Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “How Liberals Are Unwittingly Paving The Way For The Legalization Of Adult Incest” — Damon Linker, The Week
Damon Linker is better described as a former conservative, but he has carved himself out a place at The Week of late by tweaking liberals by playing out the logical implications of certain assumptions. This week he pointed to the recent declaration by the German Ethics Council that laws against consensual incest between adult siblings should be abolished. Then Linker argued that the precepts on which liberals have built the case for legal recognition of same-sex marriage will eventually bring the incest debate here, as well.
Much of the piece lays out the jurisprudence and legal logic behind how this will play out. In short, a growing series of rulings have asserted that moral opposition is itself not enough to justify a state or federal-level law against consensual sex acts between non-minors, hence the eventual application to laws against incest. But more interestingly, Linker ends with a series of questions that go beyond the legal aspects and dig into how liberals concieve of morality, and how discrimination is defined and conceived of:
Do you support the right of consenting adult brothers and sisters to marry? If not, why not? What legal or moral principle justifies granting marriage rights to unrelated same-sex couples while denying such rights to brothers and sisters?
Note that the German Ethics Council also held that the prospect of a brother and sister producing children with genetic defects cannot be used as a reason to deny them a right to marry. After all, disabled couples are not prohibited from procreating under German law, even though they have a greater-than-average chance of producing disabled kids. The same is true, incidentally, under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
If you do support the right of brothers and sisters to marry, is it because you think there’s nothing wrong with (or even something potentially good about) incestuous relationships? Or do you support the right to incestuous marriage despite being disgusted by the practice?
This question is significant because in recent years some liberals have begun to argue that it is not enough for traditionalist religious believers merely to tolerate same-sex marriage. Instead, these people must positively affirm the legitimacy and goodness of gay marriage as an institution. Otherwise, they run the risk of perpetuating the evil of homophobia. Which brings us to:
Is it acceptable to affirm the right of incestuous couples to marry while continuing to think that such marriages are depraved? Or should we combat such anti-incestuous beliefs — just like racism, sexism, and homophobia — on the grounds that they will encourage hurtful stereotypes?
I suspect that liberals won’t appreciate being asked these questions. But refusing to answer won’t stop the logic at work in the sexually libertarian principles that on other occasions liberals triumphantly champion. Once a person, couple, or group of people make a sexual-partnership claim based on autonomy and consent, there is increasingly no basis on which to legally reject it. And once it becomes legally accepted, there is increasingly no basis on which to morally reject it.
Setting aside the legal issues, one big critique from conservatives when it comes to the morality of sexual behavior is that consent alone cannot be the only criteria. Which is undoubtedly true: few liberals would think it moral okay to consensually sleep with the person your best friend had just broken up with, for instance.
But in liberals’ defense, the drive over the last few decades to emphasize consent as pre-eminent was of huge historical important. It opened up space for human beings to be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as means to a “good social order” where certain sexual acts should not be done simply because they should not be done. It eliminated the idea of a separate sexual ethic, and instead brought the sphere of sexual behavior into the over-arching ethic of how human beings should treat one another in any sphere. There are obviously still battles to be fought here, the problem of sexual assault on college campuses being just one example. But the cultural tide to hold up consent is undoubtedly winning. And with the old sexual morality in retreat, liberals can and should consider what other moral structures and requirements for sexual behavior they would layer atop consent’s foundation.
2. “Duty And Delight” — Clare Coffey, First Things
Clare Coffey is actually another author whom it would be grossly reductive to label “conservative” — but First Things is a conservative publication, so we’ll allow it. And this week, Coffey took to the magazine’s pages with a lyrical reflection on marriage.
Coffey starts by questioning the idea that emotions cannot be controlled, but only how we respond to them can be. Instead, Coffey posits that our emotional responses can be brought in line with what is right with habit and discipline over time. “To do right without desiring and delighting in it is obviously superior to doing wrong, but it’s still a moral penury,” she writes. “Often a blamable or correctable one.” She then moves to Stanley Hauerwas’ description of marital love as something than can only be seen in retrospect, surveying “a lifetime of service and fidelity.” But this too strikes her as inadequate:
The impression that love-as-backwards-looking-acknowledgment conjures up is a treasury, with each act of service and fidelity over time building up its store. No one coin is wealth, but at the end of their lives, the love-misers can look at the mountains and rivulets of gold in total and say that they are rich.
But marriage is a relationship, and though its particular structure decides the duties and forms of love that attend it, it does not dictate a radically different excellence than that which perfects other relationships.
Loving my mother is a discipline, but not one confirmed only in retrospect. I can decide, impelled by love, to discharge my filial duties, to not go out for a drink with friends when I know she is tired and lonely and would enjoy help washing dishes and sharing a beer. And when I sit with her, I can know that I am loving her at that moment — and then I am presented with another choice. I can count my debt paid and mourn the loss of a night out, or I can notice how she becomes pensive and thoughtful when her schedule gives her a moment of quiet, how quick her laugh and sympathy is, the comforting warmth of her arm around me, how much more relaxed she seems. I can turn my desire and delight from my preferences to her. And if I do this, the next time the impulse of love will be stronger, and the knots binding me to her and her happiness, and my feelings to my duties, tighter.
Love in the confines of a mutual relationship resembles a treasury less than a plant. In marriage, it’s bound to the governing sapling-stick of its structure so that it can grow tall and healthy in the appointed way, and bear good fruit. But the tree isn’t a tree only when an oak; it is itself, and can be known, as a sapling and at every stage subsequent. It needs nourishment, but does not grow only to the sum of its nourishment. It’s not like the hoard of love, static except when discrete increases accrue to its principal. It magnifies what feeds it and transforms it into constant, quiet, hidden growth, and into shade and greenness and leaf and bark.
This harkens back to Aristotelian conceptions of ethics, which see virtue as a matter of habit. Every time we do that which is moral, we build patterns into ourselves that are repeated over time, and strengthened by each repetition. Thus do we build character. It’s an idea that actually mirrors in many ways what we know about brain function, and how pathways in the neurocircuitry are strengthened and made more likely to be repeated every time they’re used. And as Coffey notes, it presents a challenge to the way modern society and pop culture often present committed monogamous marriages — as eternal wars between or inbuilt desires and our intellectual knowledge of what we ought to do, with the latter often succumbing to exhaustion before the relentlessness of the former.
3. “The Troubling Persistence Of Eugenicist Thought In Modern America” — Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week
This week will feature two selections from, well, The Week. Along with Damon Linker’s piece, Michael Brendan Dougherty also penned an argument this week that if eugenics returns to America, it may not come in the traditional racists packaging liberals have come to expect.
Dougherty begins by pointing to arguments made by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other liberals that one advantage of abortion or birth control is decreased poverty. But then he quotes New York Times reporter Alison Piepmeier on why the women she interviewed had chosen to abort their children upon discovering they have Down Syndrome, “Repeatedly women told me that they ended the pregnancy not because they wanted a ‘perfect child’… but because they recognized that the world is a difficult place for people with intellectual disabilities.” Dougherty sees a danger in this style of thinking:
As medical costs are more and more socialized, it is hard to see how the stigma attached to “choosing” to carry a Down syndrome child to term will not increase. Why choose to burden the health system this way? Instead of neighbors straightforwardly admiring parents for the burden they bear with a disabled child, society is made up of taxpayers who will roll their eyes at the irresponsible breeder, who is costing them a mint in “unnecessary” medical treatment and learning specialists at school. Why condemn a child to a “life like that,” they will wonder.
Ultimately, Piepmeier says we should make it easier for women to bring children into the world. Bully for that. But the fact that “the world is a difficult place” for some people more than others is a problem unsolvable by social and political reform or medicine. How much poorer, how much more pre-disposed to a disease, how much more socially detested does one have to be to be beneath this eugenic hurdle for existence?
All the ingredients still exist for a more explicit return to eugenics in our culture and politics: inequality, fear, detestation of the other. But if it comes back, it is unlikely to come in the explicitly racialist terms of the biodiversity-obsessed right. Liberal societies have the antibodies against that.
Instead, it will come to us in terms of “quality of life,” and “health and safety.” We will be urged that every child deserves the best society can grant, and stigmatize those for whom “the world is a difficult place.” And thereby we legitimize the destruction of those who would merely “live” in society rather than thrive in it.
But what is the takeaway from this? Dougherty is undoubtedly right that many liberals worry about health and safety and quality of life, and that these priorities can become pinched and implicitly devaluing of the weak and the vulnerable. But is this an argument against socializing medical costs? Or simply a warning about possible knock-off social-psychological effects of that socialization? From a left-liberal perspective, the social safety net is based on the twin precepts that every person is intrinsically valuable simply for being here, and that none of us is master of our fate. There are certainly people who would look down upon a parent for burdening the social safety net with a disabled child, but that is arguably someone who isn’t morally sold on the safety net in the first place. They merely tolerate rate it or acquiesce to it.
Our our highly competitive free market economy provides immense rewards to people who possess (or at least seem to posses) intellectual prowess, behavioral competency, discipline, health and considerable capacity for “productivity” as our markets define it. Such rewards come with consequences for a society’s moral apprehension. It’s hard for liberals or leftists or anyone else to entirely escape from the value judgments and assumptions embedded in all that. A capitalist economy can itself be the most powerful of moral tutors, relentlessly pounding home the message: “Thrive or else.”