Social liberals consider traditional moral restrictions cruel in their very essence. Each of us, they believe, should be as free as possible to pursue his happiness as he sees it, consistent with the equal ability of others to do the same.
To reject that position, as Catholics and other moral traditionalists do, is either intentionally to block happiness or to substitute the judgment of the powerful for that of the individual with regard to his own most basic concerns. And that, progressives say, is cruel, oppressive, or both.
It’s easy enough to find situations that seem to support the argument. If marriage is a specific sort of arrangement that imposes binding obligations backed by social authority, some people will find themselves caught in difficult situations that don’t get better. So in a morally traditional society some people will have enduring problems they could have gotten out of in a more liberal one.
An easy counter argument, supported by the facts, is to point to ways in which the socially liberal approach has evidently decreased happiness, for example by weakening family connections. A fallback argument for liberals is to say that regardless of how well traditional arrangements might work in theory, any attempt to restore or even preserve them would be tyrannical as well as ineffective.
This fallback is important and deserves discussion. The idea seems to be that an attempt to promote things like cultural coherence or functional sexual roles and standards would have to rely on social policies involving supervision, control, punishment, and exclusion. People would resent the meddling and wouldn’t go along. If traditionalists thought it would be good for young men and women to put more emphasis on getting married and starting families, for example, doing something about it would involve things like stigmatizing gays and singles, bed checks to prevent fornication, and telling women they can’t have demanding careers. How could such an effort be organized, and why expect it to work?
The question, then, is how a society that is morally more traditionalist could come about: if it’s not an option, or the means that would be required seem intolerable, we might as well forget about it. The answer to that question, not surprisingly, depends on the same issues regarding what people are like and how society works that are behind the culture war in general.
That war reflects the liberal view of man and the world. On that view what makes us what we are is that we are independent individuals who make choices based on our own values. Accordingly, the key to a good society is for everyone to have as many choices as possible and maximum freedom to choose among them without regard to social pressures, money problems, or other conditions pushing us this way or that. So the ideal society would be a sort of lifestyle superstore in which the customer is king and can choose freely from an endless variety of goods at reasonable and often subsidized prices. In liberal political theorist Judith Shklar’s words, it would be a society in which “every adult [is] able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of her or his life as is compatible with the like freedom of every adult.”
When that vision is reduced to practical institutional form, the result is a commercial and bureaucratic society with various welfare benefits and anti-discrimination and other rules that make us independent of each other and of traditional standards and connections like the family. Institutionally, then, the culture war is an effort by the left to get rid of natural and traditional arrangements, like inherited morality and the family, in favor of commercial and bureaucratic ones, such as formal education, professional childcare, pop culture, psychological therapy, and various social services. Where the older arrangements are retained in name, it’s an effort to redefine them as optional individual pursuits rather than authoritative institutions. “Marriage,” for example, is to become whatever particular individuals decide to make of it.
Such arrangements correspond to the liberal conception of man, so they are accepted as the natural form of society, and every other form is viewed as a variation that should be judged by its expected effect given liberal understandings. Those understandings tell us that individual preferences are the guide for human life, so a movement toward a society that views some preferences as better than others would mean imposition of a regulatory scheme involving constant attempts at thought control and meddling in private life.
The line of thought seems plausible in a society in which liberal ways of thinking prevail. Nonetheless, it’s based on illusions:
• Man is fundamentally an individual who makes choices based on values of his own choosing.
• There can be a society that maximizes free choice.
• That society, which is liberal society, arises naturally out of the nature of man, while other forms of society must be imposed by force and a detailed system of control.
In fact, contemporary liberal society is no more composed of people who live by their own chosen values than traditional society. Like all societies, it promotes a particular way of life in a particular setting that (from the standpoint of pure choice) involves some forms of suppression and control but not others. It tells people to treat support for traditional sexual norms rather than homosexuality as anti-social. It pushes women out of the home and into formal employment, freeing them from husbands but making them dependent on employers and Uncle Sam. And it protects minorities from institutional rejection, but exposes them to ruptured family ties, the depredations of criminals, and incarceration.
No society can maximize free choice. Choices conflict, some must give way to others, and there is no neutral standard to determine which should count more. A society in which people make marriage what they want and end it when they wish is one thing. A society in which people can choose permanent marriage that gives them a definite and respected social position, because it is seen as a basic and necessary institution, is something different and incompatible. People say the former society offers more choices, but the choices can be more numerous because they mean much less. Why is that more choice?
Like other forms of society, liberal society has elements of both freedom and compulsion. It arose out of a conception of man, reason, and the world that was once new but now seems to have reached its limits. That conception, pioneered by figures like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, seemed to give answers where earlier attempts had failed, and led to new and extremely effective institutions like modern natural science, the modern bureaucratic state, and the global industrial economy. Those forms of thought and society have maintained and extended their dominance in a variety of ways, some of which have involved freedom and some violence and suppression (consider, for example, the French Revolution and European laws against homeschooling and “hate speech”).
The reappearance of a more traditional, natural, and Catholic approach to thought and social relations would no doubt come about in a similar way, through acceptance of a different understanding of man, reason, and the world, together with institutions that correspond to that understanding. That will happen to the extent a more traditional, natural, and Catholic outlook provides better answers to pressing human questions, and institutions such as the Church, the family, and traditional culture and morality meet needs liberal institutions do not. When that happens, and the new or revived outlook and way of living spreads and becomes generally accepted, a morally traditional society will seem no less natural and inevitable than a morally liberal one does to our governing classes today.
Such a society would of course involve compulsion, since all societies involve compulsion. Education would continue to inculcate accepted doctrine. Denial of fundamental truths and violations of whatever is taken to be politically and morally correct would continue to carry formal or informal sanctions. The issue, though, is not how to bring about some state of ultimate freedom and equality that can’t possibly exist, but what truths and goods should orient our common life, and how it makes sense to bring about and maintain that orientation. Catholics have their answer—Catholicism and evangelization, including self-evangelization—as others have theirs. Which will prevail, to what extent, and how long only the future can tell.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared September 15, 2014 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is an illustration of Michelle Obama in her self-chosen role as America’s food policeman.