Monday, December 15, 2008

Justice, community, equality: they don't always mesh


As I noted on my GLBT blog Saturday, I recently looked again at Elinor Burkett’s 2000 book “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless” about whether single and/or childless people are picking up an unfair “burden” from families with children, or whether they (or “we”) should in fact share more of some kind of community responsibility. I tend to see this whole issue, one which I covered in the fifth chapter of my first “do ask do tell” book in 1997, as an apparent challenge to the whole precept of individualism and “personal sovereignty”, particularly in light of sustainability concerns – but with a twist. I would also mention another related book, Philip Longman's "The Empty Cradle:How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What We Can Do About It".

We’ve gotten used to the idea that falling in love and getting married (whether that has to be limited to the opposite sex now or not) as a voluntary “choice”, and that having children is also the result of a voluntary act. And, particularly toward the end of the last century, we came to take for granted the idea that most “responsibility” for other people is a result of one’s own acts: most of all, one must take responsibility for the children one brings into the world. But it is a choice. This is the “Sovereign Form of Personal Responsibility”.

But wait a moment. Things are changing, or we think they are changing because of what we see in the media (especially now the Internet). People can be kept alive longer, but often in a state of dependency on others, because of the way we practice medicine now. It’s easier (from the viewpoint of medical technology) to prolong life than vigor and independence. That means adult children have to care for their parents more than in the past, and states, given strapped budgets, are likely to start enforcing filial responsibility laws on adult children in ways never seen before. We also can do a lot more with transplants, but that requires the generosity or even sacrifice of other family members or other people. Dr. Phil, who usually shows usually present what I would call “The Sovereign Form of Personal Responsibility” (where existing marriages fail because one or both partners fail to take responsibility for their own acts) recently aired the moral dilemma of a teenager who would have to give up a baseball career to give a kidney to an ailing and less than responsible brother.

We could see is that we’re seeing a return to older, more nebulous ideas of shared responsibility. We can say, in a “Socialized Form of Personal Responsibility” is that to be fully independent and worthy of being heard from, everyone should demonstrate the ability to take care of others beside the self. "You can't go through life getting out of things."

Wait a minute. We thought we wanted people to be responsible for their own acts. Isn’t there a contradiction? Sure. But there are some things that are just beyond any reasonable idea of personal control. This gets into all of the discussions of “It’s not about you” and “The Purpose-Driven Life” familiar from Rick Warren. It gets into the very socialized moral teachings of the Gospels. It is important not to have children until reasonably prepared to enter adult life and raise them, but it is also morally important to be open to having them, or to participate in the raising of other people’s children. That sort of gets back to Vatican teachings about “openness” to “transmission of life.”

But then, it seems, marriage is not just about love and monogamy, faithfulness, and raising the children one has had. If others have to share the responsibility for one’s children (in the “it takes a village” concept), then why make so much of marriage?

The Burkett book, quoting nouveau feminist Michelle Gaboury, poses the idea that the desired end is not simply “justice” but “living in a community.” Marriage becomes an intermediate governing institution that admittedly has the power to influence and mediate the lives of the unmarried and childless adults because it does need their support in a communal concept. Sometimes it can demand real sacrifice of other people, and that’s OK because those people should view themselves as belonging to their “families” or origin. Adults become fully equal only when they form families of their own, including dependents (usually children and often the elderly). One could say, "marriage" confers some benefits (which unmarried people "subsidize") because marriage (even before children) presumes an emotional commitment (and "opportunity cost") that not everyone is willing to make (but everyone may still have uncommitted access to some kind of sexuality, even if only in "schizoid" fantasy). In that sense, gay marriage becomes important, as does reforming family law in a number of areas. An extreme, perhaps hyperbolic example of this kind of "morality" occurs in the 1998 film "One True Thing" when the father figure George (played by William Hurt) hijacks the life of his grown daughter Ellen (Renee Zellweger) to get her (as a "family slave") to take care of the cancer-stricken mother (Meryl Streep), to the point that Ellen says at one point that she has been forced to "live her mother's life." The "community" concept is supposed to encapsulate the personal "sacrifice" so that the notion of "second class citizen" becomes pleonastic.

It isn’t hard to see that many men look at marriage "this" way (particularly in soap opera plots -- “Days of our Lives” with the Stefano patriarch and the failed and ruined geek character Nick is the worst offender). They crave the power that institutionalized sexual intercourse gives them. (Think of poor Sami in the same DOOL.) It’s easy to see that this explains a lot of jealousy (even a lot of Hitchcock plots). From a moral point of view, we start to wonder about relationships maintained not for their own creative value but for the social supports and approbation. Modern sacrosanct values get twisted back. Refusal of unwanted intimacy is not always a “fundamental right.”

Gaboury (and for that matter Hillary Clinton) are right, however, in pointing out the value of “community.” (The word occurs in the subtitle of my first book, and I had indeed thought about it this way back in 1997). A related concept is "socialization", and it accounts for the pressure on kids to confirm to external social norms outside of what is obviously "rational" and necessary to develop one's own talents. It’s easy to get carried away with abstractions about “justice” and “equality,” and history provides some warnings about the dangers of this. “Personal fundamentalism”, so to speak, can eventually invite authoritarianism (perhaps of the Singapore variety) or downright totalitarianism, of the communist, fascist, or religious (including radical Islam) variety. After all, all of these systems have rationalizations that justify the outcomes for individual people according to some kind of “moral” measuring stick. Mao’s “cultural revolution” is one of the clearest examples of egalitarianism run amok. As for fascism, ancient Sparta may provide a clearer example of the danger of excessive “meritocracy” than did Nazi Germany. When people talk about “community” this way, they are referring to a sense of belonging that transcends an excessive preoccupation with one’s own “performance” or even achieving one’s own chosen ends.

We can look at everything in terms of individual moral “karma” if we like (or argue that families actually share karma, rather an LDS belief) but we realize that some things have to “give.” We all depend on the unseen sacrifices and subsidies of others (a major point in secular communist moral ideology as well as almost all religious faith). Furthermore, some kind of communally based “sacrifice” gets to be necessary to preserve the value of human life for its own sake. That’s becoming especially apparent as the eldercare issue evolves.

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