EDITORIAL: LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY:  INDIVIDUALISM, AND THE PERSONAL STAKE IN SOCIAL JUSTICE

 

We hear about it every day. The gap between the haves and have-nots constantly grows. It’s a serious moral problem, and instability coming from social divisions can threaten anyone. It contributes to the hatred of our way of life particularly in the Islamic world, and it can create grave security problems. And “the haves” consume finite resources out of proportion to their numbers, and this may invite horrific asymmetric retribution some day.

 

In a liberal capitalist democracy, there will always be some tension among worthy values like individual freedom, community and family solidarity, and equal opportunity. The three cries of the French Revolution probably do sum up our virtues, and we find we cannot simultaneously maximize all of them. There is some tension among social goods like individual freedom, family responsibility, and shared community values.

 

A Reason article about Ayn Rand, well known for her advocacy of individualism and objectivism, got me going on this triad. One quote in particular deserves immediate note:

 

“In its pure form, Rand’s philosophy would work very well indeed if human beings were never helpless and dependent through no fault of their own.”[1]

 

Individual liberty has indeed increased in the past forty or so years. Today, we have a culture of extreme capitalism (“winner take all”) and self-promotion—just listen to the advice of any outplacement employment agency. We could say that the notion of individual rights and concurrent responsibilities has become rationalized. Politically, this notion has grown out of a certain philosophical libertarianism – reducing intervention by government – that seems to have originated on the Right but that also has some support from the Left.  Freedom also generally means that, compared to times past, the law applies more to individuals than it does to families as basic actors in disputes. The legal value systems of the past fifteen years or so particularly have tried to maximize freedom (I say this even allowing for the problems since 9-11) but provide severe individual punishment for those who break its rules. I had proposed this in my introduction to my own 1997 “Do Ask Do Tell Book” where I wrote:

 

“My central question on personal values is this: do we believe in the principle that every adult person is totally responsible for himself or herself?”

 

We use modernism as a term to characterize this view of individual rights and responsibilities. A slight variation in this concept could be called the “me generation.” Perhaps the most important psychological development is the idea that one can live for one’s own purposes, and can experience relationships with others for personal growth and not just to provide a new generation. As a corollary, to be forced to live for the purposes of another (even family) may become an insult. Modernism anticipates the idea of permanent adolescence, where one may always learn and explore and be one’s own person apart from all commitments, or at least before making commitments.

 

Modernism is important because the nature of inequity has changed. It is now much more individualized. Even within one family or small social group, some people succeed, and others fail. It used to be that most of the disparity of wealth followed class and racial lines, almost following Marxian theory. The increases in personal freedom, abetted by technology, have enabled more people to “escape” the limitations of their birth circumstances. Yet they have also led to new kinds of inequality, and a fiercely competitive culture that often coaxes average people to cheat to stay afloat.[2]  Modernism and objectivism have tried to minimize or eliminate the idea of personal sacrifice for the needs of others or “for the greater good.”  Modern individualistic society doesn’t share these deeper sacrifices that would go with real notions of merit too well. The Ukrainian film The Piano Tuner gets into this a bit with a funny dialogue that drives a wedge between “freedom” and “individualism” over the goal of “peace.”

 

Progressive political theorists (generally called “liberals” and often associated with the Democratic Party in this country, and sometimes called “the Left”) have supported the idea that large scale government interventions can handle many of the problems of the needy and free middle class people to live their own lives as they choose. These machinations include social programs to help single parents and their children and range, of course, all the way to social security and Medicare to take care of the elderly. Their political philosophy generally supports the idea that social justice is more easily achieved if the wealthy pay a progressively larger share of the taxes. They also believe in remedies to protect various identifiable minority groups, and these become controversial, for example, with affirmative action preferences to remedy past racial discrimination, and protection from sexual orientation discrimination (with an overriding assumption that sexual orientation is an immutable trait).

 

Some radical Left Wing moral proscriptions have been indignant indeed. In the 1960s and 1970s, Asian communist societies tried to use “The People” as a concept to force communal socialization and to destroy individual ideas of self-concept or competition, under the pretense of moral rectitude. In the most extreme form of leftist activism (communism), “The People” would expropriate the assets of “rich people” (or of the “bourgeoisie”) by force to lift up poor people. Generally, attempts to solve social inequality problems with large-scale government intervention are very prone to corruption. People tend to barter political issues to get their way, and there is always a privileged power structure to be honored, regardless of former good intentions. Personal initiative and entrepreneurial efforts may be punished by turf-protection (or “protectionism”). At the same time, individuals could be shielded from having to face these issues at an overly personal level, as within the family.

 

So the political Right has tried another approach to balance freedom with social justice demands—to support the role of family values, augmented by religious faith, as the basic granularity of both freedom and responsibility to others. Debate first the communal social responsibilities and sacrifices that go with individual rights at the individual level first, conservatives say, then you can meaningfully talk about fairness of social programs.

 

We can get into meaning of Right wing culture inductively. The most common conservative complaint used to be that liberal social programs discourage marriage and encourage single parenthood and abandonment of children.  That certainly was a valid argument, and it comported well with the idea that one should take responsibility for one’s actions (for children that one has fathered). But in recent years the freedom of people like me who live separately from the traditional family structure has become problematic. That is, people who remain single (often homosexuals) and don’t have children add to the problems, as do families that seem less focused on raising children and more on adult pursuits. For example, someone like me competes in the same economic space for jobs, in a society that is becoming more economically challenged. Individuals like me can project our own ideas onto the Internet and other media and complicate child-rearing for parents who want to instill their kids with simple moral beliefs—and my speech on political issues may be seen as an insult by some people who have taken on much more family responsibility than me.  Corporate capitalist culture adds to these problems: for example, Norman Mailer has pointed out that television commercials may seriously impair the development of many (especially underprivileged) children.[3] 

 

In addition to children, the elderly may often fall into increased risk of poverty and neglect in a competitive culture. We have fewer children than earlier generations, but medicine can keep our elderly alive longer, but often in need of custodial care, as well as reinforced socialization. The cost, in terms of both finance and personal disruption, will soon be unprecedented, and will challenge our respect for the value of human life itself.

 

In the past three or so decades, we have gradually evolved the legal notion that the choice of a consenting adult significant other, without prejudice or discrimination from society, ought to be viewed as a fundamental right, and this thinking is reflected in the 2003 Supreme Court opinion  (on sodomy laws), Lawrence v. Texas. Child-bearing and marriage, in this view, ought to be a personal choice and value, and not subject to the external validation of society as part of some notion of meritocracy. The “private choice” argument is perhaps diminished in an Internet age where “private” sexuality become effectively more public.

 

The religious Right develops a potentially effective argument that liberals have tried to ignore. The family, the Right says, is really the ultimate safety net, both to raise children and to take care of the elderly and disabled. If the family does its job, government can get out of the way—and this idea is supposed to generate “freedom.” The problem is, for family to do its job, family responsibility[4] and participation needs to become mandatory for almost everyone (even for those who do not have their own children!). Ideas like sexual abstinence until marriage and cessation of divorces (as well as forbidding abortion) will, if universally adopted and not questioned, create a cultural climate in which sexual attractiveness and performance can no longer be used to measure or divide people. (This is perhaps a secular explanation for what is usually a religious mandate.) “Family” is supposed to be non-Euclidean: it is more than the sum of its parts, and marriage is supposed to be a postulated institution that transcends us. But then, “family” is supposed to give everyone a fair chance, but its pay or play for everyone.  Loyalty to blood protects the weakest members of any family (and within any family or community promotes “equality”), although this comes at the cost of intellectual honesty and preserves unearned wealth from one generation to the next.  In fact, the “family” model of freedom presumes an often hostile or adversarial world that requires men to protect women and children, or at least that the strong protect the weak.  People like me who can take advantage of a technological culture and live “different” lives (outside of the usual family structure, almost as if children did not exist or were somehow encapsulated into invisibility) must, even though we do not bear children, share some responsibility for the next generation because we indirectly benefit from other people’s children and from sexual culture itself. The religious conservative’s main moral point is that family responsibility is no longer shared equitably, and that this is the source of so much division and unfairness. The Mormon paradigm of eternal marriage, community welfare, and mission service obligation provides an interesting example that actually works pretty well within its own culture; it also makes in interesting comparison to both Islam and to Vatican versions of morality, which try to combine strict sexual morality with a collectivist approach to wealth sharing (which the Church itself does not always practice – the Catholic notion of a chaste priesthood and convent system is really designed to find a legitimate place for everyone in the world and eliminate sexual competitiveness as a force dividing people and creating injustice, but given human nature it just doesn’t always work). But the social conservatives’ claims about family responsibility make a credible argument.

 

Some persons, myself included, seem to be “wired” differently so that they find other pursuits more compelling than family, to the extent that interest in biological lineage seems to be crowded out by limits of personal capacity. This seems to be a more logical explanation for homosexuality than genetics or nurture alone. The diversity to society that such persons bring has been considered a plus. But such persons may expend a great amount of energy meeting just their own needs, and may be perceived as cheating their system or not carrying their weight and even showing contempt for people who lead lives based around having and raising kids, particularly in light of the economic and security difficulties for the country since 2001. The modern improvements in personal and expressive freedom for GLBT people (and behaviors) are seen as putting competitive pressure on families with children and ordinary means. In a global, Internet-wired world, GLBT values may have more (asymmetric) impact on mainstream families today than they did at the time of Stonewall (1969) when sexual orientation was essentially “private.”  Again, this kind of reaction from some people does seem like so much whining.

 

Where does this lead one with individual freedom? After all, it presumes that family is the ultimate low-level of government, and should mediate one’s own purposes. I think that this contradicts freedom as I have come to understand it, because I need to define my own purposes. There is no Utopian answer to this dilemma.

 

There are, however, practical observations to be made. Actually, the first point is logical, almost mathematical. I still believe in the “responsibility” paradigm above. But the logical way to reconcile individualism with family and fairness is incorporation: define responsibility for self as including showing that one can take care of others (even to the point of a social connection that allows disadvantaged others to perceive their own value), at least at times. Biological or genetic predisposition would not nullify this expectation. This is more an observation from logic than any elementary philosophical or religious precept. It is a way to reduce moral entropy. It reverses the libertarian dependence on harmlessness, non-aggression or non-intervention (regarding it as neglect of or contempt for the vulnerable) and seems to compel pro-activity, almost in the spirit of the New Testament. The lemma has a corollary, that one should achieve local success before expecting public recognition. That’s not how it is today. It may even include mandatory socialization, the idea that one must integrate the needs of others into determining one’s own personal goals, even into personally competitive ventures. A particularly telling comment could be made about information, which computers have made much more effective as individual tools for gaining individual advantage over others and avoiding sharing common risks in a previously accepted fashion (as with insurance and participation in community responsibility).[5]

 

The practical measures follow easily, however. They have a lot to do with what, in another essay on this site, is called “pay your dues.” They enable one to maintain the right focus on individualism.  The nature of asymmetry in a technological society means that personal freedom is effective in breaking up corruption but can be dangerous (to an entire society) when not balanced by accountability to others—in a way, for a culture freedom is like a therapeutic drug in that it has side effects. But here are some of the expectations:

· Expect to bear one’s fair share of bad luck, hardships, and problems due to the failure of others—one is one’s brother’s keeper.

· Expect to share family responsibility at some time in life even if one does not have children of one’s own; ultimately this can affect one’s own freedom, even as an adult.

· Expect to have some periods of service to others.

· Realize that a “kinder, gentler” meritocracy may not always give second (or multiple) “chances” until one has shown accountability to others.

· A person like myself with unusual combinations of talents and disinclinations may find that others perceive his or her freedom as dangerous to those genuinely less fortunate. Caretaking will not by itself reinforce another person’s sense of worth or self-concept if that person’s community or family is seriously weakened.

· Expect to share in the “dirty work” that keeps a free culture going.

· Realize that some personal choices (or “non choices”) can create ethical conflicts, and can make some employment or career paths inappropriate. When one has gone sixty years without having kids, don’t try to get a job as a grade school teacher even if there are a lot of openings.

· Even today, the occasional loss of freedom experienced out of precautionary laws that require one to be one’s “brother’s keeper” at least show some deference to people who have heavy family responsibilities for others (raising kids).

· Understand that some people will equate benign neglect as contempt, especially in a world where one can become much more public.

∙ The “it takes a village” mentality (a term coined by Hilary Clinton’s famous book about communities and child rearing) has become more accepted in the post 9/11 world. (This was discussed on NBC4 (Washington) “View Point) on Aug. 13, 2006.) There is some tendency to return to the 50s idea that “your children are also my children” and that everyone (including those who do not have their own children) must share some personal intergenerational family responsibility, going in both directions.

 

For gays and lesbians, society’s policies are especially problematic. The “don’t ask don’t tell” policy with respect to gays in the military, and the backlash against gay marriage and gay adoptions (and even the ban on blood donations from most gay men, however medically justified) suggest that gays are not welcome participants in society’s shared responsibilities. This is too bad, because it encourages gays to go their own way and desert their families, when their support may one day be badly needed. Aversion to gay marriage is indeed a collectivist phenomenon, and relates to the apparent dilution in the shared cultural meaning of the entire courtship, marriage and biological lineage process which, after all, is the one thing that the majority of adults can do. This has already been an issue in my own family. Ultimately, gay bans make the GLBT person focus more on the self and drift away from responsibility for others. Ultimately this is a moral challenge that must be surpassed. Perhaps if filial responsibility[6] laws were brought back (they exist in some states but are rarely enforced outside of Medicaid nursing home fraud), gay marriage would seem more credible. The debates over gay responsibilities do test society’s limits in using rationalism, as opposed to emotion and religious precepts, in delineating the moral paradigm for individual rights and collective obligations.  A couple generations ago, prohibitionism (as Andrew Sullivan calls it) was the chief legal strategy to force those who are “different” to channel their energies into conventionally acceptable (heterosexual) directions leading to family responsibility.

 

For many religiously or culturally conservative people, loyalty to blood and “family first” (or “family solidarity”) are non-negotiable virtues that apply to everyone.  Men, particularly, often say that their own biological families justify the rest of their lives, even if these statements sometimes sound hollowed out. The loyalty component presupposes an adversarial or hostile world that one (at least in pre-Internet times) could not confront on his own (with the power of the pen). Family obligations and their associated virutes are not incurred merely when one procreates children, but become applicable obligations of anyone brought up by a family or anyone deriving implicit benefit or pleasure from sexuality.  The family becomes a kind of psychological labor union shop. Family solidarity and family responsibility obligations may even exist merely because one normally becomes an adult by the sacrifices of parents and previous-generation family members so that a chain-letter debt is owed (well, maybe not always!)  No one who does not experience sharing these obligations and family motivation is to be listened to; to recognize other individualistic values would demean and insult the courtship process and subsequent lifelong active sexual commitment required by family to raise children and take care of people.  In this view, male homosexuality is seen as a deliberate repudiation of the meaning of one’s own blood in upward deference to the “potential” of some other man. It seems like a childish attitude by some people but understandable in view of the tremendous practical pressures (competition and distraction) felt by many average families. This view also reflects social history of individualism as relatively recent for most people, who are used to sharing goals within families to fend off a world assumed to be hostile or unstable; family loyalty is a kind of “immune system” for families used to hardship. Numerous conservative historians have admitted that marriage has always been about maintaining social stability and conferring social legitimacy to adults, specifically to those who willingly take on the obligations to parent children within monogamous and “aesthetically real” marriage—this idea of course begs the question of whether marriage is really a personal choice or a social obligation, with having children making the two notions apparently psychologically equivalent to most people.  “Normal” heterosexual courtship, marriage, and parenting is probably the most “natural” way to become involved in meeting the real needs of other people for most people, in the sense that doing so is expected as a measure of social justice.  The paradigm of abstinence except for marriage is supposed to transmit intergenerational responsibility to everyone. Participation in marriage and parenting, as society’s legal structures define and promote it, is supposed to provide a natural bridge between individual competitiveness and psychological commitment to meeting the participatory needs of others who may, as children, elderly or disabled, be less able to fend for themselves; in this sense marriage, if adhered to strictly, is thought by some to promote social justice.  Values like creative narcissism or upward affiliation, often found among gay men and capable of certain artistic inspiration, are resisted as implicitly evil (as are the associated notions that sexual and intimate relationships should serve the pleasure and happiness of consenting adults in a privatized model), because they can lead to some people (within any family) being left out in the cold. On the other hand, the new freedoms to break away from the personal interdependence within families tends to help create new wealth and spread opportunities around to individuals born to less well-off families (think how this debate plays out with past battles over racial segregation). Family, for all the good it does in taking care of people, can sometimes be dead wrong. You pick your kind of social justice based on your moral (and perhaps religious) beliefs. 

 

Logic, then, leads to a curious paradox about family responsibility as a “conservative” tool of social justice. To have a healthy marriage or adult partnership (and particularly, to be a good parent), one needs to bring something of oneself to a relationship—hopefully one’s own interests and achievements, if one is to avoid the “Days of our Lives” soap opera syndrome. But to have something of one’s own, one needs to be accountable to others. This sounds like a paradox, a “Catch 22” or a chicken-and-egg problem. Perhaps there is a bit of Heisenberg. It means that some altruistic behavior and skill-building needs to take place outside of the nuclear family, and this supports the “It Takes a Village” idea expressed often by centrist liberals (Hilary Clinton). That also means that anyone will use some self-discipline and restraint (to protect others) while taking advantage of the freedoms offered by new technology in pursuing personal ends.

 

Ethical culture and to some extent religious culture often makes the point that love is a matter of what I do, no just what I feel about others. The measure of ethics is someone else’s best interests, in and outside the family. Yet, if one successfully maintains that, even at an emotional level, “I will do my own thing in life,” however ethically by the tenets of individualism, one may be undermining what gives many people meaning in an admittedly adversarial and unbalanced world. There is always tension between fidelity to one’s own beliefs incorporating what one values in other people and behavior that will give legitimate assistance and meaning to others. One can bifurcate this observation in arguing whether gay marriage would improve caregiving and family life or detract from it. 

 

President Bush tried to suggest the moral balance for individualism with several startling statements in his 2005 Inaugural address. For example:

 

“In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service and mercy and a heart for the weak. Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another. Our nation relies on men and women who look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love. Americans, at our best, value the life we see in one another and must always remember that even the unwanted have worth.”

 

Individualism, after all, does seem dependent on a common technological infrastructure that may become its Achilles Heel. For if technology is destroyed, family and community will be all that are left.  Technology has made possible the idea that one can make oneself as one chooses before reaching out to take care of others, and may break out of the older constraints, often related to well accepted cultural, political and natural forces completely beyond the means of individual to mediate outside of his family or group, that paced individual accomplishment according to the concrete good they did for others, most often immediate blood family. In doing so, technology gives us a cultural continental divide.  Modern day individualism sometimes makes the arrogant assumption that one is indeed the master of one’s own fate and ship in all circumstances, an idea that would seem to deny the need for faith, loyalty and for “other-centeredness.” In the meantime, it seems that politicians and demagogues will try to use the needs of some to regulate the freedom of others. Perhaps we will gradually see a new debate develop in our legal culture: that is, whether individual freedoms and fundamental rights ought to depend functionally upon the responsibility an individual has shown for others, and even the capacity to compete or go to bat for others.  Individual rights and responsibility would seem to incorporate the idea of being one’s “brother’s keeper,” and this raises the question of commitment to biological family as a way to accomplish this inclusion. As connected to sharing of common burdens and rotating social responsibilities, accountability to others before executing one’s goals seems like an important parameter of a moral society that balances individual rights and collective needs; the older idea of abstinence except for marriage was one major (if flawed and skewed) way to enforce this accountability. In a morally re-engineered world, persons would not have full freedom to follow their own choices until they make measurable benchmarks of accountability to others, and this would be hardest of people of middling talents. That seems to point to the debate that is needed, and one that is difficult for most people, however much they scream for family values, to articulate.

 

We seem to wind up with a curious paradox: people might be asked to give up some of their freedom in order to be lifted out of their own targeting for “discrimination.” Anyone who enjoys the expressive surpluses (which sometimes include enjoyment of a certain self-effacement) of today’s modern world owes a karmic debt to people who lived for nothing but their own families or human communities, or so the moral thinking goes. Or maybe that is not such a paradox after all. There’s also equality, too. If someone has equal rights given his expressive life, it is easier for him to take care of other people when called upon to do so, with credibility and integrity. That point seems to get missed, especially by those who want to predicate success in life on fitting in to the caretaking schemes that build the turf of others. There is a definite tradeoff, between individual liberty as we know it today, and the ability to take care of and give meaning to everyone in some sort of family or community environment.  

 

©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka

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Discussion of President Bush’s 2005 Inaugural Address

Go to editorial on filial responsibility laws;

Go to editorial on “brother’s keeper” thinking;

Go to proposed “Bill of Responsibilities” (the fourth one is a bit Gospel or faith based)

Return to controversial issues page

 

Contact me  (JBoushka@aol.com )

 

 

 

 



[1] Cathy Young, “Ayn Rand at 100,” Reason, March 2005.

[2] David Callahan, The Cheating Culture. New York, Harcourt, 2004. Review at http://www.doaskdotell.com/books/bcheat.htm

[3] Norman Mailer, “Why Do We Make It So Hard For Them To Learn?” Parade, Jan. 23, 2005.

[4] It’s interesting to compare the views of, say, Elinor Burkett and, say, Jennifer Roback Morse or Ann Crittenden on how society treats families compared to the childless.

[5] David Wessel, “Better Information Isn’t Always Beneficial,” The Wall Street Journal, “Capital,” p. A2, September 22, 2005.
 

[6] On 4/29/2005 ABC “20/20” reported a story on families that “raided” the trust funds or earnings of their child movie or music stars.