Stanley Kurtz on taboos and fairness

Stanley Kurtz has a generally sensible discussion at NRO of the practical function of sexual taboos, that by defining what is fitting within sexual relations they make it possible to rely on such relations to be something definite and so make family life possible as a social institution. He then says:
I would rather accept some disruption in family stability than go back to the days when homosexuality itself was deeply tabooed. The increase in freedom and fairness is worth it.
On its face, the comment makes little sense. After all, if homosexuality isn’t destructive, there’s no sense tabooing it, and if it is, permitting it would be unfair and violate the freedom of those forced to live with the resulting destruction. Nor does the language express a balancing of the homosexual interest in doing what one wants with the general interest in family stability. Rather, it seems to express an opposition between rational standards of freedom and fairness on one hand and necessary taboos on the other.

What Kurtz’s comment and discussion as a whole seem to express, in fact, is what might be called the conservative liberal position. They also provide a good demonstration of the uselessness of that position. In effect, the conservative liberal position accepts the liberal view that values are essentially man-made, and that what’s important is satisfying human goals “fairly” — that is, giving everyone’s goals equal weight. That is why allowing homosexuality is thought to advance freedom and fairness, and to that extent to be a good thing. The view then notes, however, that society can’t be fully rationalized on such a basis, so some standards understood as transcending human goals (“taboos”) are going to have to be accepted so that liberal goals of freedom, fairness and well-being can, within the limits of what’s possible, actually be achieved. Such taboos might include, for example, conventions that burden homosexual relations in secondary ways, for example by denying “gay marriage.”

The problem, of course, is how it can be decided what violations of utilitarian liberal rationalism and equality are going to be allowed in the society’s morality, and once the decision is made how the allowable taboos can be put forward with a straight face as binding “transcendent standards.” After all, everyone with a brain will know that to the extent the standards or taboos deviate from rationalism and equality they are allowed to continue only for the sake of liberal utilitarian goals, and that in fact they aren’t “transcendent” but concessions to human irrationality that should be restricted as much as possible for the sake of “freedom and fairness” — the equal rational legitimacy of the conduct they condemn. If that’s so, though, how much force will they have and why should anyone accept them?
Posted by Jim Kalb at May 06, 2003 04:57 PM | Send
    

Comments

Mr. Kalb’s analysis is exactly right, it seems to me. Combined with a comment of his from another thread it neatly summarizes the entire modern dilemma and the only possible solution to that dilemma:

Mr. Kalb wrote:
“The basic problem I think is that itís hard to complain about the vices of others without calling oneís own vices in question.”

In order for the West to save itself there must be a fundamental repentance from liberalism. Halfhearted measures will not do: the whole liberal revolution has to be reassessed. That means calling to account some highly cherished things, e.g. the inviolability of free speech, freedom of religion, etc.

But the basic problem, and the basic choice, is crystal clear: repent or die.

Posted by: Matt on May 6, 2003 6:50 PM

Matt:

We might go farther and say that the necessary comprehensive repudiation of liberalism will be impossible without a real resurgence of Christian piety?

See also my recent essay:

http://cellasreview.blogspot.com/2003_04_27_cellasreview_archive.html#93685017

Posted by: Paul Cella on May 8, 2003 1:46 AM

Mr. Cella: I do think that some sort of Christendom is probably a necessary support for any widespread sustainable repentance. There is some small reason for optimism, though I confess that I tend toward cynicism myself. In Catholic circles there is quite a rift between the neocons and the traditionalists; but the one thing that everyone agrees on is the most important priority (though perhaps not what it implies, mutters the cynic): prayer, fasting, and a return to holiness. In the midst of the darkness there are a few candles burning.

Congratulations on your interesting and thoughtful blog.

Posted by: Matt on May 8, 2003 4:09 AM

Thanks!

Posted by: Paul Cella on May 8, 2003 4:56 AM

Mr. Kalb wrote:

“That is why allowing homosexuality is thought to advance freedom and fairness, and to that extent to be a good thing. The view then notes, however, that society canít be fully rationalized on such a basis, so some standards understood as transcending human goals (‘taboos’) are going to have to be accepted so that liberal goals of freedom, fairness and well-being can, within the limits of whatís possible, actually be achieved. Such taboos might include, for example, conventions that burden homosexual relations in secondary ways, for example by denying ‘gay marriage.’”

Mr. Kalb is describing, once again, the unprincipled exception, the very basis of government under modern liberalism. (Or under liberalism, period. After all, don’t some liberal critics of the US Constitution view its provisions for power and authority as an unprincipled deviation from the pure democracy of the Declaration of Independence?)

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 8, 2003 12:16 PM
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