Monday, June 4, 2012

On Cultivating Moral Excellence

A friend sent me an article defending "traditional marriage," inspiring me to give voice to some thoughts of my own about cultivating moral excellence.
What these defenses always leave out are the negative consequences of the traditions they defend.  Before contraception, and even after it (in some places), one product of the traditional marriage was the unwanted infant (since taboos have never stopped people from having sex, nor have they given women any unique control over their reproductive capacity).  As I see it, what children need in order to survive is adult attention, from people who actually care about them.  In traditional societies, this attention sometimes comes from a group much larger than the nuclear family (which doesn't exist in its current form until inheritance laws bring it into being -- disinheriting bastards to benefit their brothers -- and factory culture takes it up as a useful tool for exploiting poor people, who need to exist to run the machines but cannot be too independent, lest they leave the factory or take it over themselves; the factory owners push nuclear families because they provide workers sufficiently hardy to survive and reproduce, and sufficiently fragile that they can be controlled: they are not autonomous units the way non-Western families often are). 

The Mosuo (in northern China) managed (and continue to manage) to raise perfectly healthy, happy children without anything like traditional marriage (in the Western sense): they had their own traditions, which involved sexual "promiscuity" (from a Western perspective) and a family in which children were raised by aunts and uncles.

Someone has to look after the children.  No one intelligent is denying that (or thinking that we can pass the buck to robots or the nanny state).  But it is not really true that every child in the world would be best off in a heterosexual household defined by traditional Western gender roles.  The traditional Western family is still producing a lot of unwanted babies (much less since the arrival of contraception, but they are still out there, mostly in places that are late in coming to the Western model of civilization, a model that isn't perfect by any means).  Why can't homosexual couples adopt these kids?  Why shouldn't they?  I see no reason.  (If there are reasons, they are the same reasons that would disqualify a heterosexual couple: indigent and/or abusive people should not raise kids, no matter what their sexual orientation, which is actually irrelevant.)

The backbone of moral traditions worth keeping is something more than simply sex ("it's dangerous!") or duration ("we've been doing it this way forever!").  Really useful moral values encourage the creation and duration of solid human relationships.  There is no perfect, Platonic formula for the perfect human relationship (e.g. marriage) -- just as there is no perfect, Platonic formula for the perfect human diet (or the perfect human religion).  Arguments that proceed as though there is such a formula lose me from the get-go, since they invariably come from ignorance (either the defender is unaware of complexities and historical issues that she ignores, or she is assuming that her audience is ignorant and is playing them for fools: in either case, I remain unpersuaded).  I am open to the idea that we need to find ways to get children greater access to meaningful adult attention.  I am not at all convinced that fighting gay marriage is useful in that regard; in fact, I suspect it is counter-productive (hurting children more than helping, not least because it is wasting time and resources that might otherwise go to them instead of to businessmen masquerading as mouthpieces for God).  I am all about increasing human compassion and sharing it more.  I just don't see defenses of traditional marriage doing that.  Attacking someone else's family because it doesn't look like mine doesn't make either family any better, and it certainly doesn't do anything material for kids without families.  It seems like mental masturbation, to me, reminding me of the quote from Thomas Merton:
"They [in this case, defenders of the traditional family] are great promoters of useless work.  They love to organize meetings and banquets and conferences and lectures.  They print circulars, write letters, talk for hours on the telephone in order that they may gather a hundred people together in a large room where they will all fill the air with smoke and make a great deal of noise and roar at one another and clap their hands and stagger home at last patting one another on the back with the assurance that they have all done great things to spread the Kingdom of God" (from New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 83).
This is not to deny that there is any place for such activity (even masturbation has its rightful place in human life), but it hardly belongs at the center of human consciousness.  If it becomes the focus of our efforts, then we have seriously lost our way (in the same way that the compulsive masturbator who never pursues a human relationship becomes detached from the real purpose of sex, which is to draw people together into vibrant, vital relationships that enable and enrich life).  I am all about cultivating those vibrant, vital relationships.  From what I see, they do not require strict adherence to Western gender roles (though some people find those roles very fulfilling: that is perfectly fine!).  That doesn't mean that they exist in total anarchy: issues of integrity, honesty, and (yes) jealousy will always be important in human relationships.  In my mind, these are the things that need work: real defenders of the family cultivate integrity, honesty, and non-possessiveness (the opposite of jealousy).  They care for their relationships the way a farmer looks after his plants, tending them carefully every day: they don't have time to spray pesticides all over their neighbors' crops, in a mistaken attempt to help him out; they are too busy looking after their own.  

When people come to me all riled up about defending marriage, it seems (to me) to show an insecurity on their part -- a fear that their own relationships are inadequate, an idea that they might abandon them suddenly if society didn't threaten them with terrible punishments should they attempt to do so.  They come to me from a position that treats all people as dangerous animals to be corralled and broken (like wild horses).  There is some truth to this position, but (to continue the analogy) the best horse-tamers are those who don't break their animals.  They simply befriend them and show them new ways of being.  Kindness is a better teacher than harsh discipline, here -- I think -- especially when the discipline has no other justification than atavistic fear rooted in ignorance.  (My wife is always pointing this out to me with the kids, when I come down too harshly on them.  If I terrify them every time they do anything I don't like, they don't really learn anything except an atavistic fear of their father, and possibly of certain things whose significance totally escapes them.  I can be firm with them, but that firmness has to be kind, and it really ought to be rational, too.  Otherwise, it hinders their moral development more than it helps -- turning them into robots who attempt to do my will unthinking instead of wise people who see reality and react to it intelligently on their own.) From my perspective, I care about the family too deeply to defend it the way many social conservatives do these days.  This does not make me a stereotypical social liberal, in my view.  

Side note on my strange position between conservatism and liberalism.  It is really funny.  Everyone firmly on one side sees all these nefarious conspiracies on the other: depending on which set of friends I talk with on any given day, I am alternately a card-carrying member of the KKK or the Weathermen -- a reactionary fascist who loves big business or a fire-breathing communist determined to make sure every kindergartner in America knows how to have anal sex.  What nonsense!  There are not really vast grassroots conspiracies in American politics, in my experience: just people at the top exploiting people at the bottom in tried and true ways to maintain their position, throwing the occasional bone to an ideological cause they believe in "because that's the right thing to do" -- as it is, sometimes.  We all muddle through as best we can in typical human fashion, and it isn't all bad or good.  It is what it is.  Making the best of it seems to mean letting go of the illusion that it is all perfectly manageable, that there exists any absolute good that can be pursued without any bad consequences.  Aurea mediocritas is the watchword that makes sense: we live and die well not by extremes, but by "the golden mean" -- an imperfect balance between "good" and "evil" that keeps our relationships intact without making them easy.  As I need a little arsenic to remain alive, so I need a little fascism and communism now and then, but never too much of either.

I care about people.  I seek to understand them.  I want to help them better themselves where I can.  I want to give them room to grow into what it is that they find elevating and inspiring.  I do not seek to impose my own vision of beauty upon them, not because I do not have one or because beauty does not matter to me, but because my kind of beauty is one whose very existence depends on creative freedom.  My culture thrives best outside the hot-house, outside the narrowly controlled environment where every external factor appears regulated and controlled.  I do not need to be defended from the strangeness of my neighbors: I accept that strangeness, as I hope (and ask) that they accept mine.  I look after the beams in my own eye, and let others see to their own motes: if they ask me for help, I will give them whatever I can, and they can use it or not as they see fit, but I cannot presume to legislate for them (any more than I would presume to write music for Bach or compose poetry for Homer: a man's work is sacred to him, in my view, even when it is not very good). The best moral censor in the public arena is the one who contributes the most good, not the one who wages the loudest campaigns against whatever he happens to regard as bad.  Quietly exemplifying the principles one believes in trumps grandstanding in every case, regardless of what those principles happen to be.  (How you talk is much less revealing than how you live, and you live better when you don't spend your whole life thinking about how you talk, as though talking were the most useful aspect of living.  Maybe I should rethink all the energy I spend writing things like this blog, eh?)

No comments:

Post a Comment