Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pope Benedict: his homily remarks on "rights and responsibilities" imply major challenges for individualism

Pope Benedict XVI, in his homilies, talked about connecting “rights” to “responsibilities” and about making personal choices with due respect to larger sense of obligations to others, and even “family identity.” Yes, he comes from a religious perspective, but his remarks convey the idea that there should be some kind of national or world event to develop a concrete notion of “responsibilities.” I’ve said before that a “Bill of Rights 2” might come packaged with a “Bill of Responsibilities.”

Okay, here we go again with this. There are so many systems of arguments in the area of personal morality that what seems necessary is not just list them all, but encapsulate them in a compact form so they can be readily retained.

One issue that seems to spur the new discussion of personal morality is the environment, facing all those “inconvenient" external challenges. I don’t think there is serious debate anymore that a lot of climate change is man made, and recently the media (Oprah, for instance) has preached to us about the changes in our daily habits that we need to make.

It runs deeper, though. In the past few decades, we have grown used to the notion of personal autonomy or individual sovereignty. We have defined “personal responsibility” in terms of living with the consequences of one’s voluntary choices. Two basic concepts supported this libertarian idea: non-aggression or non-coercion with honoring the right to consent, and honoring of voluntary contracts within the free market system (and that includes respect for property rights, which are viewed as connected to one’s expression of one’s own identity).

Personal autonomy comported with a particular strategy in developing personal relationships: one develops one’s productive identity first before settling on a life partner and particularly before having and raising children. One maintains individual identity even in marriage. On a personal level, this pattern counters “soap opera style” jealousy, and on a societal level it seems to counter discrimination and tribalism. It sounds to a progressive like an essential component of liberty and peace. This paradigm for personal life strategy has been popular with young professionals and particularly with better educated gay men, but the idea is sometimes promoted even on shows like Dr. Phil.

The changes going on – the concerns about the environment, the extreme variations in wealth, the extreme levels of nihilism and resentment among many populations – suggest the possibility that people may have to learn to “see themselves” differently, in a more collectivized fashion, in the decades to come. People may have to learn interdependence again, in situations that they may not always be able to choose. It’s not just the threat of pandemics or cataclysms (manmade or natural): demographics is forcing this out in the open. People can’t “choose” the responsibility of taking care of their parents, and eldercare has exploded into a huge problem. In a larger sense, people will have to learn to accept responsibility for things that they don’t completely “choose.” Raising the expectations of interdependence could compromise the capacity for many people to make fundamental choices about their own lives and force them to experience their lives in the context of familial or tribal identity regardless of whether they have their own kids.

Of course, there is a libertarian or progressive answer: innovation and "working smart" - as in the green energy area, an in the medical area, with quality of life progress rather than just longevity progress. These arguments are legitimate. Nevertheless, a new style of moral debate is coming (perhaps recalling the old notions of “public morality” from a half century ago) and it is well to understand what it means.

There are some buzzwords for this notion, like “pay your dues,” or “what do I owe?” or just "karma." Religious leaders, raging from the Pope to "purpose-driven" Rick Warren (“It’s not about you…”) , feel that this is a spiritual issue about accepting Divine Grace and that so much focus on personal responsibility actually defeats the moral purpose of scriptural teachings. One must be “born again” or be “changed.” Nevertheless, we do have a competitive, meritocratic society. Any individual may reasonably want to project this more nebulous idea of deeper morality back into the plane of “personal responsibility” in order to figure out for himself how to deal with it.

Libertarians quite correctly note that both “conservatives” and “liberals” want to tell others “how to live.” And isn’t that what a lot of this is about? We kind of need a Trump boardroom kind of focus here and target the problem. It’s not controversial to tell people that they ought to be and stay married when they have kids (by chosen behavior). It is controversial to tell people that it is “wrong” to be single or childless, to draw undue attention to themselves, or to over-enjoy one’s own thoughts in comparison to appreciating daily interaction with other people—that those who are “different” present a problem for “normal” people trying just to survive.. In different ways, this is a “debate” or the “moral” aspects of introversion and, to some extent, sexual orientation and gender identity. Why? Those who are wired to be “different” consume in different patterns and often don’t follow the conventional patterns of accepting emotional accountability to others. They may, because of social asymmetry, have an effect on others out of proportion to their means. There is certainly some connection between the new debate over personal social responsibility (to the planet and community) and older ideas of family responsibility that transcends modern notions of individual choice. And there is connection, though not full coincidence, between these ideas and the older “moral” ideas about homosexuality common fifty years ago, when privacy could not be taken for granted – ideas that make today’s debates on gay marriage or even the military ban sound gratuitous at times.

It’s useful to enumerate what some of these ideas are. It’s important, although painful for some people, to develop and maintain an intellectual understanding of what this was really all about. For example, “working class” parents tended to assume that they had a “fundamental right” to biological loyalty from their kids even as adults – that meant a lineage and grandchildren and maintenance of family line – vicarious immortality. (Yes, there were books written in the early 1970s that said this.) Parents saw this presumed loyalty as intrinsic to their ongoing experience of marriage. Religious teachings “equating” sexuality to marriage and procreation (especially as phrased by the Vatican) tried to “guarantee” that everyone “shared” in the “risks” of family responsibility, such as bonding with and caring for the less abled within the family (and that tracks to eldercare today). Parenthood (either direct, or at least as implied by the indirect support of other family members if one remained unmarried) was presumed to be a duty that earned the full rights or adulthood and that helped validate reverence for human life on its own sake. Maybe not everybody makes babies, but almost everyone experiences sexuality in some fashion, at least in fantasy, so everyone share some mandatory family responsibility -- at least that's how religious "moral thinking" would go. These used to be very important cultural and “moral” ideas, almost beyond intellectual questioning, and still are in some cultures. Male homosexuality seemed particularly problematical because the “narcissism” and “reaction formation” (coupled with "upward affiliation" and the "self-deprecating" relinquishment of "expected" male prerogatives) was taken by straight men as a way of reminding them that they could “fail”, “too”. The “family wage” was accepted as a necessary practice to protect families from the logical consequences of runaway individualism.

Of course, all of this was easy to “exploit”: while families remained cohesive, they could be held in place by an economic order that allowed big divisions between the rich and poor. A few decades ago, many people perceived sharing family responsibility (whether "chosen" by procreation or not) as a personal moral imperatives, as sometimes was sharing collective risk (as with military service) or hardship, whereas gross injustices among classes, nations, groups, or races was seen the moral responsibilities of politicians and governments only -- and in the modern world, some of the latter becomes part of "personal responsibility." In Europe, “family” had always formed the basis of political alliances, that eventually could lead to wars. So individualism could provide a remedy to this institutionalized kind of injustice but create a new problem: within any family or community, less individually “competitive” individuals could be dropped on the floor, a circumstance that provides incentive for crime.

All of this tracks to debates about “mandatory” service. Soon, we’re likely to consider some pretty strong carrots for national service. Some politicians and sociologists have used the “backdoor draft” in Iraq to justify a call to resume military conscription, probably including women this time. The debate over “don’t ask don’t tell” and gays in the military becomes a debate on whether gays can (or will be allowed to) shoulder their share of the burden in protecting freedom (a concept very apparent in my first 1997 book); it is far from a call for permissiveness.

It also tracks to larger debates on “how we live” (at some offense to libertarians). Some people will say that the “singleton” lifestyle that I made productive for over three decades (with plenty of rental car trips with unlimited mileage) will not be feasible for the next generation, where everyone could be accountable for a personal (or perhaps familial) "carbon footprint" score. Perhaps so. If one "moral precept" stands out from all of this, perhaps it is the idea that everyone should have a specific emotional stake and "investment" in future generations (either directly through lineage or indirectly through support) in order to have the necessary incentives to behave appropriately given the "threat" to the planet that future generations may inherit. The "emotional" part seems to be essential; many men father generations and want the social benefits of progeny without the emotional dedication to follow. Perhaps another way to pitch this "karmic" principle is to say that one's competitive activities must represent "sustainability." But "sustainability" may imply a measure of expected "socialization," and experience of the self as connected to a group or family.

This all can lead to a world where the nuclear biological family has more “clout” and even has more power to control the activities of otherwise unattached adults. One can imagine legal doctrines built around “family granularity,” or a world where every adult must be “accountable” to someone in order to share “emotional risk”. Imagine the ramifications for Internet speech for openers (the “implicit content” problem). Of course, such ideas introduce other “non-rational” contradictions, and confound the idea that parents must take total responsibility for their own children. No, it could become “the Village,” no offense to Hillary Clinton or to M. Night Shyamalan. Prohibitionistic policies (as Andrew Sullivan once called them in 1993) toward sex (as articulated most, but not followed too well at all, by the Catholic Church) sound then like an attempt to “simplify” what would otherwise become very complicated ethical deliberations, if one accepts the idea of “group responsibility” to start with.

The world that is coming is certainly capable of challenging the modern notion of individualism as it has evolved over the past few decades with the help of technology and globalization. It could demand more emotional empathy and less choice in willingness to make personal commitments, even less of what Dr. Phil calls "the right to be right." It may require more willingness of "unbalanced personalities" like me (this is a "technical term"; see the Paul Rosenfels review here) to be willing to inherit the gratuitous emotional goals of others as one's own. I am very concerned about this. It seems as though people like me have benefited from the "secularized" and "counter-socialized" and highly individualized paradigm of individual freedom and rights that has evolved (especially in urbanized culture in the West) in the past few decades, and that others feel that people like me have benefited at the expense of others who depend more on social spontaneity. My father used to say, with some double-entendre, "the majority has rights, too!" There are a lot of "inconvenient truths" accumulating and some of them can represent serious challenges to individual sovereignty as we have come to expect it. I do think that these issues deserve a structured public forum, and I would like to work on helping set one up.

Coordinated post on GLBT blog, here.

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