Ahimsa-based Morality

As you know I generally ignore Ross Douthat. The boy’s not that bright, and his views on just about anything are rigidly predictable. But I got sucked into reading a blog post by Ross because of the title — “The Liberalism of Adult Autonomy.”

Yeah, respecting the autonomy of adult humans is a pretty liberal thing to do. But this is Ross Douthat we’re talking about, so if adult autonomy is “liberal” you know he’s going to be against it. I had to look. Tell us how autonomy is bad, Ross.

Reflecting both on Caitlyn né Bruce Jenner and the Gallup data that inspired my own sojourn into polygamy, Damon Linker argues that social conservatives (in particular, his friend and mine Rod Dreher) are wrong to portray the rise of social liberalism as a matter of individualism unbound from all moral restraint. Rather, it represents the triumph of one distinctive moral code, the morality of rights, over another, the morality of ends.

I lack the strength to check out Ross’s sojourn into polygamy, although you are welcome to go there if you want to. If you do, give us a report.

Anyway, according to Douthat and his buddy Linker, there are two kinds of morality, that of ends and that of rights. And having read both essays, I have concluded neither one of these guys has thought things through.

Basically, the morality of “ends” is the idea that morality is based on some arbitrary notions of what’s allowable and what isn’t that mostly come from entrenched cultural bias often connected to Iron Age scriptures. The “ends” people like to believe that their ideas about morality are eternal and external — written in the sky someplace — but that’s an obvious delusion, considering that such ideas are continually shifting from one generation to the next. Go back a few generations, and you can find white European Christians approving of slavery and the creation of castrati, for example. Go back a little further, and you find a culture in which it wasn’t immoral for a nobleman to kill a serf, even for capricious reasons.

The ends people are certain they have the right — indeed, the obligation — to use force to stop people from engaging in behaviors that they, the ends people, don’t like. This sort of thing was more acceptable in times past, when populations were more culturally homogeneous, and most people in a population shared the same biases.  But now the ends people are a minority, and it upsets them that others find them narrow-minded, meddling and tiresome when they see themselves as noble and principled.

But I also reject the notion that the only alternative is a morality based on rights. Rights are a kind of entitlement; morality has to do with how we treat each other. Obviously there’s a lot of overlap, but one is not necessarily the other.

This brings me to ahimsa, a Sanskrit word that means “do not harm” or “do not injure.” It has been described as advocating total nonviolence, but for now I’d prefer to say it’s a value of not causing harm, or perhaps following the path of least harm. Isn’t that what we’re talking about when we speak of morality — causing no harm to each other and to ourselves?

Damon Linker touches on this when he writes,

If you’re committed to an overarching (religious or philosophical) vision of human flourishing that precludes gender reassignment surgery, then an expression of disapproval and perhaps even disgust at the Vanity Fair cover would seem to be in order. But if you’ve left behind any such comprehensive morality of ends in favor of a morality of rights, then it’s hard to see what’s wrong with Jenner’s actions, or with the magazine in promoting them publicly on its cover. No one is harmed as a result, and the harm Bruce Jenner felt as a woman trapped in a man’s body has (one hopes) been alleviated by undergoing the surgical transformation into Caitlyn.

Again, why would one hold an “overarching (religious or philosophical) vision of human flourishing that precludes gender reassignment surgery” other than bias? Those who are disgusted are not disgusted for logical reasons; this is just visceral reaction dressed up to look virtuous.

Linker mentions harm. One can argue that Jenner’s wife was harmed — I honestly don’t know what she felt about it — but since Jenner’s decision really only affects herself and immediate family, I don’t see what business it is of mine, nor is it clear to be what moral issues are involved here without knowing the impact on her family.

On the other hand, as Douthat points out, there are people who mutilate themselves for reasons other than gender reassignment. Apparently there is a kind of neurological/psychological syndrome in which healthy people feel compelled to cripple themselves, amputating limbs or insisting on living in wheelchairs and braces when they have no physical injury. Here I’d say there is a moral issue, because these people are not only harming themselves, they are unnecessarily making themselves a burden to others. To me, this is entirely different from gender reassignment surgery.

Do they have a right to do this? As I’ve said before, you may have a right to smear yourself with honey and sit on an anthill, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. You may have a right to do all kinds of things that could harm yourself or others, which IMO makes it immoral.

People are frustrated with being forced into “ends” morality because it often is harmful. This is especially true in matters of sexuality; see, for example, the Duggar family. They were packaged as paragons of “ends” morality, and it turns out this was and is just an illusion. I feel sorry for all the kids, including the sons.

People are realizing that what consenting adults do in private is just not society’s concern, and in fact it’s best for all of us if people can be open and honest about their preferences and not pretend to be one thing while doing something else — see Denny Hastert.

Douthat continues,

At the same time, however, rights-based morality has been around for quite a while, while our contemporary social liberalism is a more recent, post-1960s flowering. It is a very particular and context-bound theory of rights, in other words, with particular definitions of what those rights cover and what counts as harm and victimhood. And in its specific vision of who has rights, how they can be exercised, and which harms violate them, today’s liberalism does tend to push for widening adult autonomy (eroticized and otherwise) in ways that an alternative vision might not.

I’m not entirely sure what’s clanking around in Douthat’s head here, but if “widening adult autonomy” translates into letting adults make decisions about their own lives whether Douthat approves or not, I’m all for it. And while he doesn’t bring up abortion, somehow I suspect placicng women’s rights over fetal “rights” is lurking somewhere in his thinking. He also implies that maybe adults shouldn’t be allowed to divorce if their children disapprove — seriously — which I think is weird.

So once again, the common thread across these issues is not simply a broad morality of rights and harms and consent. It’s a particular definition of which rights matter most, which harms are meaningful and which are trumps, and whose consent is required to justify a particular decision. The current definitions advanced by social liberalism do not make individual autonomy the measure of all things; they do not simply instantiate a will to power or self-fulfillment. But they do treat adult autonomy as a morally-elevated good, and rate other possible rights and harm claims considerably lower as a consequence.

I’m still struggling to understand how adult autonomy is not a moral good, especially given our individualistic culture. A dictionary defines autonomy as “independence or freedom, as of the will or one’s actions: the autonomy of the individual.” We’re not to have independence and freedom? We’re not supposed to have something to say about our own will or actions?

Like I said, weird.