The great political, social, and moral issue of the present day is the authority of the natural and normal.
Accepting that authority means accepting a vernacular form of natural law, and thus a belief that the world has an innate way of functioning that is presumptively good. We can understand a great deal about that way of functioning, since otherwise reason would be of little use to us. Nonetheless, many of the details escape us, because the world is complicated and we didn’t create it. It has its own principles, and goes its own way.
For that reason, accepting nature means trusting the world more and ourselves less than is usual today. It means letting most things follow their own course, and dealing with what seems amiss with the aid of informal and inexact kinds of knowledge, like tradition and common sense, that fit situations that can’t be analyzed and resolved precisely.
The liberal technocratic view now dominant is very different. It wants to put individual man wholly in command, and tells us that the way the world is constituted has no authority. We should view everything around us, even our own bodies, as raw material for our purposes, and make things work the way we want them to work without worrying about what they’re for or what’s natural for them.
Another way to make the point is to say that each of us should define his own version of what’s natural. That is the source of the emerging view of transsexualism, which denies that the human body has a nature of its own, and tells us we are men or women only if we agree to be. The effect of such an outlook on public life can be seen in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 Supreme Court case that traced the right to abortion to “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” On such a view, the way the mother defines the world determines whether her baby is a baby. To say otherwise is to violate her liberty.
In support of such views, proponents say that “natural” has no intrinsic meaning, since all events are equally real, and there’s no point claiming some of them are more in accord with the way the world is constituted than others. On such a view, the distinction between natural and unnatural becomes a matter of social expectations. Expectations differ and change, so giving some of them authority because they are natural is really a matter of enforcing the expectations of the older and more powerful members of whatever groups are socially dominant. Others are likely to see that as oppressive: why should they be subject to the views of straight white male bitter clingers who fear change and hate those who differ?
For that reason, it’s thought that conceptions of what is natural should have no effect on public policy. That view seems plausible to many people today, so that references to unnatural acts or the natural family have come to seem downright bigoted, but in the long run is hard to take seriously. It’s impossible to do without a conception of natural functioning when we deal with immensely complicated adaptive systems like living organisms and human societies. We can’t discuss them the way we’d discuss a machine, because we can’t design them or understand fully how they work. Instead, we understand them by reference to the normal configuration and functioning of systems of that nature. Biology and medicine rely on such considerations when they speak of health.
But if that’s so, why shouldn’t the same be true of politics and morality? Biology and medicine have to do with physical functioning and well-being, politics and morality with more comprehensive forms of functioning and well-being that include physical matters like health but extend to others that are much less tangible but no less real and important. Why think that the latter areas of discussion can get by without a concept of natural functioning when the former can’t? Is it believable that our way of thinking should become more technological and value-free as the object of attention becomes more subtle, multilayered, overarching, and humanly important? That is what present-day ways of thinking demand, and it makes no sense.
In any event, the view now dominant also involves a conception of what is normal that is forced on the recalcitrant by the socially dominant. That view is based not on what is normal by nature but on what seems normal in a liberal technocratic society. Such a society is now the accepted ideal: maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences is considered self-evidently the highest goal, and technological thinking is considered the normal and rational way to deal with practicalities. In contrast, natural law understandings of man, the world, and how they function have become incomprehensible to members of our governing classes, since they differ from the principles that order the bureaucratic and commercial institutions that give them their position, so such understandings are considered prejudiced, stereotypical, pathological, and generally abnormal and weird.
As a matter of principle, the liberal technocratic view requires government policy to be based on equal treatment of individual preferences, technical considerations, and nothing else. The aspiration can’t be attained, because technical considerations and the principle of equal treatment don’t resolve all conflicts among preferences. However, those who support the ideal can’t admit the problem without admitting the controlling authority of something other than equal human wills and so openly abandoning it. To avoid doing so they silently smuggle in principles that are treated as beyond debate and imply an enforceable conception of what is normal.
Thus, for example, there’s no proof that putting women in combat improves military functioning, or that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships improves the lives of men, women, or children. To the contrary, the evidence suggests that they make social institutions less functional and most people less happy. If so, they certainly don’t maximize satisfactions counting all preferences equally. It’s evident, then, that those changes are being made not for utilitarian evidence-based policy reasons but on account of an unbreakable sense that different treatment based on sex is out of place—that is to say, abnormal—in present-day society.
The evident basis of that sense is that sexual connections and distinctions are subtle and impossible to understand completely, so they can’t be dealt with technologically. It follows that if society is to become fully and transparently rational, as rationality is now understood, they must be eliminated or deprived of effect. For people who run things today the choice is therefore clear: the irrational and abnormal must be suppressed, and that means women must go into combat and marriage must be fundamentally redefined.
That choice is commonly attributed to an egalitarian moral principle that tells us that human beings have equal worth and must be treated equally. In fact, it’s based on no such thing, but on the need to maintain the appearance of technological rationality. Egalitarian principle doesn’t keep people from drawing the distinctions they think are normal even when those distinctions are not fully voluntary and have no special connection to human or moral worth. The military routinely treats officers and enlisted men differently, not to mention fellow citizens and enemy soldiers. The issue, then, is what distinctions are normal, and that depends on understandings of the world and how society should function.
As noted, the current view is that society should function technologically, and only accept distinctions like money, certified expertise, and bureaucratic position that fit neatly into a liberal technocratic system. In contrast, the older view trusts in the world’s innate way of functioning, which includes sexual distinctions, and typically views that way of functioning as natural and providential. The official view today is that the former approach is obviously correct and liberating. It’s hard to see why. It can’t work in accordance with its principles, because there are too many things that can’t be understood technologically, so it can’t be correct. And it’s hardly liberating to give up a conception of order as natural in favor of order as the creation of human will, since the will that determines order will inevitably be that of the powerful.
Why should we want to be ordered around by social engineers who don’t understand what they’re doing?
Editor’s note: This column first appeared January 14, 2014 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.