Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Myth of Liberal Neutrality:

Here's a really bad idea. GayPatriot, who describes himself as a conservative, finds fault with the Human Rights Campaign because in press releases this week it “raises a ruckus when [the] Bush Administration pays a political pundit promoting straight marriage, then gets equally as upset when the same Administration pulls funding from a cartoon featuring lesbian couples.”

GayPatriot suggests that this stance is hypocritical, and then offers the following commentary and solution:

With or without influence with the Administration, HRC seems to have this standard on federal funding of the media: allocate taxpayer resources to the programs we like, but cut them off from those we don't like. If social conservatives, who have more sway with the current Administration, were to adopt the same attitude, then they would push for de-funding programming HRC supports and increasing funding for programming HRC opposes. And given their support of the president, they are more likely to influence his administration.

Let's limit their influence. Let's not give social conservatives' access to taxpayer dollars. Let's cut off all federal funding for all broadcast and print media.

But surely this misses the basic insight of conservatism: that government exists, at least in part, to sustain and foster those practices and virtues which will lead its citizens toward what Aristotle called “eudaimonia,” or the sort of true or real happiness that is worth seeking because it is itself the very essence of human flourishing.

Alasdair MacIntrye explains it this way:

Under ancient and medieval conceptions ... political community not only requires the exercise of the virtues for its own sustenance, but it is one of the tasks of government to make its citizens virtuous, just as it is one of the tasks of parental authority to make children grow up so as to be virtuous adults....

For liberal individualism a community is simply an arena in which individuals each pursue their own self-chosen conception of the good life, and political institutions exist to provide that degree of order which makes such self-determined activity possible.

So for liberals (of both a lower- and upper-case stripe), then, government is envisioned as adopting a neutral stance toward rival moral traditions. But this vision, however appealing in theory, cannot withstand scrutiny. Sooner or later—and often in ways no one really notices—the government must make moral judgments about how our lives together should be ordered.

Take something as seemingly simple as setting a speed limit. It sounds like a fairly nonpartisal task until you realize that, not only are the goals of efficiency, safety, and energy conservation competing with one another, but the possibility of striking the right balance between these goals requires an appeal to a deeper understanding up what values are ultimately worthy of promotion. Should we set the limit on highways at 35 mph and drastically reduce the number of traffic fatalities? Or should it be 90 mph, a limit that would better promote the goals of efficiency in travel and the transportation of goods?

And what means of moral deliberation should guide this decision – a utilitarian ends-means test? A Kantian devotion to the value of human life above all else? A virtue ethics approach that would attend to both of these concerns while also insisting that a prudent answer cannot be found without consideration of the ultimate end of eudaimonia?

It shouldn't take long to realize that the myth of governmental neutrality is just that: a myth. Even those liberals who would promote tolerance as the highest virtue can only do so if they first assume that tolerance is itself a moral good. Which is why, for those of us who support gay rights, the answer to the question raised by GayPatriot is not to pretend that the government must make no choices about the value of marriage and homosexuality.

Rather, it is to contend – as boldly and persuasively as we can – that the choice the government ought to make is one which would promote the institution of marriage even as it extends its benefits and duties to gay couples. This may not be an easy argument to make. For one thing, it would require us to enunciate our own moral vision of human flourishing and explain why this vision is superior to the one proffered by the religious right. For another, it would require our community to recognize that we will not find happiness apart from those practices like monogamy which are essential for the achievement of the intimacy and (yes) love we seek in our relationships.

But if the gay rights movement is to succeed in its overall goals of achieving legal equality and social acceptance for gays and lesbians, then it must acknowledge that any strategy which would deny the legitimate interests the government has in shaping how its citizens order their private lives is bound to fail. People are simply too smart not to see through that -- a point that, as I argue below, should have been made clear by the November elections. There is simply no other way to explain the overwhelming support Americans across the country demonstrated in their votes for the anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives.

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