Monday, December 17, 2012

On the Second Amendment: Should We Fear Government or Ourselves?

The tragic shootings in Newtown, CT, have plunged the nation into the foundational debate of American politics.

Over at Foxnews, the focus as been on mourning, and the tragedy of what happened. As far as the search for solutions go, the focus has been on how to cope, what to say to children, and what to do about better mental health screening. It is consistent with the conservative view that when bad things happen, they happen because of errant individuals, not flawed societies. The focus on mourning indicates the view that when bad things happen, they are the inevitable costs of liberty.

At MSNBC, the focus has been on tragedy as a wake up call, not a thing in itself to simply mourn; on finding legislative and governmental solutions -- gun control. This is consistent with the liberal view that when bad things happen, they happen because of flawed societies, not just the result of errant individuals or evil as an abstract entity.

The question of which side is right is an imponderable. Conservatives believe that in the end, our vigilance against tyrannical government is our first civic duty. This, in the end, was the logic behind the Second Amendment. It comes form a long line of Radical Whig thinking that the Anti-Federalists inherited. That is why Second Amendment purists can reasonably argue that citizens should continue to have access to (even) semi-automatic guns. They will say that the Second Amendment is not just for hunting; it is for liberty against national armies. Liberals, on the other hand, believe that a government duly constituted by the people need not fear government; and it is citizen-on-citizen violence that we ought to try to prevent. This line of thinking began with Hobbes, who had theorized that we lay down our arms against each other, so that one amongst us alone wields the sword. Later, we called this sovereign the state. The Federalists leaned in this tradition.

Should we fear government more or fellow citizens who have access to guns? Should government or citizens enjoy the presumption of virtue? Who knows. There is no answer on earth that would permanently satisfy both political sides in America, because conservatives believe that most citizens most of the time are virtuous, and there is no need to take a legislative sledgehammer to restrict the liberty of a few errant individuals at the expanse of everybody else. Liberals, conversely, believe that government and regulatory activity are virtuous and necessary most of the time, and there is little practical cost to most citizens to restrict a liberty (to bear arms) that is rarely, if ever, invoked. Put another way: conservatives focus on the vertical dimension of tyranny; liberals fear most the horizontal effects of mutual self-destruction.

What is a President to do? It depends on which side of the debate he stands. Barack Obama believes that the danger we pose to ourselves exceeds the danger of tyrannical government (for which a right to bear arms was originally codified.) The winds of public opinion may be swaying in his direction, and Obama appeared to be ready to mould it when he asked: "Are we really prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage?"

Here is one neo-Federalist argument that Obama can use, should he take on modern Anti-Federalists. If the Constitution truly were of the people, then it is self-contradictory to speak of vigilance against it. In other words, the Second Amendment is anachronistic. It was written in an era of monarchy, as a bulwark against Kings. To those who claim to be constitutional conservatives, Obama may reasonably ask: either the federal government is not sanctioned by We the People, and therefore we must forever be jealous of it; or, the federal government represents the People and we need not treat it as a distant potentate and overstate our fear of it.

If this is to be the age of renewed faith in government, as it appears to be Obama's mission, then the President will be more likely to convince Americans to lay down our arms; he will persuade us that our vigilance against government by the people is counter-prouctive and anachronistic. But, to move "forward," he must first convince the NRA and its ideological compatriots that we can trust our government. Only the greatest of American presidents have succeeded in this most herculean of tasks, for our attachment to the spirit of '76 cannot be understated.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Case Against Marriage

The following is a transcript of the speech I gave at Wes Thinks Big on Dec 4, 2012 at Memorial Chapel, Middletown, CT.

As we look to the future, it is only a matter of time that same-sex marriage will become the law of the land. The question is not whether, but when. Yet past this horizon a new one awaits. Advocates for same-sex marriage argue, correctly, that the civil privileges that the state grants to straight couples should not be held back for gay couples. Everyone agrees there. Yet not many advocates of gay marriage consider that if an existing institution, in this case, marriage, is unjust and flawed – there is another reform possibility. We can just abolish it. As crazy as this may sound, let me make a case for it today.

The problem begins precisely because the case for same-sex marriage is iron tight. Proponents of same-sex marriage have argued, I think correctly, that if two consenting adults choose to have a relationship with one another, that should be that, and the state has no business withholding the status of marriage to these two individuals. Usually, a secondary argument is presented alongside this primary argument, namely, that no one is harmed in this consensual relationship. Ergo, same-sex marriage should be legal. Remember these two arguments: A. consent, and B. no harm done.

The problem is that one can imagine many types of relationships that satisfy both these arguments, not just same-sex relationships. Arguments A and B appear to be over-inclusive. Social conservatives are right on this front. Let me demonstrate this with two examples.

Consider the case for incestuous same-sex marriage. Let's call this twincest. Wouldn’t both the primary, and the secondary reasons I have just presented for same-sex marriage apply to justify legalization of incestuous same-sex marriage? As long as there are A. two consenting adults, and B. as long as there are no negative procreative consequences, I see no reason to deny marriage to a pair of sisters or brothers.

What argument can we adduce to separate same-sex marriage from twincest. To make the former admissible, but the latter inadmissible? Let me right off the bat throw out the argument from procreation, since neither pairing is procreative. Let me suggest that the only remaining reason one can adduce for separating same sex marriage and twincest is an emotional reason: i.e. C. disgust or moral indignation. Same sex marriage doesn’t repulse us, incest does. Not so fast. This won’t work either, since revulsion or moral indignation is exactly the sentiment shared by opponents of same-sex marriage. If advocates for same-sex marriage want to deny incestuous marriage on the basis of moral indignation, they can hardly offer a reply to those who think that same-sex marriage is morally repugnant. This is the problem of legislating morality – one man’s virtue is another man’s vice.

Let me present a second example that highlights the same problem. Plural marriage. We want to say yes to same-sex marriage, but no to plural marriage. Plural marriage can come in the form of polygyny (one man many women) or polyandry (one woman many men.) Now, I will not recommend polygyny, that is marriage between several women and one man, since there are legitimate issues of gender inequality that such an arrangement implicates. It fails argument B. But I propose polyandry, that is marriage between one woman with several men. Again, the same reasons that permit same-sex marriage would also appear to legitimate polyandry. As long as A. consulting adults engage in activity in which B. they do no harm, they should be permitted to proceed as they please. Now, if you counter-argue that society will crumble, remember that this was the same reason that opponents of same-sex marriage had used years ago. As in the case of twincest, we have failed to find a reason to permit same-sex marriage, but disallow another type of relationship, in this case, polyandry.

Where do we go from here? I suggest that the reason why we cannot find a rule for permitting same-sex marriage but not twincest or polyandry is that the whole institution is arbitrary. There are no good answers because we haven’t asked the right question. And the question is: what reason could the state possibly have to elevate and privilege one type of human relationship over others? I can think of no reason. It is not that we haven’t found the elusive discriminatory criteria that would allow one relationship but not the other. It is that we cannot. My point is that neither we, nor the state, should be in the business of selectively endorsing and sanctifying one type of human relationship over another.

What the debate over same-sex marriage is going to do is to draw us to this inevitable conclusion. Once we realize that our reasons for establishing a cut-off point to a law or institution is arbitrary, the law or the institution must unravel. When it comes to traditional marriage, our society has defended an arbitrary cut-off point, determining for the longest time that marriage should only be limited to one man and one woman, bestowing the privileges and attendants benefits to those in such a relationship. The point I am trying to make is that shifting the cut-off point, as we are attempting to do today, draws attention to the arbitrariness of where we have historically set the cut-off point, and highlights the arbitrariness of our new cut-off point.

So I’ve used two apparently odious examples but I don’t need them to make the same point about the boundaries of state regulatory activity of which marriage laws is only a subset: the state should not have the authority, ever, to sanction and elevate particular conceptions of the good life over others. We already acknowledge this principle generally, outside of the realm of intimate relations, in the principle of liberal neutrality. For example, should I choose to spend the rest of my life watching endless reruns of Family Guy trying to determine the proper pronunciation of “cool whip,” I should be free to do so, without fear that the law will penalize me for what would appear to be a waste of my time.

Even though my argument appears controversial, I think most of you already implicitly agree with me. There are a whole host of other equally important and gratifying relationships that marriage laws today do not endorse. The sexual love between a man and a man, the platonic affection between a man and a woman, the bond between a man and his dog, the friendship between a girl and her grandmother. Don’t we all get a little miffed when our best friend finds a new girlfriend and they fall off the face of the earth (until they break up)? Who’s to say that these other types of relationships do not deserve public sanction, or at least a title equal to the privileged status of those who are traditionally married?  Indeed these relationships can also go under or beyond two persons. Consider self-love, Narcissus’s love for himself. Who’s to say someone who chooses to remain single has chosen a lesser path? Or, we can go up in numbers for more complex kinds of relationships: kinships in extended families, membership in fraternal organizations can be as rewarding as monogamous long-term relationships between two people. All of these relationships produce human flourishing. Yet I ask: why is it that we place the romantic, oftentimes sexual relationship between two people (homosexual or heterosexual) on a pedestal above all others? There has got to be a reason if we are to keep the institution of marriage. The state should only act when there are plausible, publicly defensible reasons. Institutions should exist only if the state can articulate reasons for their existence. Tradition or the warm feeling of romance isn’t enough, precisely because we have already chosen to unravel the traditional meaning of marriage in our support for same-sex marriage. (And by the way, Plato privileged platonic love over sexual love, so whatever I’m saying isn’t really new.)

I am not seeking to invalidate the choices of those who are already married. If you want to get into a long term monogamous and romantic relationship, go for it. But do not assume that this relationship is more deserving of state sanction than a host of other important intimate, caregiving relationships. Don’t do it because you want a public badge of honor. Do it in spite of the institution of marriage, not because of it. You will be perceived as weird, even Wesleyan weird, but you will be right.

Those who are trying to do the good work to modernize marriage need to consider the other possibility of reform and challenge the assumption that the institution itself is worth saving. By all means fight for equality. But don’t just fight for gays and lesbians. Fight for everyone, fight for anyone who wishes to live by an unconventional standard of love.

Let me conclude. If you think about it, marriage appears to do the exact opposite of that which it has traditionally been supposed to do. Marriage doesn’t encourage love; it restrains it. With the infinite variety of human interactions, is there really a need for the state to establish the gold standard of human relationships? (If liberty requires that we should each be free to love as we please, equality demands that the state remains neutral as to whom and how we love, or indeed, whether or not we love at all.) Marriage purports to be an institution that celebrates love; yet history shows us that marriage has served only to control and restrain the possibilities of human love. Civil marriage, however defined, will always and arbitrarily confer social meaning and hierarchies. Perhaps we should simply abolish it.