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.

19 thoughts on “Ahimsa-based Morality

  1. Very OT:

    Why does the Pro-life Party support the death penalty, and the Family-Values-Both-Parents-Are-Needed-To-Raise-Kids Party the one that starts wars where parents are sent overseas for years on end…

  2. Re: healthy people who pretend harm or injury such as living in wheel chairs or using braces when there is no apparent injury. When I worked as a home care RN, I ran across a woman who literally lived on her couch. It was bizarre, she had tables, etc extended around the ends of her couch, had her phone and personal items close at hand, even a bucket close for her toilet needs. She never left the couch. She claimed she couldn’t walk but there was no diagnosis to support her claim. I was in the home to see her mother who was nearby in a hospital bed. She must have had an attendant but I never got that info. There are a lot of weird people in this world.

  3. Neither “ends” nor “rights” are written in the sky anywhere. Douthat reveals his gaping ignorance of philosophy, again. But, what can you say about a douc4e that throws around phrases like “the un-churched”, as if that were a malady?

    It seems to my that on the Right there are millions of sheeple claiming the wholly imaginary “right” for any Joe to bear arms.

  4. Jenner neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

    Douhat and his icky ilk must be horridly uncomfortable all the time, seated as they are very precariously atop what they perceive as a hill (which gives them, they obviously feel, the vantage point from which they see everything so much more clearly than you or I) and on every side, a mere misstep away, slippery slopes galore.

    Even more uncomfortable and perplexing for them must be their shock when society’s “missteps” don’t send it down those slippery slopes, because those slopes are just in their imaginations. Or perhaps I should say, in their heads, because it turns out they have very little imagination, hence their seeking elsewhere for their fears. Luckily for them, fears are easily come by when you have religions at hand.

  5. Well, I investigated Douthat’s sojourn into polygamy. I didn’t get too far into my investigation before things started to gel and I was able to get a full understanding of the polygamy angle. After realizing where it was headed I bailed after a couple of paragraphs, essentially when he shifted the reasoning into a different dimension by tossing around the concept of religious freedom as a credible foundation from which to support a reasonable argument
    A synopsis for those who don’t care to expend the time nor energy to wade through the Douthat sewage, is this: You’re a Godless liberal who is going to hell in a hand-basket. In your liberal quest to destroy all that is good and all that is Holy the next domino to fall in your march to perdition will be the conservative prohibition against polygamy. And as you grope your way further into the darkness with your incessant whining about individual rights you’ll be embracing Rick Santorum’s prediction of man on dog relationships.

  6. Oy, too much “Christian” moralizing for a Monday morning.

    And personally, polygamy doesn’t bother me – as long as it’s consensual.

    I’ve never been married, but if a man or woman wants more than one spouse, who am I to say that’s wrong?
    Hell, as Swami will attest, it’s in the Bible!

  7. The usual counter to the individualistic interest in personal autonomy and rights is not deontology versus consequentialism — these are strategies — but the interests of the tribe or community versus the interests of the individual. Maybe this is what Douthat is on about. I don’t want to read his stuff, which does seem to be philosophically weak, but that might be what he was trying to get at. We may find sex-change operations all right — I guess I do — but there are other areas where the free, voluntary, not-specifically-harming-anyone behaviors of the individual may have questionable aspects, like, say, capitalism.

    • //The usual counter to the individualistic interest in personal autonomy and rights is not deontology versus consequentialism — these are strategies — but the interests of the tribe or community versus the interests of the individual. Maybe this is what Douthat is on about.//

      Somewhere in Douthat’s dim little brain there may be a vague notion along those lines, but he doesn’t come anywhere near expressing that. He just assumes that his notion of “ends” morality is some kind of universal norm. And those liberals with that newfangled autonomy stuff are out slippery sloping toward societal chaos.

      //there are other areas where the free, voluntary, not-specifically-harming-anyone behaviors of the individual may have questionable aspects, like, say, capitalism.//

      I say when individual behaviors harm others, it’s immoral. When capitalists make decisions that harm the planet or increase economic inequality, that’s immoral. I’m not seeing any exceptions to the ahimsa rule.

  8. In practice, polygamy tends towards harems for alpha males, with all the women owned and all the men but one expendable.

    I regard monogamy as socialism in the marriage market. Were free-market principles to prevail, then there would be harems for a few men, no marriage at all for the rest. Back in the Bronze Age, some smart priests and kings figured out that unmarriagable men are a threat to themselves and others; so they instituted a share-and-share alike policy; one woman per man. (Same-sex marriage doesn’t mess up the math much, if there are roughly equal numbers of gays and lesbians.)

    Monogamy is a socialistic program, so as usual there are unintended consequences; but all in all it works fairly well.

  9. Gulag: Yes, there is much polygamy in the Bible. And even today it is sanctioned among some belief systems and traditions. However, it is always the male who has more than one female (sometimes several) wife or concubine. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t know of any system which says it is okay if a woman has more than one husband. Although I can’t see why anyone would want more than one. This is a patriarchal system and only serves to make women submissive.

  10. I agree with grannyeagle, polygamy is designed to define women as collectible property. Not cool.

    Of course, we’re fortunate enough to live in a society that is NOT defined by Ross Doubt-that’s bizarre personal code (summarized, I believe, as: “I am right about everything, women are icky, your business is my business, my neckbeard is a stealthy nod to patriarchy”). So, privately, folks may enter into any group arrangement they please, it’s just not the legally-binding, two-person contract of marriage.

    Those creepy dudes who call themselves fundie-Mormons and “marry” multiple underage girls are still pedophiles, not martyrs for religious freedom. I refuse to read Doubt-that’s creepy linky, but it’s a safe guess that pedo-polygamy is the only freak flag he’s willing to fly. It fits so well with his worldview.

  11. The Wikipedia article on polyandry, which I just skimmed, is pretty decent. It does exist, although more rare than polygyny (both are subsumed under the label polygamy). Of course, like matriliny, polyandry has more often faced legal obstacles than has polygyny. This makes it harder to survive as a system, so trying to figure out what a “natural” amount of it would be is a dubious exercise.

  12. I was cool with the idea of polygamy when I was a 19 year old in my sexual prime. But as I slippled into my mature years my understanding of a marriage relationship has taken on a completely different meaning, things change..I now think that a polygamous marriage relationship borders on insanity. There’s too much required( non sexual) to have any kind of meaningful intimacy and relationship. Basically, one wife is enough.
    Have you ever seen a picture of Brigham Young’s wives? Dude!. I guarantee there where no hotties in that gaggle. For the sake of making polygamy seem like an attractive option I’m sure Brigham’s relationships to his wives was strictly a platonic one.
    Another objection I have to polygamy is the idea that some of these polygamists aren’t able to financially to carry the burden in supporting multiple wives and the hordes of children produced by such arrangements. I resent the idea that society should have to pick up the tab to indulge these type of people in their choices. If they can pay the freight than more power to them, but if they can’t don’t put on me. How do you resolve that conflict and still remain a liberal?

  13. Maybe this is what Douthat is on about. I don’t want to read his stuff, which does seem to be philosophically weak, but that might be what he was trying to get at.

  14. Wow, what happened there?.. I was trying to paste the comment above so I could comment on it. But I lost my train of thought with that little action and I’ll forego the intended comment.
    However, I think I learned that if you hit the submit button with a loaded clipboard, you’re going to paste whatever is on your clipboard..I think.

  15. Douhat ignores the harm Jenner did to his wife when he married her under false pretenses.

    He is on target. There are two types of morality. One is concerned with fairness and reducing harm. The other is concerned with in group identification and knowing one’s place in the hierarchy. The former will sacrifice group identity and hierarchy in pursuit of fairness and avoiding harm, while the latter will encourage unfairness and do actual harm in pursuit of in group identification and hierarchy. You can probably figure out which group is which.

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