October 31, 2014

Government and Conscience: What Are the Limits of Liberty?

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A comment on Mike D’Virgilio’s essay “The Illiberalism of Modern Liberalism” brings up some important questions, specifically how far the notion of liberty goes: Can and should opinions and personal choices that one person or a powerful group of people consider illiberal or flat-out wrong be protected from government intrusion?

Kevin Burton Smith brings up these issues in his comment, quoting from Mike’s article in the first paragraph of his observations:

“Most devout American religious believers have zero desire to determine how other people live their personal lives.”

Really?

When did that start?

So “most devout American religious believers” don’t care if women have legal access to abortion? If two men are allowed to marry? If a man and a woman are permitted to engage in sex before marriage? If contraception is available to teenagers without parental consent? So they won’t vote against allowing other people to have those rights because they “have zero desire to determine how other people live their personal lives”?

Yeah, right.

I cringe when I hear things like the McCaskill incident, and other excesses of intolerant “liberalism,” as the author puts it, but let’s not pretend that there isn’t a whole political agenda in place that panders to the intolerance of many “religious believers,” and does in fact promise to “interfere with other people’s lives.” . . .

Those who scream loudest about getting “the government off our backs” don’t seem to mind having the same government interfere with the personal lives of gays, women, the poor and numerous other groups.

As anyone who dares to flip from one news channel to another can plainly see, there is intolerance and hypocrisy on both sides of the political divide in this country, especially among fundamentalist extremists, be they of the left or the right. To pretend otherwise, or to pretend that it’s the exclusive domain of one side or another, is simply disingenuous; itself an example of hypocrisy.

Kevin is correct to note that extremism is by no means the exclusive property of the political left nor right, unbelievers nor religious people.

And I agree that the question of which position to support on these issues should indeed be about “getting ‘the government off our backs,” as Kevin correctly puts it. The important thing that needs to be pursued beyond where Kevin goes in his comment, however, is to consider all the parties involved in such matters and all the rights that come into play. It is in these  second-, third-, and nth-order considerations that I think the issues become most interesting and the answers most important.

Let’s take Kevin’s examples is a good starting point. No one, repeat no one, in the United States is using government to prevent same-sex marriages, access to abortion, or premarital sex. No one.

Consider this simple reality: Anyone who wants to marry another person of the same sex may do so. There are plenty of churches that sanction these marriages, and no law prevents such couples from living together and declaring themselves married. None. Zero.

That is what liberty should indeed allow, and it is not being prevented by anyone in the United States, nor is there any legislative push anywhere in the United States to do so. Nowhere is there any law being proposed (to my knowledge) that would interfere with a church’s right to bless any marriage it may choose to recognize, nor to prevent any couple from living together and claiming themselves to be married. No such liberty is currently being suppressed, nor is there any activity taking place to pass such laws.

What is at issue is whether others who do not wish to recognize those marriages should be forced to do so, an incursion against a liberty of conscience that absolutely ought to be protected and never abridged in any way, or that the entire society should be forced to redefine marriage against their consent, likewise. That is what really makes this political issue a matter of liberty, and the left is on the anti-liberal, coercive side of it.

The same is true of access to contraceptives, etc. What people are objecting to (at present, anyway, which is what is at issue between Misters Burton and D’Virgilio) is the government forcing people to pay for health-care services that go against their conscience. No society with any respect for liberty would do such a contemptible thing.

Regarding the matter of premarital sex, here too there is no suppression of such a choice in today’s society, except as regards statutory rape, which is a matter of protecting the female’s right of consent. Where are the places in today’s United States that have  laws against premarital sex? I do not know of any. (And why, I should add, are other places’ laws in this regard any  business of people who do not choose to live there? The right  to form a community of values is another fundamental liberty that should not be summarily abridged.)

Concerning access to contraceptives without parental consent, the issue is whether the government ought to intrude into the choices of parents regarding how to bring up their children. Clearly the decision of a government that purveyors of such paraphernalia should or should not be consulted before these are sold to minors is a matter of the government favoring one liberty (that of a child to obtain contraceptives) or another (that of a parent to bring up their child without government interference). Those who wish the government to stay out of the matter and let parents decide these things are clearly asserting a liberty, regardless of whether one might agree with their particular choice in the matter.

As to abortion, the issue at hand is whether one thinks that killing a living being or fetus in the womb is a violation of a fundamental right the protection which is one of the few justifiable activities of government. Those who are pro-abortion tend to deny that the being in the womb is human life, and those that are anti-abortion say that it is. Both sides are for protection of liberty in this matter: pro-aborts see the liberty of commerce in being paid to kill fetuses as the important thing in need of protection, and anti-aborts see the protection of the liberty of a child to be born without undue interference as the paramount consideration. Neither side, in my view, has the mother as its primary consideration. Both are mainly concerned about the rights of other parties in the matter.

In sum, Mike D’Virgilio can speak for himself and has done so, but the way I read his article is as saying that American religious believers are not in the process of establishing any government-enforced hegemony over the sexual choices of those outside their denominations. They claim only the right to be left alone to decide such matters for themselves.

That appears to me to be correct. As to the actions of progressives in these matters, it appears to me that they are indeed in the business of coercing everyone, by force of law, to accept their moral constructs. As the Obama administration’s contraception and abortifacients ruling suggests, for many in our society an alleged concern for liberty means protecting the conscience only of those who agree with them.

I should direct such individuals to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, with its astute observations about the temptation to consider some people more “equal” than others and their liberties more important than those of the disfavored groups.

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