23 January 2012
* * *
* * *
* * *
Naturally, we are all used to hearing such rhetoric from left-wing politicians. From philosophers, though, we have a right to expect something better.
That is why I was a little shocked to read this from the pen of a well-respected philosopher yesterday:
Mr. Santorum . . . devoutly wants the government in the bedroom . . .
The philosopher in question is John Perry, the author of numerous essays and books, many of which are assigned as texts in philosophy courses far and wide throughout the country.
He tossed off the statement about “government in the bedroom” in passing, in an editorial in The New York Times entitled “Needed: More Political Dimensions.” Later in the same piece, he also indulged in loose talk about conservatives not extending the scope of civil liberties to “women’s bodies.”
The main point of the article is to present Perry’s critique of the traditional, one-dimensional ”left-right” taxonomy of political positions, which he quite rightly says is wholly inadequate to capture the complexities of people’s real-life political opinions. He suggests an alternative taxonomy along three separate dimensions representing the level of government involvement in the economy, “commitment to the Bill of Rights,” and isolationism vs. interventionism in foreign affairs.
I have no quarrel at all with Perry’s expanded taxonomy, in principle. On the contrary, it strikes me as quite sensible.
But I do have a quarrel to pick with Perry’s unargued assumptions behind his talk of “commitment to the Bill of Rights,” and especially with his clichéd rhetoric about the “government in the bedroom” and “women’s bodies.” These are question-begging ways of speaking that are utterly unworthy of an eminent philosopher, even if he is playing the role of political pundit.
Blindingly obvious fact #1: There is no explicit mention at all of sexual morality in the Bill of Rights, so whatever protection is to be found there for this or that sexual practice is a matter of highly debatable interpretation, not of “commitment to the Bill of Rights.” To pretend otherwise is simply dishonest.
Blindingly obvious fact #2: When a woman’s body conceives and begins to nourish and grow another human body, we are dealing not with one body, but two. Therefore, the interests of two bodies, not one, must be taken into account whenever those interests clash. This is the sole basis for the society’s interest in “women’s bodies,” not some paranoid feminist fantasy of “control.”
Obviously, the point of intersection between sexual morality and politics is highly fraught. But the best way to lower to emotional temperature is to reflect upon the issues philosophically, and not in hackneyed partisan sound bites.
It is true, of course, that there are deep differences of fundamental principle dividing social conservatives from social liberals. So, let’s think about these differences for a moment.
Generally speaking, we may summarize the secular-liberal philosophy of sex as follows:
- There is no such thing as objectively right and wrong actions, in general, and certainly not sex acts, in particular.
- All there is is desire.
- Human sexual desire is polymorphously diverse, like that of the good bonobos.
- Since desire is all that matters, morally speaking, and human sexual desire is polymorphously diverse, such diversity is not perverse and to be deplored, but marvelous and to be celebrated. Sodomy, transvestism, sex-change, prostitution, S&M, cruising, anonymous encounters in public toilets, extreme promiscuity, wife swapping, orgies—it’s all part of the “gorgeous mosaic” of American life.
Contrast this with the social-conservative philosophy of sex:
- Sex is not mainly about pleasure; it’s not even mainly about emotional closeness to another human soul. It’s mainly about procreation. That’s what it’s for; that’s why it exists.
- Therefore, heterosexuality is not just a numerically majority preference, it is biologically normative. The complementarity of the male and female bodies bespeaks a deep and objective truth about the human condition.
- Human sexuality is not morally neutral, for at least two reasons:
- First, because nothing about human beings is morally neutral. Human nature—unlike bonobo nature—has a spiritual dimension that transends our biology (or, better, is grounded in, and emerges out of, our biology). Therefore, all human acts, including sex acts, inevitably have a spiritual dimension.
- Second, because the future of our society—indeed, the future of the species—depends upon the strength of the bond between parents and children. While this bond is not limited by biology—adoptive parents are better than none—nevertheless, biology does normatively determine what this bond ought ideally to be. The ideal is for children to be raised by their natural parents.
Obviously, beyond any immediate, intuitive appeal they may have, both sets of assumptions would require lengthy defense in any proper analysis of the metaphysical basis for the legitimate interest of society in human sexual activity. This is not the place for such an analysis.
Having set forth and contrasted the two philosophies of sex, though, it should at least be clear that there is much to be said on the conservative side—that the social conservative viewpoint cannot just be dismissed out of hand by a rational person of good will.*
But what about Perry’s and the others’ specific charges? Isn’t it intuitively obvious that having “the government in the bedroom” is a bad thing? And isn’t that in itself sufficient cause to prefer the secular-liberal philosophy of sex?
Perhaps that might be the case—if the social-conservative philosophy of sex really did imply that we must have “the government in the bedroom.” Certainly, the prospect of police spying on us in our most intimate encounters is horrifying. And liberals naturally make use of this fact to charge conservatives, who are otherwise allergic to government intrusion, with hypocrisy.
But this whole line of reasoning is entirely fallacious. In fact, social-conservative philosophy does not imply that we must have sex police any more than the secular-liberal philosophy does.
There are at least two problems here. One is that the left ignores the fact that it is the one pushing to overthrow the age-old custom of humanity by legislative initiative, or, that failing, by judicial fiat. When it comes to same-sex marriage, the left welcomes the intrusion of government into matters of sexual morality.
But the other, and more pervasive, problem is that for some reason, the secular-liberal mind seems unable to conceive of any middle ground between criminalizing an action, at one extreme, and holding the action up as praiseworthy and exemplary, at the other.
But in between these two poles there lies the great gray area of behavior that is morally condemned by society, but tolerated by the law. And that is where much of the behavior the secular-liberal wishes to celebrate rightly belongs, on the social-conservative view.
It is a caricature to depict social conservatives as wanting the government to invade the bedroom, because that implies they want to go back to the days when much deviant sexual behavior was criminally prosecuted. I don’t know of any public figure who is proposing that we do that.
Rather, most social conservatives are outraged, not by what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes, but rather by the incessant moral coarsening of our shared public space, and by the effort to equate deviant sex and sex with no strings attached with committed heterosexual unions that are the bedrock upon which human society rests.
It is not social conservatives who want the government in the bedroom. It is secular-liberals who want sexual deviancy parachuted into the living room, taught in the school room, and praised from the speaker’s podium.
It is liberals, in short, who will not rest until their deeply flawed understanding of human nature has been enshrined in law, and the social-conservative philosophy of sex has been legally suppressed as “hate speech.”
* * *
In a recent essay in the National Review, entitled “My Guiding Principle: The Dignity of Life,” Rick Santorum wrote:
Government has to be strong enough to protect human life, but limited enough to never exploit it.
This expresses as succinctly and eloquently as possible the correct principle by which to evaluate the role of government in our lives.
According to this principle, government may sometimes have to intervene in matters related to sexuality for the obvious reason that our sexuality is directly linked to the creation of human life.
But that is a far cry from wanting “the government in the bedroom.”
* See, also, my earlier column, “Sex and the Thinking Conservative.”