Conservative Soulcraft Redux


Blog ping pong may not be the ideal way to hash out the fundamental differences between conservative and libertarian approaches to tradition and fallibilism, so let me just restrict myself to a couple quick comments on Jonah Goldberg's response to my post of last Friday . (Jonah's original review is now online, by the way.)

First, Jonah notes (correctly enough) that however much I celebrate the relentless internal scrutiny of science, I'm still "certain" that "science is better than voodoo" and that liberal pluralism is preferable to totalitarian theocracy. But that was precisely my point. Jonah thinks that attending to our own fallibility, emphasizing the need for humility and doubt, will leave us too timorous to defend our own values. But a robust confidence in the meta-structures of scientific inquiry, on the one hand, and liberal democracy, on the other, is not just compatible with such a skeptical attitude, it depends upon it. Jonah's own argument is actually of the same form: He's essentially giving process-based reasons to think longstanding traditions are sound, even though, from our necessarily limited perspective, they will often seem prima facie irrational.

Second, I'll allow that describing Jonah's view as a demand to "freeze" culture is a bit of a caricature—albeit one that the institutional clarion call "stand athwart history yelling stop!" might be thought to invite. The real question, then, is when to defer and when to mutate. Hayek provides some guidance here, suggesting a preference for "immanent" criticism over wholesale rationalist redesign—a paradigm example being Frederick Douglass' "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," which argued that America was already implicitly committed to racial equality. I think it's significant (to return to where this all started) that Andrew Sullivan chose conscience, itself an evolved and culturally permeated faculty, as the proper lodestone. And, since Jonah's picked the example of gay marriage, I'll point out that the argument for including gay couples didn't drop out of the blue: It proceeds from familiar and deeply rooted liberal principles of equality under the law, and a shared understanding of the importance (for many people, anyway) of marriage to a fullfilled human life, combined with the relatively recent recognition that homosexuality is not, in fact, a species of mental illness. It is not obviously more dramatic than various other institutional adaptations marriage has undergone over the last few centuries—arguably less so, since the change involves only a small fraction of the population. My goal here is not to kick off yet another debate over gay marriage, about which I've written plenty already, but to point out that the theoretical framework Jonah's appealing to doesn't justify just a general deference to tradition per se, but rather a wariness toward projects of wholesale, ground up reconstruction—replacing marriage societywide with Na-style sibling clusters, say.

Finally, under the headline "Julian, Me and Justin Makes Three," Jonah links to a post in which "Justin Katz tries to get between me and Julian Sanchez." Jonah, I'm flattered, even a little curious, but you're a married man. Still, let me just address one qualm about the analogy between skeptical science and liberal societies. Katz doubts it will go through because while scientists have the shared goal of improving science (let this rather rosy view of actual scientists' motivations pass for the moment), the diverse members of a liberal society are trying improve their own lives. So let me make explicit what I was implicitly gesturing at in the original post: See Mill for the full argument there. With Mill and Nozick, I very much doubt there will be a One Best Way of Life if "Way" is understood to involve much detail, but also expect that people's self-interested "experiments in living" provide publicly benificial information without that being anyone's explicit intention.

Update: Well, I'd hoped I could get away with just outsourcing the meat of the argument here to Mill, as it's both familiar and unlikely to benefit tremendously from my paraphrase. But since Katz's follow-up post concludes I must not have understood his original objection, I suppose a bit of elaboration's in order. Nothing about the picture I'm painting here requires (as we do expect in science) convergence on some one or few models. This is possible, but I find it highly unlikely, and I imagine the optimal mix will change as conditions and populations do. All that's required is that people be similar enough that exposure to a variety of other people's "experiments in living" provides data to people trying to shape their own lives, whether or not they draw the same lessons from that data. If the result of this were, as Katz proposes, large numbers of people embracing Catholic sexual ethics over time, while I doubt I'd find this particularly congenial personally, I don't think it'd affect my attitude toward the general process, the point of which is not to produce the aggregate scenario I personally find most congenial.

NEXT: Tore and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad, Global Warming Day

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  1. Jonah, I’m flattered, even a little curious, but you’re a married man.

    Julian wins. Even if God comes down and says Goldberg is right, Julian still wins.

  2. Goldberg writes: “Let’s take gay marriage. I’m not a passionate opponent to gay marriage – as some close readers have gleened over the years. I favor civil unions and it’s my guess that gay marriage is ultimately inevitable. And yet, I still oppose it. Why? Truth be told, my primary – but not sole – objection isn’t religious. Rather, it’s that, unlike some relevant advocates of same-sex marriage, I am humble and skeptical about the extent of what I can know. I work from the Hayekian assumption* that there is a vast amount of social-evolutionary knowledge and utility embedded in traditional marriage that should be respected even if I cannot tell you what it is.”

    I find this deeply unsettling. If you have prior philosophical commitments (acceptance of gays and lesbians, an attendant sentiment that this acceptance merits consideration in public policy choices, etc.) and you have “islands of consciousness” that don’t mesh with those commitments, why wouldn’t you reconsider those prima facie problematic inconsistencies? What principles tell you which areas of our social lives are simple enough to reform at once and which ones you should hesitate about? Skepticism is fine, but, unless you’re a global skeptic, it requires epistemic principles telling you WHEN to be skeptical, WHEN to avoid action, and WHEN to embrace muddling through as best you can.

    What Goldberg is arguing for is really a crude intuitionism. People should never trust other people’s intuitions to give rise to a just society.

  3. Great post. Thoughtful, thought-provoking, even funny. The one thing it is missing is a picture of that crying Santorum girl.
    Ah, well, I am still waiting for the perfect post.

  4. Why? Truth be told, my primary – but not sole -objection isn’t religious. Rather, it’s that, unlike some relevant advocates of same-sex marriage, I am humble and skeptical about the extent of what I can know.

    Bullshit his argument isn’t religious! Just what are we supposed to “know,” Jonah, that we have to be skeptical of those who demand equality for homosexuals? We can’t “know” that there isn’t a celestial fascist sitting up on the sky passing bigoted judgment upon those whose sex acts displease him so we have to act like there is one anyway?

    Jonah, take your thinly veiled Pascal’s Wager and shove it up your ass. You certainly aren’t fooling me.

  5. Humans are, like all animals, primarily emotive in nature. Recognizing emotive prejudices for what they are is a first step in making the emotional shift from resistance to eventual acceptance. In the meantime, inconsistancy occurs.

  6. “Being humble about we cannot know” comes in as a worse argument than “principled homophobia” or Derbyshire’s yuck sense.

  7. Go easy on Jonah. The offices of NR seem to be stuck in the middle 19th century. Compared to his colleagues the man’s a damn revolutionary. He may actually make it to the 21st century before it’s over.

  8. I’ll give that his argument contra gay marriage seems like it would be held by someone who will more swiftly come around to the position that is okay than the other two that I mentioned, but that is precisely because there is pretty much nothing to the argument.

    Marriage is a social outlier in that it is one of the few things that gays are barred from. This seems to be kind of the way things go in the movement to legal equality in this country.

    Brown v. Board was seen as revolutionary at the time, and as a jurisprudential matter it was. However, it occured in a country that was, for the most part, against the excesses of Jim Crow in the South (though not the South itself, of course).

    Gay marriage is moving to this point, as it is a pretty big deal to people who care about it (gays and those who are against gay marriage) as was desegregation (blacks and white Southerners). This is despite the fact that gays have most of the rights and are discriminated against much less than they used to be. Once the tipping point is reached (which will probably be a function of older people dying off; the younger one is, the more likely one is to be not opposed to gay marriage).

    Gay marriage is really just the endpoint of the progression of gays from pariahs or, at best, a hidden group into full members of society. It isn’t such a big step, it just seems like it is to some people, and if the normalization of gays was going cause all holy hell, it would have already.

  9. Brown v. Board was seen as revolutionary at the time, and as a jurisprudential matter it was.

    Not really. The groundwork had been put in place for 20 yrs previous to it, with cases involving universities. It was a slow progression, not a bolt out of the blue (at least legally, socially some might not have been paying close attention).

    If you start with Stonewall, gays have had a slow progression into the American conscience. As you said, it’s not as if they’ve suddenly fell from the sky. Goldberg’s position might have made sense in 1969, less so now.

  10. What irks me about the social evolutionists isn’t that their social/biological analogy is inapt, but that they don’t bother carrying that analogy to its logical conclusions. Either that or they simply don’t understand evolution.

    Evolution is essentially a grand Pragmatic experiment, and “Truth” is neither the engine nor result of that experiment. Neither is utility, contrasting actual Pragmatism. Self-perpetuation is the thing in evolution, which is why sexual selection is the most important of the ‘adaptive’ forces in evolution. Self-perpetuation is also the thing in social evolution. It’s no coincidence that the dominant religions in the world have violently evangelical pasts (and slightly less violently evangelical existences today), nor is it a coincidence that genetically successful individuals spend enormous energy on sexual reproduction, which is essentially wasted energy if environmental adaptations are the goal. When someone can show me that large testicles represent ‘Truth,’ enlightenment, or a benefit to society, then I’ll accept that the Judeo-Christian tradition, for instance, is environmentally adaptive or beneficial simply because it’s demonstrably self-perpetuating. Moreover, the parallel to genetic drift in social evolution — the non-adaptive spread of ideas — allows selectively neutral but self-perpetuating traditions to spread without serious adaptive pressures, particularly given the speed at which ideas can travel between cultures. But then again, the conservative social evolutionists apparently don’t know about genetic drift, because real evolutionary theory doesn’t matter much in those circles…

  11. As a scientist, Jonah’s idiotic voodoo statement bugs me. A lot. The fact is, most of voodoo’s statements (about dolls and pins and pain) are scientific statements, that is, they make claims about the world. It just turns out that they are wrong, much like alchemy and Lamarckism.

    In science, you can describe things as belonging to one of two classes: either supported by empirical evidence, or not supported by empirical evidence. Furthermore, you can divide the second category into a number of sub-categories: things actively disputed by empirical evidence, things for which there is and can be no empirical evidence and things for which there is not right now empirical evidence but for which there may be in the future. The statement “the earth is 6,000 years old” falls into the first, “I have an immortal soul” into the second and “There is extraterrestrial intelligence” into the third. But the first two broad classifications are the really important ones.

    Jonah’s statement was a clear attempt to categorize Julian as some sort of dirty naturalist to his (likely overwhelmingly christian) audience. The fact that Jonah believes in many things that are not now nor will ever be supported by empirical evidence speaks worse of his cognitive abilities than Julian’s support of empirical evidence. Once you believe one thing unsupportable by empirical evidence, why not many? Why not believe that we can remake Iraq into a model of Arab Democracy despite evidence to the contrary? Why not believe that President Bush is managing the war well, despite evidence to the contrary? It’s easy for someone who has already abandoned empiricism.

  12. It’s interesting that Goldberg brings up environmentalism. It sounds like his ‘cautionary’ approach to gay marriage is really the ‘pre-cautionary’ position some environmentalists want us to take regarding scientific experimentation. So, Goldberg’s position would have ruled out Borlaug’s green revolution that saved millions of lives and was ultimately and ironically a boon to the environment. The same could be said of the current debate over GMO’s. No implementation can take place until decades, maybe centuries, of lab experiments have proven no possibilty of harm can occur to anyone, anywhere. And of course, with this approach, science and innovation grinds to a halt. Isn’t this what was is meant by standing athwart history and yelling stop? Yes, it isn’t that Goldberg opposes any sorts of social experimentation, he just wants any new innovation or twist that comes around to wait a millenium or two before it’s legally allowed to go forward and some sort of litmus test of low to zero harm has been passed (forgetting that many kinds of harm – see the Borlaug argument – could have occurred by not allowing the innovations to go forward).

    Regarding the specific argument against gay marriage. What exactly is the fear here? Gay marriage will not replace traditional heterosexual marriage, only supplement it. What Hayek argued against, if I read him right, was ‘replacing’ traditional legal systems and social customs with new ones or borrowing wholesale from other groups (hey everybody, I know what let’s do, let’s everybody live in kibbutzes…) to replace traditional systems. But how does the allowance for gay marriage do that. Heterosexuals aren’t goint to stop getting married. All it means is that more people are going to get married. Isn’t that what conservatives want anyway?

  13. Happy Jack, it was seen as pretty radical at the time by legal scholars, and it is popularly today imagined to be so, if mostly viewed as inevitable. (There is sort of the popular understanding of the law. Brown, Roe, etc. not actually being about what most laymen think.)

    I believe Sweatt (desegregation of UT law school) on the grounds that it was not possible to be separate but equal for law schools since they have so much institutional history. Sweatt and others like it made Brown much more conceivable legally, but they don’t necessarily lead to the legal conclusion that segregation is inherently unequal.

    Anyways, my point is that like Brown was seen as a big social deal, gay marriage is similiar, despite the fact that they are both kind of at the end of the journey for legal equality for blacks and gays.

    Goldberg’s position actually should be the kind of opinion that we should expect to see now. It makes no sense in light of where gays are now. It is almost exactly like the unease that some people feel regarding interracial couples.

    It is an atavism whose supporting arguments have fallen away and is now about to be pushed over in the wind.

    (I’d like to apologize for the crappy metaphors, but I will not apologize for using atavism and derivatives twice in one day.)

  14. sodee pop,

    You hit the nail on the head when you said:

    “Gay marriage will not replace traditional heterosexual marriage, only supplement it. What Hayek argued against, if I read him right, was ‘replacing’ traditional legal systems and social customs with new ones or borrowing wholesale from other groups (hey everybody, I know what let’s do, let’s everybody live in kibbutzes…) to replace traditional systems. But how does the allowance for gay marriage do that. Heterosexuals aren’t goint to stop getting married.”

    Actually I’m not an expert on Hayek but the idea that the implementation of gay marriage is replacing an old institution is imbedded in Jonah’s argument. Supposedly something like %5 of the population (or less) is thought to be gay, and the idea that gay marriage is going to make heterosexuals stop getting married seems like a knowledge claim. If we want to exercise modesty about how much we know, why not let Massachusetts implement gay marriage and see how it goes?

    It seems like Jonah’s apprehension turns on the question of whether gay marriage will somehow damage the institution of gay marriage. But in order to have that fear, you have to think (on some level) that there are straight people who will want to marry someone of their own gender, or that homosexuality is like a “meme” and will spread or something. Those attitudes don’t seem to flow from empiricism, but rather from willful ignorance.

    I’m from the Jon Stewart school of thought on gay marriage, which is basically that I like girls and I don’t want to have to marry a dude. But if it somehow turns out that it’s not mandatory, then I guess I won’t have any reason to oppose it any more.

    I guess Jonah needs more “evidence” of what will happen to the existing institution of marriage if gay people are allowed to tie the knot. Well, with that position, maybe he will adjust one day. Someone needs to ask him at some point in the future if he’s seen enough “evidence” one way or the other.

  15. In my previous post, I said:

    “It seems like Jonah’s apprehension turns on the question of whether gay marriage will somehow damage the institution of gay marriage.”

    Of course I should have said:

    “It seems like Jonah’s apprehension turns on the question of whether gay marriage will somehow damage the institution of TRADITIONAL marriage.”

  16. Julian, you are awesome. Excellent, and hilarious.

  17. this post is another shining example of why the ladies love cool J. It’s an unusually thoughtful comments thread as well! I find it difficult to believe that Jonah Goldberg actually, in his heart, opposes gay marriage. he strikes me as a ‘closet tolerant’–a republican who is personally fine with gay people but makes a public show of bigotry (well, not bigotry in this case, but something milder). it’s my sense that he’s more or less institutionally required to oppose gay marriage, but given that he’s not a homophobe he’s got nothing left to offer but this very thin sub-Burkean gruel.

  18. My operating theory for paying attention to any particular pundit is that it is safe to ignore legacy hires and anyone published by Regnery.

  19. Tell me we aren’t going to use terms like “robust confidence” from now on as a way to pretend we aren’t saying “certainty”.

  20. I subscribe to both National Review and Reason. I just don’t know who to root for…

    Regardless, a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking exchange on both sides. [Although I will say it is odd to have both The Corner and Hit & Run open and clicking to, from, forward, back, up, down from one site to the other].

    There should be a neutral website where great debates like these can happen all in one place… or a back and forth series in the two magazines. I was going through some old academic journals from the 30s/40s where that seemed to be a popular exercise.

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