love” and “living happily ever after,” and the idea that marriage is a “contract” (as opposed to, say, a sacred covenant) can be traced back much further.
Those on the political right are disposed to blame their opponents on the other side of the ideological aisle for marriage’s reversals of fortune. Indeed, the leftist deserves no small share of blame. After all, the so-called “sexual revolution” was devised almost single handedly by the leftist. Yet, as has been said, it has been quite some time since even the temperamentally “conservative’ has acclimated himself to the mores advanced by the revolution. Furthermore, only by the lights of a short-sighted view can marriage be said to have been sailing smoothly until the late 1960’s.
Actually, it is not a stretch to think that a certain understanding of “classical liberalism” or “libertarianism” is guilty of facilitating the decline of marriage. The cardinal libertarian principle is known as “the Harm (or No Harm) principle.” For many a libertarian, this principle is sacrosanct. Back in the nineteenth century, the English philosopher John S. Mill articulated what has since become a famous statement of it. In his essay, On Liberty, Mill wrote that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection [.]” In other words, “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” (emphases added).
If a person is engaged in self-destructive conduct, and if he is an adult of sound mind, then he must be left unmolested, free to live in accordance with his own folly.
The lover of liberty can sympathize with the thrust of the Harm principle. But once the general truth encapsulated by this principle is elevated into an abstract and absolute doctrine, it becomes self-defeating. As Mill says, that the Harm principle is “to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion or control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion” (emphasis added).
Notice, while the inviolability of the individual requires legislators to refrain from enacting laws that undermine his self-chosen engagements, it requires as well as that his fellow citizens refrain from judging him harshly! Nor is this an idiosyncrasy on Mill’s part: because the concept of “harm” is not self-explanatory, Mill is simply drawing out the reasoning of the Harm principle to its logical end.
To put it another way, once individuality—a historically and culturally-specific disposition—is exchanged in favor of the creed of individualism, the result is not more, but less freedom. Once the individual is free from the moral constraints imposed upon him by way of the judgments of his fellows, the only thing left to control him is the government. So, more “individualism” equals more government.
And this is the problem with individualism (as opposed to individuality). By focusing on the individual in abstraction from the complex of historical and cultural contingencies that make him the concrete being that he is, we license all manner of conduct. Yet we don’t appreciate that much of this conduct is corrosive of just that delicate balance of institutions that gave rise to our individuality to begin with.
The Moral Liberal Contributing Editor, Jack Kerwick, holds a BA in religious studies and philosophy from Wingate University, a MA in philosophy from Baylor University, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Temple University, and is currently adjunct professor of philosophy at Rowan University; Penn State University; and Burlington County College. Mr. Kerwick writes from the classical liberal perspective inspired by Edmund Burke. He blogs at www.jackkerwick.com. You can contact him at [email protected]