Even more on multicultural dystopias

Some things that are, again, too long for the comments.


Some commenters think they have a knockdown argument by bringing up possible atrocities under a multicultural order. Slavery seems to be a popular example. I think this is a very weak response. Let me explain why.

In the US, opponents of gay marriage and other homosexual rights often argue that if homosexuality is granted legal status, this opens the door to all sorts of behaviors traditionally thought of as sexual perversions. Bestiality is a popular example, as is necrophilia. (As an Oklahoma senator recently put it, “Sexual orientation is a very vague word that could be extended to extremes like necrophilia.”) Many with religious right political convictions treat this as a knockdown argument exposing the absurdity of an anything-goes legal regime regarding sexuality. Where does it stop?

They’re not being entirely delusional. By giving legal recognition to one kind of sexual behavior once considered unthinkable, you do, even if ever so slightly, open the door to legitimizing other sexual behaviors beyond the pale. Moreover, quite a few conservatives suspect that the liberal philosophy behind extending recognition to homosexual unions cannot sustain a barrier to, say, necrophilia. They can imagine a horror story of a future, perhaps a few decades hence, where necrophilia is accepted since it only involves one consenting person and there can be no possible harm done to a dead body, after all. And indeed, once “perversions” become a matter of political negotiation rather than a complete taboo, no one can guarantee where the political process will lead. If preventing necrophilia is a matter of overwhelming concern for someone, dominating over all other interests, they probably will want to keep traditional morality and laws intact.

I think the proper response to such a conservative is to point out that they are letting their imagination run away with them. None of the actual proposals under discussion have any connection to necrophilia. There is no constituency demanding necrophilic rights. And if they think that liberal political thought has no resources to discourage necrophilia, they are speaking from a position of ignorance. Liberal thought may not deliver as absolutely thundering a condemnation of necrophiliac behavior as traditional religious morality, but for practical, legal purposes, there is no reason to think sanctioned necrophilia should be on anyone’s list of concerns.

Indeed, I think we can pretty clearly see that what the religious right politicians are doing here is moral posturing. I’m probably being too charitable even by trying to explore why they’re not being entirely delusional. Maybe US conservatives do have a case to make against recognizing homosexual partnerships. But worries about bestiality or necrophilia are not part of any case that deserves to be taken seriously.

I think that bringing up slavery when discussing multicultural proposals actually in play is similarly mistaken. Slavery is not on the table here. There is no slippery slope. Even religious traditions that have historically sanctioned slavery are now part of a consensus that slavery is not acceptable. (Let’s not blow a few Saudi clerics out of proportion.) They have, in fact, developed internal, theological reasons for their stand. Anyone who says that giving ethnic and religious communities recognition opens the door to slavery should take a deep breath, take a closer look at what the actual political debate is all about, and try to come back with something more substantial.


Many liberals seem quite convinced that their favored regime of individual rights approximately maximizes freedom, or at least does a clearly better job of providing freedom than its rivals.

Things are not so clear cut as that. Almost everyone agrees that freedom is a good thing, so it might seem that considerations of freedom are a promising basis for a universally acceptable political order. Why freedom should be the only consideration, or at least the overwhelmingly dominant consideration, is a good question. But let me go along with that modern assumption.

Even then, the problem is that what people mean by freedom can be quite different. There are different sorts of freedom. Some may be incommensurable. Some conflict. Speaking of increasing or maximizing freedom seems uncomfortably similar to talking about maximizing utility. Putting all “utilities” together and adding them on a common scale turns out to be unworkable. And so, perhaps, with freedom.

Even within the liberal tradition, we have competing notions of how to handle freedom. For example, libertarians emphasize self-ownership and freedom of contract. Any interference in market exchanges becomes coercion: a violation of freedom. But other liberals, who I am considerably more sympathetic to, take an approach where they try to improve everyone’s capabilities to make choices. This version of liberalism is in direct, and I think irreconcilable, conflict with a libertarian or neoliberal vision. There are other ideas about how to realize “freedom,” going further left in the liberal tradition. Putting all these together with right-wing libertarian concepts, it’s easy to think that even within the liberal tradition, there no single coherent, commanding idea of freedom.

And then, we can step outside liberal thought. For example, in many philosophical and religious traditions, there is the idea that freedom is not the same thing as power to do what you want. You can be as technically free as you like under just about every liberal version of freedom, but you’re not truly free as long as you’re the slave of your passions. Freedom comes through self-discipline and the cultivation of virtue, including the ability to discern what is good and freely act in accordance with the good.

Religious traditions have most commonly been home to this sort of conception of freedom. It leads to notions that seem very odd to a liberal, for example, that freedom consists in submitting to the will of God. But from a religious point of view, this makes good sense. Those devout people who say that they experience a deep freedom in submission are not being confused. Monastic life, following the dictates of the Church, discipleship in a Sufi order, and any one of a large array of practices that are available to ordinary believers as well as religious overachievers, does seem to produce a sense of freedom in many. I am not prepared to say that this is obviously self-delusion, false consciousness, or what-have-you. Religious people who say that their religious freedom is restricted due to the roadblocks to community thrown up by a liberal order are not talking nonsense, particularly if it’s this sense of freedom lurking in the background.

So, in negotiating a political order, we are also inevitably privileging some forms of freedom over others. It’s comparatively easy to agree on what constitutes obvious forms of unfreedom. Someone locked in a cell, continually subjected to sleep deprivation and loud music at random intervals, forced to beg for her food—everyone agrees that this is about as unfree as it gets. But once obvious deprivations are removed, liberty is not a single thing that can be increased and measured on a common scale.

Freedom as submission holds no attraction for me, and trying to achieve some coherence is as far as I can go in preventing slavery to my passions. You will only pry my chocolate away from my cold, dead hands. When a religious leader says that everyone should find freedom in submission as they understand it, I get pissed off. But that’s who I am, and the sort of people I tend to befriend. Others are different. As a political actor, I have to figure out ways to live together with difference.

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