How Our New Definition of Freedom Causes Cruelty*
In the past, freedom meant to ability to obey one’s beliefs. Now, freedom is the ability to require others to obey one’s own beliefs about oneself.
By Anna Mussman
Chinese economics professor Xie Zuoshi has suggested employing economic rationality to address his country’s staggering imbalance between the sexes. Within five years, something like 30 million Chinese men will be unable to find a bride. Legalize polyandry, he says. Let multiple men share a wife.
His viral blog post has provoked a storm of criticism. However, a number of voices—especially among the poor, who are hardest hit by this problem—are supportive. A university student commented,
“When there’s no better way, why don’t we get rid of so-called morality and solve society’s problems?”
Historic morality can seem blind to an individual’s pain. The Chinese are dealing with the ghosts of millions of sex-selective abortions, but we Americans also face social pain. Among our most politically prominent issues is the divisive question of how to balance the rights, happiness, and belief systems of citizens who disagree on fundamental definitions of sexuality and humanity.
Obviously, Traditional Morality Seems Unkind
For instance, traditional morality would say that anatomical males must stay out of girl’s restrooms, that it is downright harmful to embrace gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” or “xe” while tossing out belief in the differences between the sexes, and that society ought not to recognize a romantic union of two same-sex individuals (or any grouping of three or more individuals of either sex) as fulfilling the definition of marriage. Simply put, traditional morality would say that humans cannot define themselves in ways that contradict natural law, biological reality, and historic morality.
This sounds harsh to modern ears. Unkind. Cruel to the individual who suffers genuine pain when society doesn’t recognize his or her identity and treats his or her desired lifestyle as unnatural or wrong.
Furthermore, it can seem hypocritical. We conservatives happily enjoy democracy, free speech, and other fruits of individualism; yet we balk when fellow citizens want to support the ability of gays and LGBTQIA+ individuals to freely live their own vision of themselves. Why can’t we just put on a smile and an “#IllGoWithYou” button? How can we obstruct expansion of the individual’s right to self-define when individualism has brought our society so many things that we count as good—so many freedoms that make our own lives better?
Our stand is not contradictory, nor mean-spirited, even though it may appear so. It is based upon two realizations. The first is that progressive claims about sexuality are not simply an expansion of enfranchisement and freedom: instead, they encompass a sharp break in our understanding of what it means to possess liberty. The second is that when we cast aside the encumbrance of objective, historic morality, we imperil the weakest and most vulnerable among us by redefining what it means to be human.
The Group Versus the Individual
The rights and desires of individuals will always conflict wherever two or more humans are gathered together. There must always be some system of deciding who yields to whom. Old Europe tended to prioritize the good of the group as embodied in its ruler.
In contrast, many of the immigrants who settled the future United States (such as the Puritans and separatists of New England and the Roman Catholics of Maryland) left the Old World to live in accordance with their personal beliefs. Our revolution, defended by Americans on ideological grounds, cast off the idea that loyalty to one’s ruler (and thereby to his interpretation of the group’s good) ought to be prioritized when rights and desires came into conflict. Our new nation was built on the claim that the beliefs of an individual should receive priority.
The United States has never been an idyllic land of perfectly consistent freedom of conscience, of course, but our national narrative emphasized such freedom as the ideal by which we lived. Older American history textbooks focus on courageous figures who were willing to fight and die for the right to do their own duty as they saw it. The message is that each American must be allowed reasonable freedom to disagree with authority on matters of principle, because principles are immensely important.
That was how we once defined liberty. Now—thanks to postmodernism’s rejection of absolute truth—we moderns argue that society must define each person in whatever way he wishes, regardless of the principles of others, because principles are subjective and therefore irrelevant. In the past, freedom meant to ability to obey one’s beliefs. Now, freedom is the ability to require others to obey one’s own beliefs about oneself.
My Freedom Requires Constraining Yours
This prioritization of the right to self-define is widespread. It is in action when a high school principal announces that by making homecoming court gender-neutral rather than sticking with the traditional “king and queen” format, “[T]his gets us closer. . . to making each and every student in our building feel like a valued, recognized member of our community.”
It is also apparent when a woman’s desire for an abortion or patient’s wish for euthanasia trumps a doctor’s personal abhorrence for being the instrument of death. It is visible when tax funds provide prison inmates with gender-reassignment surgery and when a psychologist helps a “trans-abled” woman blind herself. Perhaps it also a factor when countries like the United Kingdom consider treating local Sharia courts as binding arbitration enforced by U.K. courts—thereby allowing Muslim residents to define themselves as individuals who live under Muslim law.
Now that we have shifted into a new system of prioritization, we have tackled a social overhaul that will bring us consistency. Group after group and person after person will assert their right to self-define. Yet the sum total of freedom is not increasing. As we struggle societally to find a way to live out this focus on personal choice, we have fallen into an ideological trap that strips the vulnerable of protection. That is because, perhaps without even noticing it, we have changed our definition of what it means to possess the rights of personhood.
A group of ethicists associated with Oxford University provide an example of this. They say babies aren’t people. To explain their claim that killing newborns is not murder, they argue that newborns “Lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual” because “We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.” That is, because a baby cannot be self-aware—cannot assert the right to define him- or herself in any way—he or she does not possess the rights of a fully human being.
Objective Truth Protects Everyone Equally
Before we rejected the existence of absolute truth, any Western debate about how to recognize a human being was shaped by Judeo-Christian beliefs (that is, by the assurance that all humans are created by God and that all are valuable).
God, or at least philosophical discussions of natural law that were based on historic Christian morality, provided a definition of humanity that was external. It laid out not only who was human, but also how a human ought or ought not to behave. Such unchanging morality might seem callous toward the pain of an individual who wants to live beyond the bounds of these laws. Yet because every individual was equally subservient to revealed truth, all were protected.
When we discard the idea that objective truth defines the parameters of what it means to be human, we have lost a solid definition of humanity. This makes it perilously easy to slide into definitions that omit our neighbors. When the right to self-define and express oneself in order to feel happy became the most important part of being human, those activities can begin to feel like the definition of what it means to be human. It begins to seem less self-evident that those who are incapable of making choices possess the same intrinsic value as the rest of humanity.
The older prioritization of the individual’s right to perform his duty according to his own conscience was never elevated to quite this defining of a position. This is because the ultimate focus was not on the individual’s choices, but on the importance of transcendent truth (the same truth that ruled a baby to be as fully human as the most articulate ethicist).
Here’s Where the Cruelty Arises
It is common to say that society oppresses and mistreats those whom it conceives of as “the other.” When people become “the other,” we can drop bombs on them or refuse to let them ride in the front of the bus. It doesn’t feel like injustice because we tell ourselves that those people are not the same as ourselves.
The man in a coma, the unborn girl, the senile, the simple-minded. They cannot self-define. Does this make them a little less important, a little less real, a little less human? Does it make them “the other?” Tragically, to many of us, it does. The effect of this attitude is likely to grow ever crueler. Already, patients in Belgium are euthanized without their own consent. The unborn in our own country can be dismembered and slain (and even, it appears, sold for parts). Killing babies post-birth is gaining support among college students as well as ethicists.
It seems kind to let each person self-define. Yet when only the individual can define himself, who will define those who cannot speak? Who will assert “the other’s’” right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? It becomes impossible for anyone to truly protect the humans who are unable to call themselves men, women, gender-neutral, gay, straight, nerds, goths, Wiccans, Muslims, Christians, or anything else. They become mere clusters of cells, mere animal flesh and blood, mere inconveniences to be exploited or eliminated—no more human than Christian women in the hands of ISIS, Jewish subjects in the hands of Nazi medical researchers, or Tutsi beneath Hutu machetes.
Getting rid of “so-called morality” is often done for kindly reasons. Yet without it, we place each other at the mercy of the same human race that has already perpetrated every outrage, genocide, and oppressive tyranny in history.
When conservatives protest an individual’s effort to redefine him- or herself as something beyond the parameters of biology or traditional morality, we are not hypocrites who want to have our liberty and eat it, too. Instead, we are seeking to maintain the system that protects those of us who cannot speak for ourselves. By doing so, we attempt to preserve everyone’s humanity.
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