Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Culture of Choice

Rod Dreher calls attention to an essay by Michael Brendan Dougherty, who asks pointed questions about the failure of the thirty-six year old pro-life movement to make any significant gains against a regime of unrestricted abortion. Dougherty's essay strikes a long and resonant chord with me: while I have sympathized with the aims of the pro-life movement, I have never felt drawn to the movement as it has been constituted, mostly because I have thought that much of the movement approached this issue without attending sufficiently to the relationship of the pro-choice support for abortion and the larger culture of choice that is at the heart of modern liberal philosophy. By hitching their star to the Republican Party, and approaching the issue as a legal rather than a deeper philosophical theological and thus cultural crisis, the prospects for success were always likely to fail to the extent that there was an unwillingness to confront the broader "culture of choice" that is the hallmark of modern civilization. Indeed, by acquiescing to a broader "culture of choice" that is fostered especially by a market economy understood to be unfettered and driven by the free and unrestrained choices of individuals, it can be argued that the pro-life movement was actually aiding and abetting the very culture from which a pro-choice abortion regime arose.

We should see clearly that the moral relativism that makes it possible to dismiss the inviolability of human life is not the result of fancy French or German philosophical imports (this was always the argument made by Strauss, and later by Bloom, who wanted - understandably - to stand by liberal democracy during years of threat from fascism and communism). Moral relativism is articulated very clearly in the opening chapters of Hobbes's Leviathan, the work that laid the philosophical foundations for modern liberalism and particularly a defense of the natural autonomy of individuals and which made individual choice the sole basis of political and increasingly social legitimacy. Thus wrote Hobbes in Chapter 10 of the Leviathan, "Of Power, Worth, Dignity, Honour and Worthiness": "The value or worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power, and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgement of another. An able conductor of soldiers is of great price in time of war present or imminent, but in peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt judge is much worth in time of peace, but not so much in war. And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the price. For let a man, as most men do, rate themselves at the highest value they can, yet their true value is no more than it is esteemed by others."

At the origins of modern liberalism is an argument that human beings are part of a calculus by which their value is estimated according to the consideration of others. That is, human worth is itself set by a market of valuation, as subject to fluctuation as the daily rise and fall (mostly fall) of stocks on the financial exchanges. In modernity, the value of frail individuals - especially the unborn - fell to less than the worth of penny stocks, unwanted intruders on the autonomy of sexually and professionally liberated individuals (it should be noted that among the most ardent supporters of abortion rights are young men. You figure it out). Again, Strauss and Bloom argued in their most famous works that the language of "values" was a foreign import, introduced to America via Max Weber who learned relativism through the pages of Nietzsche. This was, to say the least, a flattering fiction to liberal democracy: value relativism was present at the creation, a function of the market in all things, including humans.

Are we prepared to consider the possibility that abortion is not itself an isolated evil, but a deeper symptom - pernicious and malevolent, yes - of a deeper philosophical, theological and cultural crisis? If so, the way forward becomes even murkier, but at least we will divest ourselves of the oft self-congratulatory belief that we are dealing in the realm of easy political solutions - long a shibboleth of liberalism itself. By returning to the very sources of our larger, deeper, and more pervasive modern crisis can we begin to see a way forward in rightly changing a culture that more generally has ceased to understand the meaning of the word "generation" in every sense of the term.


Anonymous said...

Bravo. I've felt less and less like my pro-life voting has meant anything. Today's Republican party seems to be more centered on autonomy than the Democrats. Although Obama falls short of what I'd like on abortion (to put it mildly), at least he seems ambivalent about defining ourselves purely in autonomous terms. Thank you for this post.

PS Professor Deneen's comment found on Rod Dreher's blog post also makes some great points different than those made in this one.

Patrick Deneen said...

Thanks, Anon. I had meant just to post my complete comment on Rod's post as a post here, but then just kept typing. Here's my comment that I posted in response to Rod's posting:

Dare I say that the abortion issue has its deepest sources in the pro-choice philosophy of modern liberalism itself? While it has taken time for the working out of the radical philosophical claim of human autonomy, we are seeing its fruition all around us today, albeit ironically in the wreckage that it has wrought. We see it in the holocaust of children committed by their very mothers in the name of their autonomy; in the devastation of our natural world through the claims that all natural "resources" are the exclusive property of the generation that is fast enough to convert it to entropic waste; in the wreckage of our current economy due to the myopic belief that one could have something for nothing, that debt and consumption could be the basis of "oikos-nomos" (meaning, from the Greek, "household management"); and in the wasteland of our "culture," including the triumph of ironic detachment that proves one's capacity to "see through" any claims to authority or an assertion of the seriousness of living responsibly. Rather than seeing the continuity of all these, and many other aspects, of modern civilization and its underlying philosophy, most of the "movement" turned the abortion debate into a legal issue, thinking that it was the consequence of a 1973 decision of the Supreme Court, rather than a malignant symptom - among its most pernicious and vile - of the deepest philosophical and theological preconditions of modernity. It was believed by many in the "movement" that one could cut out the cancer of abortion without attending to the vast body from which it grew. I don't mean at all to minimize or suggest disrespect to the hard work and genuine passion and commitment of the many thousands of people who have worked tirelessly to overturn the judicial fiction of abortion rights. Still, Brendan Dougherty is right to ask this question now - at this time when so much else is coming into question - and we should take this opportunity, if that's possible, to reflect deeply and in a sustained manner on the nature of the crisis that now threatens a civilization that we see ever more clearly resembles nothing more than a gigantic Ponzi scheme.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Today's Republican party seems to be more centered on autonomy than the Democrats.

Yes, yes, yes. The "pro-life" language of abortion opponents has become dependent, through the identification of the movement with the Republican party, upon a few iron-clad but ill-thought-out principles involving dignity and belonging, none of which cohere very well with the economic individualism that the Republican party as a whole over the past few decades has attempted to advance. The only anti-abortion language that I can fully get behind--and I do get behind, when I can find it--is one that gets away from the whole language of rights. But I'm not holding my breath to see if the "new" Republican party will realize that in the wake of Obama's victory.

Empedocles said...

I posted this over at Postmodern Conservative as well. I'm not sure where Patrick prefers we comment on his writings.

“At the heart of modern liberalism is an argument that human beings do not possess inherent dignity, but only the value that is accorded to them by the estimation of others.”

I don’t know about this. Kant based his whole moral philosophy on the inherent worth of human beings and he’s surely part of the liberal tradition. The problem isn’t that liberals only think that individuals have a price and not a dignity, it is the view that what gives an individual their dignity is their rationality, i.e., their ability to choose. In the liberal tradition humans are essentially rational monads and all other properties are contingent and morally irrelevant. Until a new understanding of the self comes along that sees the self as the sum of our historically derived purposes, both biological and conscious, liberalism will continue down the path of alienation and nihilism.

Patrick Deneen said...

Yes, you are absolutely right to note Kant's arguments for human dignity - though I'd respond that at his best Kant is fundamentally a Christian, and at his worst he seeks to eviscerate the theology and culture of Christianity from its commitments, rendering it at some level incoherent. The ease with which Kantians of many stripes have come to accept and embrace an abortion regime (e.g., John Rawls) suggests that a "rationalized" version of human dignity is easy subject to many kinds of rationalizations. I agree completely that the problems of Kant are deeply linked to a monadic conception of the self, which leads us back - again - to Lobbes and Hocke.

Mihail said...

Hi, this blog is marvellous. Congratulations from Romania!

To put it briefly: it is never enough to choose in order to be free. It is crucial that we choose well. So, we must participate (as good Christian platonists) first in the Good, and then make secondary choices.

But nihilistic atomism never wants that to happen.

Empedocles said...

It seems to me that what we are looking for is a revival of virtue ethics rather than consequentialism. Virtue ethics need to rest on a bed of teleology, which modern philosophy completely eschewed. But there has been a dramatic revival of the respectability of teleology in the last 25 years and I keep waiting for someone smart to revise virtue ethics on this new foundation. I keep recommending that people read Ruth Millikan's "Language, thought, and Other Biological Categories," and "Varieties of Meaning" with an eye to such a revival.

Corey said...

I also posted this, in conversation with Mr. Deneen and the above poster, on postmodern conservative:

As the above poster noted, Kant’s understanding of human dignity gave it a base of the ability to reason. That ability of reason, in Kant, equated to freedom. But remember, Kant thought that objective knowledge belonged to the realm of the noumenal, and was therefore impossible to articulate or know; we don’t have knowledge of “things in themselves.”

However, when Kant talked about something being “inherent,” he meant that it was such an important concept (I think I’m using Kant’s lexicon correctly here) that everything else depended on it. He classified these things as “synthetic a priori,” and although he engaged in a very long exposition of this category, it is the weak point of Kant. The synthetic a priori upon which Kant’s practical reason rested was none other than reason, or freedom, which of course was Kant’s basis for man’s dignity.

This means that the ground for dignity is thin ice: Kant leaves us with the paradox that although our dignity is contingent on reason, reason is a transcendant quality that we simply have to have. Reason lies both in the world of the noumenal and in the world of the phenomenal. So while Kant couldn’t base man’s dignity in man himself, he didn’t exactly think he was making it contingent.

The above comment also says, “until a new understanding of the self comes along that sees the self as the sum of our historically derived purposes, both biological and conscious, liberalism will continue down the path of alienation and nihilism.” But there all ready is an “understanding of the self” that makes this fusion, and it’s american conservatism as follows Burke, and was written about by Russell Kirk. Burke first, and Kirk later on, recognized that only the long chain of history and tradition in politics could bind man to his organism, and thus solve the nascent alienation found in rational modernity.

For this reason, Kirk, as others used to, recognized that conservatives are not libertarians, because they espouse no abstract ideology. But it’s also a paradox, because this understanding of the self both plumbs the depths of the human spirit and recognizes that liberty is an essential part of the American (and arguable the English) spirit; this is a truly “postmodern conservatism.”

Corey McGee Says:

February 6th, 2009 at 5:24 pm
All of that said, i think the pro-life movement’s misguided attachment to the eminent “culture of choice” in America is a result of the lack of a historical consciousness. This is the reason we confuse conservatism with libertarianism, and cannot understand that liberty may not be the highest virtue after all. Most contemporary Americans would find incomprehensible James Fitzjames Stephen’s assertion that liberty can be good or bad, depending on time, place, and circumstance.

Notes from the Underground said...

There seemed to be more activity here, so I figured maybe I should post here as well as Postmodern Conservative:

“At the heart of modern liberalism is an argument that human beings do not possess inherent dignity, but only the value that is accorded to them by the estimation of others.”

Professor Deneen always has insightful posts, but, in this particular essay, I believe that his ideas are in need of some qualification. First, it seems erroneous to say that “an argument that human beings do not possess inherent dignity” is “[a]t the heart of modern liberalism” because, while there may be one liberal tradition in Western Civilization, the voices of that tradition are legion and not always in agreement. Prof. Deneen is right to place Hobbes in the liberal tradition, but Hobbes is not an unproblematic liberal, nor is he a mainstream representative of liberalism. Hobbes’s liberalism is of a variety that would not have endorsed that great liberal event, the American Revolution, but would rather have endorsed the absolute rule of the English monarchy.

A more representative voice of liberalism is that of John Locke who based his concept of just government on the inherent and transcendent dignity (or at least value) of every individual; in his “Second Treatise of Civil Government” Locke wrote: “. . . no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipresent and infinitely wise Maker–all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order, and about His business–they are His property, whose workmanship they are, mad to last during His, not one another’s pleasure;” (396). It is Locke’s “Treatise,” not Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” which serves as the philosophical foundation of America’s “Declaration of Independence” on the basis of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

This is not to say that “liberal” societies have not been contemptuous of human life in the past. The French and Russian Revolutions both had abstract liberty as their justification. But, again, it is necessary to make a distinction between the principled, systematic liberty of St. Paul, Locke, Burke, Tocqueville and Niebuhr and the abstract, libertarian liberty of Rousseau, Godwin, and Mill.

Furthermore, it should be noted that from a historical point of view societies of principled liberty have been the most respectful of human dignity. There are many societies today which consider themselves liberal, and many of these societies have legalized illiberal practices like abortion, but, while abortion is permitted, it has not been mandated in any of these societies. There have been, on the other hand, illiberal societies, such as Communist China, which have taken it upon themselves to regulate procreation. All of the 20th century’s most destructive ideologies have shared a distaste for liberalism, whether they be communist, fascist, or national socialist. (In all fairness, some of the only regimes to take a stand against abortion in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as Ceausesu’s Romania and the Sandinistas’ Nicaragua, have been illiberal regimes, but few conservatives would recommend either of these regimes as models for emulation.)

All of the above are extreme cases, but neither have older cultural or social orders which promoted communitarianism over individualism been much more respectful of human dignity: The Spartan state and the Roman family had no difficulty neglecting or killing children who were born with physical deformations or mental handicaps; neither, from an anthropological point of view, have tribal societies tended to deviate from this pattern.

Liberalism, far from being a modern heresy, is in fact a secular complement to the Judeo-Christian tradition and an outgrowth of its literature. While it did not sprout until the Enlightenment, its seed was planted from when God’s people were led out of Egypt. This is not because Judeo-Christian literature propagates individualism–that ideology which underpins the liberal political philosophy–but rather because the literature assumed individualism. The scriptures–from the Exodus, through the writings of the prophets to the Gospels and the Acts–are prolific in the presentation of individuals representing divine will against an established secular order, something not found (or at least not praised) in the classical literature of the Greeks and the Romans. But, it should be noted, that none of these figures was required to advance divine purpose; they could have refused had they been willing to suffer eternal damnation rather than “set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law” (Matt 10:34), but the Gospel was for individuals, not communities and behind this rationalization lies the assumption that the individual’s immortal soul is immeasurably more valuable than the community from which he came.

This is not to say that there are not possible abuses bound up in this assumption. Roe vs. Wade–which was both a failure of individualist and communitarian political philosophy–is a case in point. Liberalism is not utopian, but is probably the best system for governing human nature that has yet been developed.

Patrick Deneen said...

Thanks - you are correct that one should qualify any such blanket statements about what "liberalism" is, and you and others have been rightly doing that. Still, I would submit that you go beyond "qualifying," and instead hold that liberalism really is a philosophy that has at its core the inviolable dignity of human beings - even arguing "Liberalism, far from being a modern heresy, is in fact a secular complement to the Judeo-Christian tradition and an outgrowth of its literature." Such an argument is to suggest that liberalism is really a variant of Christianity, and thus that Roe v. Wade is an anomaly, not a logical outgrowth.

Now, I would beg to differ, and quite severely. First - to add my own qualifications - we should indeed understand liberalism as a diverse and varied philosophical tradition. Still, let me be somewhat reductionist and suggest that it has two main manifestations - first, one based in a "natural rights" philosophy that derives from a state of nature theory (thus, Hobbes and Locke, and in their own ways, Smith and the Founders); and second, one based on a conception of the progressive movement of human history (thus, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, etc.).

You tend to elide these two in your own treatment, thus pointing to the excesses of progressive liberalism (e.g., the French revolution) while defending the natural rights tradition (Locke and the American founding). Let us note that it is unarguably progressive liberalism that has been the most destructive and vicious: it was in the name of rational progress that the horrors of the French Revolution and Marxism were committed. And, too, under its auspice came justifications of paternalistic imperialism that underlie arguments by Mill to subject "savages" to the benefits of progress. It was progressives who inaugurated a program of eugenics that was advanced by enlightened and forward thinking people in the early part of the last century.

Roe v. Wade has deep roots in this latter liberalism - one which is strongly susceptible to justifying a wide range of means toward the end of achieving progress, including the elimination of undesirable or backward humans. This liberalism has been most subject to compromises of human dignity.

That said, while it's true that natural rights liberalism has a stronger philosophical adherence to protecting human life (since one of its basic rights is that of life), I would argue that this concern for human life is not based in a concept of dignity, per se, but a basis in materialism and a priority accorded to self-preservation. To this extent, we are inclined to see others as so much raw material who represent either obstacles or opportunities (look back at Hobbes's depiction of humans as matter in motion - his model is Newtonian physics). Both Hobbes and Locke set up a state of nature scenario in which other humans are generally obstacles to the fulfillment of our wishes; whatever compromises we make entering into a social contract, our _natural_ inclination is to view other humans as obstacles, to regard them with limits upon our freedom. Thus, in this sense, Roe v. Wade is really also a natural outcrop of this tradition, particularly when there's the prospect of viewing certain humans as outside the contractual relations that otherwise govern us (also true of the infirm, the elderly, the mentally deficient, etc.).

More problematic still is a basic presupposition built into Hobbesian/Lockeian political philosophy, namely the assertion of self-ownership. This conception of property in the self is a major presupposition that underlies the finding of Roe v. Wade, and makes it possible to consider ourselves as monadic individuals wholly separate from others and the world. It contributes to an exploitative worldview that permits decisions to be made through the lens of self-aggrandizement and gives priority to the human will, shorn of limits outside of the self. In short, I think one can see both "visages" of liberalism at work in Roe v. Wade: its natural rights manifestation which stresses individual autonomy at the cost of deeper bonds that connect us; and its progressive variant, in its proclivity to treat obstacles to progress (which, in this case, it turns out, is individual liberty) as worthy of removal.

Still, I would argue that natural rights liberalism does not depart as fully from Christianity as its progressive counterpart (for instance, it retains a belief in the inexpungability of human self-interest, a belief at the heart of an understanding of original sin), and thus is not as vicious and anti-human as its progressive counterpart. To this extent, liberal democracy is not an unqualified ill. It is, however, based fundamentally on a false anthropology, and thus ultimately disfiguring. Roe v. Wade is but one manifestation of that disfigurement, and we ought not to excuse it as a "possible abuse." It may be possible to rejuvenate liberal democracy with a properly Christian anthropology, but that is certainly a daunting, if not impossible challenge. Still, it is among the greatest and most necessary challenges of our time.