16 March 2012
Those on the left don’t do it, because their atheistic and materialistic ideology logically implies there are no first principles, at least not in the realm of morality.
Everybody has his own preferences, and that’s that. No one’s preferences should be “privileged” over anyone else’s. Where that last bit—which is itself an absolute moral judgment—comes from, they don’t say.
Many on the right are reluctant to discuss first principles, as well, since they assume the only way to justify them is by appeal to God, Who is becoming increasingly taboo in American politics.
So, in the end, both sides just appeal to gut reactions, and our politics becomes a cacophony of warring moral intuitions.
Now, I have nothing against gut reactions. At the end of the day, moral intuitions are really all we have to go on. If you can’t just look and see that strangling a newborn baby in its crib is wrong, then nothing I can say by way of rational persuasion is likely to change your mind.
On the other hand, when people’s normal moral intuitions are in working order, then we can use them, together with rational argument, to move from the easy cases, like infanticide, to the more difficult cases, like abortion. We can easily see that late-term abortion is equally wrong, because we appreciate the substantial similarity between late-term abortion and infanticide.
As we proceed earlier in the gestation process, this similarity steadily decreases. Of course, we may then appeal to more purely intellectual arguments, such as our modern scientific understanding that an individual human life begins at conception. But the fact remains that as the distance from the intuitively clear case of infanticide grows, our intuitive certainty of what to say about abortion diminishes.(1)
This means that both intuition and rational argument have important roles to play in our moral reasoning, but we remove ourselves from our deepest intuitions at our peril.
Why worry, then, about first principles?
Because, unfortunately, there are many gray areas in our public policy debates where intuitions clash, or where the relative weight to be accorded to conflicting principles is intuitively unclear. So, we cannot abandon rational argument, either. And rational argument can hardly proceed without some clearly enunciated first principles.
In several previous posts, I have already talked about how to ground normative agency, including moral judgments, in human nature properly understood. I won’t delve further into that controversial topic here.(2)
What I want to do, instead, is talk about secular liberals’ own first principles—such as they are—and use a concrete case to help make intuitively clear how liberals often abuse their own first principles, or else misinterpret them due to their confusion in this department.
Secular-liberal philosophy as it manifests itself in America today is a sort of debased brand of Utilitarianism. Only one indisputable value is recognized—pleasure. And only one originary political principle—utter freedom of the individual from outside interference, so long as he or she does not harm anyone else (the “harm principle”).
Of course, classical Utilitarianism was not a form of egoism, but rather explicitly contained the injunction that everyone’s pleasure ought to count equally. The right action is that which maximizes the greatest good for the greatest number. This was an attempt to secularize the Christian precept of loving thy neighbor as thyself.
What deeper metaphysical principle this principle itself was supposed to rest upon remained deeply mysterious, but let that pass. Perhaps we might consult Jeremy Bentham (left), whose mummy is still preserved at University College London.
At any rate, this gives us a third principle: Everyone should enjoy an equally pleasurable life.
Unfortunately, this third principle creates a deep-seated tension between the first two principles. The reason is that pleasure can be maximized for everyone only by restricting the autonomy of some—namely, those with an excess of the means to pleasure. So, autonomy cannot be absolute, after all, but must sometimes be curtailed to promote the greatest good for the greatest number.
Therefore, the liberal and the conservative actually agree that autonomy must sometimes be curbed. The difference between them lies not in regard to this point, but rather in deciding whose autonomy ought to be curtailed, and for what purposes.
For example, the liberal believes the autonomy of the rich may be curtailed to provide more pleasure for the poor, while the conservative believes the autonomy of the vicious may be curtailed, though not just to provide more pleasure for the virtuous, but because vice is bad it itself.
Now, let’s use these principles to think about a concrete problem. Since most conservatives are in fact quite willing to help the poor, despite considerable liberal media propaganda to the contrary—the dispute is not really about whether to help the poor, but how to help them—let’s look, rather, at the second sort of problem. For example, whether we ought to legalize narcotics.(3)
From many points of view, secular-liberal principles demand that narcotics be legalized.
First, laws against narcotics obviously interfere with the autonomy of the heroin addict.
Second, hampering the addict’s access to heroin not only interferes with his autonomy, but also markedly diminishes his pleasure.
Third, if the heroin addict is harming anyone, it is only himself. Drug addiction per se is a victimless crime. If an addict breaks a different law to feed his addiction, then he should be prosecuted for that offense according to the harm principle, but he should not be prosecuted for his drug use itself.
Many, many other practices that used to be considered wrong have been normalized in our society. Gambling, public lewdness, hard-core pornography, illegitimacy, sexual promiscuity, prostitution, sodomy—indecency and incivility of every flavor and description are all now considered to be not only socially acceptable, but positively praiseworthy.
Indeed, many of them are actively encouraged. We now live in a society in which high school students are taught about “fisting” (if you don’t know, don’t ask) and where college students are treated to live demonstrations of automated dildos.
So, given these social realities, according to what conceivable principles might the laws against narcotics be justified? After all, if someone wants to shoot up or snort heroin, and he isn’t harming anyone else, why shouldn’t he be allowed to do so? As long as the harm principle isn’t violated, on what basis would we be justified in limiting his autonomy?
One might go even farther. From the secular-liberal perspective, not only is heroin addiction a victimless crime, it’s actually a Utopian existence. Remember, the only agreed-upon value is physical pleasure, and what greater physical pleasure is there than shooting up with smack? So, according to the logic of the secular-liberal worldview, the government ought to provide free heroin for everybody.
After all, what is there to oppose the philosophy of carpe diem, except some superannuated religious beliefs?
In case anyone thinks I’m greatly exaggerating, he should read a recent New York Times article, “Familiarity with Drugs Helps a Group Speak for Users,” about the San Francisco Drug Users Union, a new organization that advocates on behalf of “addicts’ rights.”
One of the union’s main demands is a government-sponsored shooting gallery—i.e., a “safe” place to shoot up at government expense. Needless to say, the article approaches all of this as if it were most praiseworthy.
My conservative readers will be appalled, because they will have a strong intuition that using drugs is immoral in itself.
But, obviously, their secular-liberal fellow citizens do not share their intuition. They simply see the drug users as put-upon by society, and their hearts go out to them. They do not feel they should set themselves up as “higher” than the users. They deeply believe it is wrong to judge them. Who are they to say what is moral and what is immoral?
They are the folks my remarks are aimed at, for the present.
Since it’s tolerably clear there’s nothing wrong with using heroin, so far as secular-liberal first principles can determine, and I don’t want to push my own preferred principles here, I will tell a story, instead. I want to try to appeal to intuitions that at least some secular liberals may share.
A close personal friend of mine told me the story. It’s about his 31-year-old step-daughter. I will tell it in the first person—the way he told it to me—though not exactly in his words. All the names, of course, have been changed. Otherwise, I have it on the best authority that the story is true in every detail.
* * *
I was working late in my study. I finally finish up and knock off, around midnight.
I first realize something isn’t right when I notice the upstairs bathroom light is on, but the door’s ajar. I hesitate, then knock softly.
Finally, I decide the bathroom must be free, so I open the door. Alma is sitting on the toilet, dressed in nothing but a sweatshirt, slumped over, her head against wall.
I feel a surge of adrenaline. I run the few steps to the bedroom where Mary—Alma’s mom—and I sleep. I shake Mary violently by the shoulder and shout: “Wake up! Alma’s passed out in the bathroom.”
In a moment, Mary is up and in the bathroom. I linger in the bedroom, trying to keep my distance. Hoping it’s not going to be any of my business.
Alma has only visiting with us for a few days, in between jail and a rehab program. She has seemed her normal, enthusiastic, highly intelligent self—she has seemed clean.
I hear Mary shouting Alma’s name, trying to rouse her. In a minute, maybe less, Mary yells to me: “Call 911!”
I have trouble with the cell phone. We have awful reception inside the house. I am still fully dressed, so I run downstairs and out onto the front porch. I give the 911 operator our address, and tell her it’s a suspected heroin overdose. She asks me a bunch of questions I can’t answer, like whether the girl’s breathing, whether there’s a pulse.
I tell them to hurry and run back inside and up the stairs.
By now, Mary has Alma laid out on the floor, on her back. She’s half inside the bathroom, with her head and shoulders out on the landing which forms the top of the stairwell.
One of Alma’s legs is bent backwards under her, but there’s no time to straighten it out. It looks uncomfortable, but I realize it doesn’t matter. She can’t feel it, anyway.
Mary is giving her daughter mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Pinching her nose, blowing into her mouth.
It doesn’t look to me like Alma’s breathing. I pull an eyelid back, and see only white. I fumble with her wrist, and can’t feel anything. But my own heart is beating so loudly, I can’t be sure.
I race back downstairs and dial 911 again. I plead with them to hurry up (stupidly—like everyone else who’s ever called that number—I think later). When I say I can’t feel a pulse, the operator tells me to perform chest compressions. That’s the most important thing, she says, for what we’re dealing with.
Back up the stairs. I’m out of shape, and ordinarily I’d be huffing and puffing with all this running up and down stairs, but the adrenaline is sustaining me.
I take over from Mary and start doing chest compressions. I kneel astraddle Alma’s inert body, center the palm of my left hand on her sternum, place the palm of my right hand on the back of my left. It’s all instinctive. I have no idea how I know how to do this—all I know about CPR is what I’ve picked up from TV.
I press down hard, with all my considerable weight. I let go. Wait a beat. Repeat.
Over and over.
Mary throws on a house robe and slippers, and runs downstairs. She waits outside (she tells me this later), to wave the first responders in when they appear. So far, she’s been remarkably calm.
I continue with my chest compressions. I can detect no response at all in Alma’s apparently lifeless body, but I never let up for a moment. Press down sharply. Let up. Pause. Repeat.
It seems to me that many minutes go by.
My arms are getting sore, but finally I hear some commotion downstairs. The paramedics have arrived. They come up the stairs, not slowly, but not rushing, either. Taking their time, getting their equipment ready. At last, they take over from me.
I get up from what I suppose is Alma’s dead body.
There are four men, I think. They pull her out farther, where they can get around her better. One of them talks to me, while the others go to work on Alma. I can’t see clearly what they’re doing, but I realize they’re clearing the air passage and getting a tube down her throat. I don’t see the injection of opiate-antagonist go in, but am told about it later.
I stand there uselessly, my arms aching, my whole body trembling. I don’t dare interrupt the men at their work to ask the obvious question.
Then I hear the question coming up the stairs from below.
More men have arrived by now. I don’t know how many, but a lot. Through the bedroom window, I can see the pulsating lights from numerous emergency vehicles gathered in the street below.
The men now form a relay of sorts from the ground floor all the way up the stairs, onto the landing, and around to where the first group of men are still kneeling around Alma.
Mary can’t get by, and she can’t see anything from where she is downstairs. I wonder what she must be thinking.
Finally, I hear a hysterical-sounding scream coming up the stairs:
“Is she dead!?”
This high-pitched, pitiful, begging cry is repeated two, maybe three, times.
I don’t know the answer to the question, so I say nothing.
At last, it sinks in on me—I don’t know how—that Alma must be alive.
I lean over the railing and shout down the stairs: “She’s not dead!”
Three hours later . . .
Mary and I are in Alma’s room inside the ER.
Alma is up and walking around.
I gawk at her. I can’t believe my eyes. It’s like seeing Lazarus risen from the grave.
She’s still high, and not very lucid.
I’m relieved, but I don’t enjoy the sensation of relief. All I feel is the adrenaline rush, which has hardly diminished at all. It won’t go away completely for three more days.
Then I feel something else.
Angrily, stupidly, I begin accusing Alma. I am trying to convey to her what she has just put her mother through. Not to mention the paramedics and the ambulance drivers, the policemen and the firefighters, the concerned neighbors. Now, the doctors and the nurses.
Alma screams back at me: “What about me! I’m the survivor here!”
(1) For further discussion of abortion, see my recent column “After-birth Abortion and Peter Singer’s Challenge.”
(2) E.g., “What Is Life? Part III: What Might an Organism Be, If Not a Machine?”
(3) I employ heroin as my example because it’s the most extreme, and therefore the clearest, case. Of course, I recognize that some liberals who are in favor of legalizing softer drugs may balk at legalizing harder ones. I only want to raise some of the broad issues of principle touching on the public debate about drug legalization.