Saturday, December 02, 2006

Public Morality comes full circle


The two biggest buzzwords in the red v. blue cultural wars seem to be “abortion” and “gay marriage.” Perhaps a Antarctic broken iceberg provides a trite metaphor, but there these issues, as well as a few others like teen pregnancy, skim over what is the real moral issue. That has to be, how do we, as individuals, share common burdens more equitably?

Social justice problems like discrimination and poverty have typically been debated in the past thirty years in terms of broad public policy changes and government programs, sometimes excessive regulation, sometimes outright redistribution of wealth (“confiscation”). Conservatives and libertarians (with different slants) are right in redirecting the focus for these issues back upon the behaviors of individuals.

Two particular topics in our recent debates highlight what may be coming. One is national service. The calls by Charles Rangel and Charles Moskos to resume military conscription (the draft) probably won’t go anywhere (never mind that we have an “unfair” back door draft anyway -- and CNN now reports that enlisted “volunteer” soldiers are going AWOL in Canada to stay out of Iraq), but the universal national service idea may well get some traction in the Congress convening in January 2007. If there are no sticks, at least there can develop some very strong carrots. And you can even suggest that national service should be an intermittent, lifelong activity and not just a duty and rite of passage for the young. Calls for mandatory service were frequent after the 9/11 attacks, and yet we often hear that that there has been very little sharing of sacrifice, compared to World War II. (Vietnam, with the draft deferments, also makes a good comparison.) Any call for national service would have to address the gay “don’t ask don’t tell” problem, and I hope that DADT would finally go to its demise.

The other big problem is the growing elderly population, with longer life spans and lower birth rates in middle class populations. The issue is not only paying for the care but even sometimes physically providing it. The legal issue that is likely to evolve is filial responsibility laws (and there already has been a tightening of the lookback provisions in asset dispensation before qualifying for Medicaid). Eldercare invokes our concern about the basic human right to life, and sometimes it does require sacrifice.

All of this brings us to the table with the notion that responsibility for others or accountability to others, even as an adult, may exist even when one does not procreate his or her own children. This is somewhat a flip of what we tell young people (who find this proscription increasingly hard to follow): Get out on your own, pay your own bills, and before you have children, get and stay married (whether same-sex is accepted or not). For a couple decades, we have accepted the idea that having a family is a morally neutral but personal "private choice" that, once carried out responsibily, does not affect one's standing or reputation with others. In this privatized idea of moral choices, love and marriage are seen as enhanced by personal freedom and undermined when carried out just to win social approbation and support (with old-fashioned class-driven ideas like "pedigree" -- Days of our Lives!). This "private choice" notion of the family is, given external pressures, coming to be seen as glib or naive again. Yet, this reversal seems to be the moral point that no politician wants to say too bluntly. We will see more discussion of individual shared "sacrifice" as other issues, like global warming ("An Inconvenient Truth") develops. But for perhaps a majority of people, the biological family (heterosexual marriage with children) is the most straightforward way to remaining connected to sharing obligations with others -- unless it is carried too far and made into domain or possession for its own sake.

Religious people, particularly, make a lot of the importance of the family. One important goal is to socialize everyone through the family, with the return benefit of taking care of everyone that way. There is a good deal of self-righteousness and a need to validate meritocracy driving this demand. Of course, this process can become corrupted and lead to the gross inequities often pointed out by the political Left. But religious literature tries to take moral precepts and practices (like abstinence and marriage) and put them into simple terms, claiming scripture rather than intellectual introspection as authority. And scripture often accepts a degree of political and group social inequality and instead emphasizes fellowship (and the communal socialization that goes with it) as a way to help the faithful achieve salvation. Sometimes (as with the Mormon family website) it stresses that one cannot choose the family one is born into; God chooses that.

So then we come to freedom itself. For many people, freedom has to do with legitimate ways to “compete” to provide for a biological family. But for many other people (but a smaller number), it has to do with expressing a “psychological surplus.” The risk is that someone like me will not “pay my dues” and leave others stranded, or indirectly cause public attention or policy changes that adversely affect those who do not live as independently.

There is a lot written these days about discovering one’s own natural gifts, and nurturing early in life (when the teenage brain is growing, as in the most recent issue of Canadian magazine Walrus). My gift was surely music. I ventured away, under Cold War pressures, into computers, where I could make a good living as an individual contributor, in an individualistic world of absolute perfection with little need to manipulate other people socially, in order to fit in or to provide for others. Of course, if one makes the best use of his own gifts when young, one is more likely to be able to provide for other family members with compromising one’s own personal expression.

Modern civilization offers opportunities that can fill one’s life with expressions far removed from conventional family dynamics. Those are important to those who are “different” more than to those who conform. Moral battles come out of this. When I was a boy, I resisted being forced to compete “like a man” and I resented being tested with chores or manual tareas that probably were objectively unnecessary but which proved that I could “pay my dues.” (In the same way many students wonder why they have to pass algebra!) Of course, my father, particularly, feared that the world could go south, and that exogenous events could force someone like me to remain satisfied with family and nothing else. Many people have known things to be like this. They came from a world where physical cowardice was the worst possible sin. They also came from a culture that did not offer the opportunity to explore surplus, and offered only life through the family. That is the way it had always been for most people.

If we come back to the "on your own" idea, many people in the modern world believe it is important to "discover yourself" and express yourself before committing yourself to a relationship. It sounds healthy, but you wonder if we can afford that. An intermediate area to look at is socialization and empathy with others (which has to be distinguished from both artistic feeling, and from intellectual understanding). This is connected to what the Army called "social graces" when I was in Basic Training, to the idea of seeing "people as people." Religious moralists (along the abstinence route) see this as equivalent to complementarity and healthy heterosexuality (with a paradigm of "sexual socialism" as defined here), but that is far from clear.

There have sometimes been problems that some persons will not respect my freedom unless I can meet certain needs of others as they see them. In a few instances, I have been challenged to demonstrate an ability to act as a “role model” as a man, and compete for the agendas of others, taking advantage of discrimination laws or public sentiments the way “normal people” would. This I have resisted. But then there are existential (and argumentative) questions that would pull me down past the Schwarzchild Radius. Some other people would feel much more comfortable if I would set the "example" that they would like to see to make it easier for themselves. I wouldn't go much further down this train than do say that neither religious faith nor knowledge of rationalizations of the failures of others removes the idea that one is accountable for one's own performance in life.

The debates over gays in the military, gay marriage and gay parenting have a lot to do with the idea of carrying one’s weight in an open society. (Even the persistent "ban" of "gay" male blood donors over undetectable HIV infection relates to this problem.) That’s one reason why “equality” or the HRC “=” matters. (It may seem a bit amazing, in retrospect, that we can make this point today; twenty years ago the political battles surrounded "privacy," rather than openness, in view of the AIDS and HIV crisis that was just emerging.) If one does not, one can sometimes be forced to sacrifice for the needs of others, inequitably, in circumstances far from one’s choosing. The libertarian notion of never using force against another to have one’s needs met comes into question. But also so do public policies and laws deliberately circular in logic. If you send someone away to an urban adult “ghetto” for three decades, don’t be surprised if it is hard for him to fit in when you really need him as external circumstances change. After 'retirement' I looked into the Peace Corps, and found that, given my career, I never had enough "volunteer" experience to put in a meaningful application.

Rosie O’Donnell underscored this point in a recent episode of ABC's The View, where she presented the need for foster care and adoption, and present at least two sets of gay parents. Proportionally, more jobs than before can involve child care, and the need for child placement appears to be reaching an international crisis, to the point that many states welcome singles as foster and adoptive parents. Are gays to be “drafted” or to be “banned”?

We did have a perception, a half century ago, of public morality as involving socialization and duty to others. That was always corrupt, and the individuality imposes its own kind of morality, which sometimes can lower the boom on those who stumble. Professor Elizabeth Price Foley, in her book Liberty for All, talks about the law in terms of the harm principle and individual sovereignty (or personal autonomy), and about our move away from public morality. Yet we find ourselves going in reverse, getting pulled back. We are wondering when one has to become his brother's keeper. Is it right to ask one individual to give up his life goals to meet the needs of someone else? We need how to articulate the problem and find the balance.

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