Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Santorum and the "We"


Well, you can't say that the blogosphere has lacked opinions (almost uniformally negative) about Senator Rick Santorum's recent comment, referring explicitly to homosexuality, that "[i]f the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery...[y]ou have the right to anything." Amy Sullivan has weighed in, and so has Matthew Yglesias (twice), and Jacob T. Levy, and Kevin Drum, and Eugene Volokh (three times now), and so have many, many others. Out of all this, I'd like to make one small point--not in Santorum's defense, necessarily, but definitely in opposition to the preferred (within the blogosphere at least) mode of those who are attacking him. Consider what Andrew Sullivan had to say. First, quoting Santorum: "The idea is that the state doesn't have rights to limit individuals' wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire." Sullivan responds: "Wow. I've long heard of people talking about individual rights against the government. I have rarely heard about the government's rights against the individual. And from a Republican! Notice how Santorum uses the pronoun 'we' when referring to the state. He's been in power too long. Has Santorum heard of limited government? It was once a conservative idea, you know, Senator."


Why does Sullivan assume that the senator's "we" meant "the state"? Probably because, like so many other libertarians (whether they call themselves that or not) in the blogosphere, he really isn't conscious of the possibility that there can be any collectivity, any community, in between the individual (with all their rights) and the state (with all its powers). I don't know Santorum from Adam; for all I know, he really does dream fascist dreams at night. But I can't understand how an intelligent man (a man who makes a big deal about having done work on Michael Okeshott for heaven's sake!) can so quickly and automatically assume that Santorum's invocation of some group which is worried about "people liv[ing] out whatever wants or passions they desire" couldn't possibly refer to any actual body of citizens, any substantive portion of a real and living civil society (say, Pennsylvanians? or conservative Christians? or parents?). Well, actually, I can understand it. Santorum is talking about issues of right and wrong, of toleration and legality--in short, he is speaking normatively, about what ought to be and ought not be, and for most of these writers (who share, as Sullivan put it, "the very American notion of live-and-let-live") normative force can be justified only in two ways: through the free choice of the sovereign individual, and the actions of a properly and freely consented-to social contract-type state. To suggest that communal norms--the values of some as-yet undetermined "we"--might actually be normatively relevant to our decisions about sexuality is, generally speaking, dismissed without consideration.


This is not an argument in favor of Santorum's preferred "we"--whomever they may be--being empowered, on the basis of some communitarian argument, to enforce certain standards of sexual behavior in the face of America's complicated-yet-indisputably-real embrace of sexual tolerance and the "right to privacy." It is, however, an argument that dropping out the "we" in defining which "wants or passions" everyone has a "right" to and which may be limited and for what reason, is only to court further animosity and frustration, since it is as a "we" that most people actually live. Michael Sandel noted this long ago in his essay "Moral Argument and Liberal Toleration: Abortion and Homosexuality" (available in this volume). Sandel wrote: "The problem with the neutral [i.e., the "live-and-let-live"] case for toleration...[is that] it leaves wholly unchallenged the adverse views of homosexuality itself. Unless those views [again, the views of a "we"] can be plausibly addressed, even a [Supreme] Court ruling [in favor of homosexual privacy rights, overturning Bowers v. Hardwick]...is unlikely to win for homosexuals more than a thin and fragile toleration. A fuller respect would require, if not admiration, at least some appreciation of the lives that homosexuals live. Such appreciation, however, is unlikely to be cultivated by a legal and political discourse conducted in terms of autonomy...alone" (p. 86). This argument can, of course, be challenged (see here, for instance) by responding that in the modern world it is neither possible nor desirable to engage all the "we's" out there; autonomy, live-and-let-live, state toleration for the individual, is the best we can and should try to achieve. That's an important argument to make; I'd just like to see some of the fine minds in the blogosphere actually make it, rather than simply assuming that anyone (like Santorum) who is apparently troubled by an (arguably) emerging legal tradition which appears to forbid any restrictions on any sexual activities (completely apart from social, cultural, scientific or moral debates) simply on the basis of privacy alone can only be the worst sort of bigot.