Saturday, March 25, 2006

Morality & human dignity

At a recent news conference the Australian Prime Minister said, “We don’t like the number of abortions. We think it’s too high.” As a measure to tackle the problem, funding was announced for counselling services for pregnant women.

Feminist Leslie Cannold doesn’t like this policy. In an Age article, she argued that counselling should not be aimed at supporting women to continue their pregnancies, but should simply foster the goal of female autonomy. She wrote:

There is one key feature that attaches to all legitimate counselling: the commitment to fostering a woman's autonomy. At the heart of all ethical medical practice, you will find the key value of autonomy, the Greek root of which means "self-rule". Why? Because only people free to direct and govern their lives according to their own values are recognised by others as having what Australian philosopher Robert Young describes as "the dignity that moral agency bestows".

This view is, of course, the standard liberal one. It is the idea that we have dignity as humans because of a freedom to choose our actions according to our own individual will and reason. In other words, what really matters in terms of moral choices is self-rule or autonomy.

Note that all that liberals care about is that we are self-directed according to our own values. This, in their opinion, is sufficient to create a human dignity. My values could be anything at all, but as long as they are mine and I am free to enact them, I am fulfilling my moral status as a human.

This is not the traditional view. Traditionally, it was thought that humans had been granted a free will. This free will was an aspect of human distinctiveness, and even of human dignity. It was not, though, something which needed to be asserted as a moral aim in itself, as it was a fixed possession – something given to us which could not be rescinded.

The fulfilment of our moral nature as humans was not, therefore, simply the existence of free will. It was the use of this will to choose what was morally right and to do so even when our own worldly interests suffered as a consequence.

There is an interesting article in City Journal by Theordore Dalrymple on this very theme. The article is about the novel A Clockwork Orange, written by Anthony Burgess.

Burgess imagines in this novel a scenario in which humans actually lost free will – in which they could be conditioned by the state to act as the state desired. For Burgess, such a scenario would undermine the possibility of genuine virtue because,

A good man, in Burgess’s view, had to have the ability to do evil as well as good, an ability that he would voluntarily restrain, at whatever disadvantage to himself.

This view of morality is much closer to the traditional one than to the modern liberal version outlined by Leslie Cannold. It does not make self-rule the object of morality, but instead understands morality in terms of a capacity to choose rightly or wrongly (free will) but in which the moral aim is to discipline the self to act according to an objective good.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Tyrants, invaders, imperialists?

There is a feminist argument which goes something like this. What matters is that I am able to follow my will. I can follow my will when I have money and power. Men have more money and power than women. Therefore men have organised a system, patriarchy, to give them a privilege of will at the expense of oppressed women.

Some feminists have added to this: men use violence against women to maintain the system of patriarchy. Therefore, ending violence against women means not so much punishing or treating individual male offenders, but attacking the whole social system of patriarchy.

It’s a neat little argument, but not one which catches the real motivations of men and women very well. For instance, it turns the hard-working husband who sacrifices a great deal to earn money for his family into an evil patriarch, intent on dominating his wife. Similarly, it undercuts the position of the woman who takes time off to raise her own children, as she is not successfully competing for money and power in doing so.

Still, the argument has been very influential. For instance, in 1994 the Keating Labor government released a “National Strategy on Violence against Women”. This strategy argued, in line with patriarchy theory, that all men were responsible for domestic violence.

The spokeswoman for the strategy, Kate Gilmore, denied that “men that are violent are different from every other man in the country”. Instead, all men in the family represented an aggressive, violent force against women. She wrote:

You can see the tyrants, the invaders, the imperialists, in the fathers, the husbands, the stepfathers, the boyfriends, the grandfathers, and it’s that study of tyranny in the home ... that will take us to the point where we can secure change.

Keating was unwise to endorse a strategy which understood the role of men so negatively and pessimistically. The blue collar male voter, in particular, was unimpressed by this and other hostile policies and turned against Keating at the next election. The Labor Party has to this date been unable to win them back.

Kate Gilmore seemed to have an inkling of how unpopular her strategy might prove, as she said at the time that,

there are a lot of men who feel very resentful of this message, there are a lot of women who out of loyalty to the men in their lives also find this a very difficult message.

Patriarchy theory was too insulting to men to succeed electorally. It will also in the future face other hurdles, including recent research into the causes of male violence.

For example, in Saturday’s Age there was an article on the topic of women who sexually abuse adolescent boys. The article contained this surprising information:

there is growing evidence that not only are young male victims of female sexual abuse severely affected, but that they are also at higher risk of going on to become abusers themselves.

"When you look at these men who have been abused by females, and compare them to the men abused by males, in terms of psychological function, they were doing as badly as the men abused by males," says Dr Patrick O'Leary, a senior lecturer in social work at the University of South Australia.

O'Leary, who conducted Australia's biggest study of male victims of sex abuse, says that having been sexually abused by a woman was for men a higher risk factor towards becoming a sexual offender than being abused by another male.

A study sponsored by the Public Health Agency of Canada, titled The Invisible Boy, made similar findings. Citing four research papers, the report said, "there is an alarmingly high rate of sexual abuse by females in the backgrounds of rapists, sex offenders and sexually aggressive men (and) male adolescent sex offenders abused by 'females only' chose female victims almost exclusively".

What will patriarchy theorists make of this? There is growing evidence that sexually abusive men were themselves abused by women as adolescents. This suggests that the problem has more to do with a cycle of abuse than with a patriarchy in which all men fulfil a role of tyrants, invaders and imperialists.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

No homeland for liberals?

As I have often admitted, liberalism does sound enticing on the surface. The idea that individuals should be free to create who they are according to their own will and reason has an appealing ring to it, and this doubtless explains some of liberalism’s success in the West.

It’s when you read the fine print that alarm bells start ringing. For instance, the logic of the liberal principle I set out above is to undermine traditional nationalism.

The reason is simple. A traditional national identity was important in defining the individual. However, as it was based on ethnicity (a shared ancestry, language, culture, religion and so on) it was something the individual inherited, rather than something he chose for himself.

Liberalism doesn’t want us to be “other” defined in any important way; it insists that we be self-defined. So traditional nationalism eventually came to be thought of as illegitimate within the terms of liberalism.

So what could a principled liberal do? From the start, some liberals replaced a traditional ethnic nationalism with a belief in internationalism. Most, though, have kept to some modified, liberal form of nationalism.

The problem is that such modern forms of nationalism are shallow, shifting and unstable. Usually they are based on the holding of common “values” (invariably liberal ones) to which any person can give their individual consent.

But this means two things. First, anyone can become a member of the nation, which makes membership of a nation less meaningful. Second, the geography of the “nation” you belong to can change radically. There are no limits to potential federations of nations, if all that is required is a shared commitment to liberal values or policy aims.

This is the political background to understanding the “nationalism” of Thomas Barnett, described as “a distinguished scholar” at a policy centre at the University of Tennessee. In a recent article, Mr Barnett had this to say about the war on terror:

We stand for a world connected through trust, transparency and trade, while the jihadists want to hijack Islam and disconnect it from all the corruption they imagine is being foisted upon it by globalization (aka, America’s “plot to rule the world”).

In that war of ideas, I’d still like to see Lady Liberty standing outside the wire instead of hiding behind it, and here’s why: I don’t have a homeland. My people left that place a long time ago.

I don’t have a homeland because I don’t live in a place - I live an ideal. I live in the only country in the world that’s not named for a location or a tribe but a concept. Officially, we’re known as the United States.

And where are those united states? Wherever there are states united. You join and you’re in, and theoretically everyone’s got an open invitation.

This country began as a collection of 13 misfit colonies, united only by their desire not to be ruled by a distant king.

We’re now 50 members and counting, with our most recent additions (Alaska, Hawaii) not even co-located with the rest, instead constituting our most far-flung nodes in a network that‘s destined to grow dramatically again.

Impossible, you say? Try this one on for size: By 2050, one out of every three American voters is slated to be Hispanic. Trust me, with that electorate, it won’t just be Puerto Rico and post-Castro Cuba joining the club. We’ll need either a bigger flag or smaller stars.

Note what Thomas Barnett is saying. He has reconciled himself to the fact that he has no homeland. The fact of homelands is something that, for him, belongs to the past. His modern “nation” is not even a place, but a concept.

As such, membership is open. Barnett expects, and looks forward to, a rapid growth in membership of the United States, with its borders to extend through Latin America.

Barnett has put his understanding of the “nation” more plainly and starkly than most other liberals, but even so it is perfectly in line with accepted policies in Western countries.

Those European leaders who are willing to cede the sovereignty of their own nation to a European Union, and to consider the admission of a non-European country, Turkey, are acting from a similar mindset to Barnett.

So too are the Australian politicians, from all political parties, who recommended the formation of a Pacific Union. These politicians no doubt consider themselves “nationalists” – in the Barnett sense, that is – but are happy to transfer their allegiance to an entirely new, sovereign Pacific state.

The fault lies ultimately in that seductive idea that we should be free to choose who we are according to our own individual will. This has delivered to us a nationalism in which there are no stable ethnic homelands – in which our loyalty is not even to a particular people or place, but to “concepts” which are all too easily transferable, so that nations become peculiarly vulnerable to dissolution within larger federations.

(Hat tip: Steve Edwards for the Barnett quote)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Gillard vs Gillard

Less than a year ago, Julia Gillard was interviewed by The Sunday Age on the issue of feminism. What Julia has to say on the issue is important, as she is a leading member of the Labor Party and considered to be prime ministerial material.

Her views were clear and very much in line with feminist orthodoxy. Girls, she opined, should have choices, except that the choice to be a traditional stay-at-home mum was no longer an option. In her own words:

If one suggested to a girl in school today that her future life would consist of marriage, raising children and tending the family home, she would no doubt look at you as if you had just arrived from Mars ...

... while she may not know what course she wants to chart out in her life yet, she knows work will play a role in it – and an important one. Whether for the thrill of career, the social integration of work, the pay packet or for a mix of all of them, she’ll work. (The Sunday Age 8th May 2005)

So in May 2004 Gillard’s attitude was that women who wanted to be mothers would do so by mixing their careers with motherhood. To suggest anything else was out of this world.

This is not what traditionalists like myself want to hear. We believe that the motherhood role is an important one, and that it’s a positive thing for women to be able to stay at home to raise their children.

So should we be worried? Was Julia Gillard right to declare traditional motherhood to be unrewarding and effectively defunct?

There are several reasons why we should not be too worried about Julia’s comments. First, she contradicts herself in the very same interview. Having declared that being a stay-at-home mum is too unrewarding to contemplate, she then declares of the modern woman that,

She should be surrounded by boys who grow up to be men who feel free to make the choice to be the carer, the at-home dad, the part-time working dad, to have more options than being the breadwinner.

So it turns out that being an at-home carer is not so bad after all – Julia Gillard even recommends it as a liberating option for men. It seems that what Julia Gillard really objects to about women staying at home is not that it’s unrewarding, but that it’s a traditional gender role.

This raises a further question. Is it really true that young women have rejected traditional gender roles? There are reasons to think not. For instance, a recent survey of 5,000 teenage girls in Britain found that an overwhelming 97% wanted their future partner to be the main earner in the relationship. They utterly rejected the idea of a gender role swap.

Which brings us to the most surprising evidence against the Gillard view: Julia Gillard herself. She has now revealed that she might have happily ditched her career, despite having a most glamorous job, if she had met the right man:

If I’d met a man that, you know, I was tremendously in love with and the one thing he wanted was to have kids, then obviously I might have made a different set of decisions.

Furthermore, she doesn’t think she herself could have mixed motherhood and career, despite recommending it as the only option for today’s women:

I’m full of admiration for women who can mix it together, working and having kids, but I don’t think I could have.(Herald Sun 5th March 2006)

According to Sally Morrell, in today’s Herald Sun, Gillard continues by saying,

I can understand it all at an intellectual level and I do admire it, but I think I just emotionally would have found that all very tough.

Sally comments,

That may be because of the loving way she was brought up – hands-on, no child care.

Which is the same way her sister, Alison, brought up her own two children.

Gillard can’t remember ever having a babysitter as a child and says her niece and nephew could count on one hand the number of times they’ve been babysat.

To Gillard it was always going to be an either-or decision. “You’re working at this intense, high level or you’re having kids,” she said.

Makes sense to me.

So there is a divide here between what Julia Gillard thinks intellectually ought to happen (breaking down traditional gender roles) and what she values in her own personal experience (being brought up in the care of her own mother).

The problem is that in these situations the intellectual understanding always wins out. It is thought to be more principled to follow the intellectual understanding, and to try to get young women to reject at-home motherhood, despite what we value in our own lives.

Which is why we need to tackle the intellectual assumptions of liberalism, in which traditional arrangements are considered illegitimate precisely because they are so important within our own nature that they are seen to be an unchosen destiny, rather than a product of our own reasoned choices.

If we continue to accept this liberal intellectual framework, then we won’t be able to reconcile what we understand intellectually and what is truly important in our own lives.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Choice for men?

The logic of making "choice" central to morality is unravelling further.

For years we have been told that a woman has a right to choose whether or not to become a mother, and that for this reason abortion must be allowed.

Now in America a man is arguing in court that he should have a similar right to "choose" whether or not to become a father.

It seems that the man was misled by a sexual partner who told him that she was infertile. The man is claiming he should have no liability for the child which resulted from the relationship as he never chose to have it.

The court case has put pro-abortion women in a difficult position. One liberal, pro-abortion woman, Lindsay Beyerstein, has argued that men should continue to pay for unwanted offspring on the following grounds:

If you know that you might become a dad whether you like it or not and you have sex anyway, the consequences are your problem.

Anna Winter, an Australian left-liberal, read this argument and blanched. For obvious reasons. After all, if applied consistently, doesn't it also suggest that women who have sex knowing that pregnancy might result should also live with the consequences?

So Anna has taken a different approach, and argued that both men and women ought to be able to opt out: women through abortion and men by having a right to disown a child (in certain circumstances). She writes:

I do have sympathy for the idea that men should be able to choose parenthood, and that "if you don't want to get a woman pregnant then don't have sex" is not an acceptable response ...

... should there be room for an opt-out for men who find themselves potential fathers after one-night stands or in situations where they have already made their wishes clear? Yes, it would be an enormous, morally difficult choice. But if we are to argue that women are capable of considering such huge, life-altering issues, then is it hypocritical to deny men the same level of respect?

So Anna is willing to let the state, rather than the father, pay for a child's upkeep, to keep consistently to the principle of "choice" in morality.

The question then becomes: will the state be willing to pay?

I doubt it, and therefore the Beyerstein double standard is likely to continue, in which men are told that it is morally wrong not to accept the consequences arising from sexaul relationships, whilst women are told they have a right to choose whether to live with such consequences or not.

From the conservative point of view, it is the whole approach of trying to decide moral issues on the basis of "choice" which is wrong and which leads to such outcomes, in which one woman argues for a blatant double standard, and another, in order to be consistent, accepts the idea of men disowning their own children.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Does ethnicity matter?

Does ethnicity matter? Is it important?

Right-wing (classical) liberals generally answer with a consistent “no”. Even if they feel some sense of ethnic identity themselves, they believe that a modern, autonomous individual should be shaped by his own reasoned choices. We don’t get to choose our ethnicity, so it is assumed (at best) that ethnicity is something of secondary rank within human nature, something of a sentimental nature, but not relevant to how we choose to organise our lives or our society.

Left-wing liberals are less consistent. Like all liberals, they believe that we are human because of a freedom to exercise our individual will. Therefore, they tend to read issues in terms of power relations: who is dominant in their will over others. Those tagged as dominant tend to lose moral legitimacy, as they are thought to have organised a privilege at the expense of the oppressed “other”.

What this means is that left-wing liberals will generally be harsher on ethnic groups tagged as “dominant” than on those they consider oppressed – especially if the “oppressed” group is thought to be rallying around ethnic discrimination to improve their status.

For a traditionalist conservative like myself, neither of these liberal views is adequate. A traditionalist would argue that ethnicity is important in creating a social context for individual life and in providing a core source of identity for individuals.

This is true whether we belong to a large, successful, “dominant” ethnic group (e.g. the Japanese), or a small, beleaguered one (e.g. an Amazonian rainforest tribe).

The importance of ethnicity is evident even amongst Western populations who are supposed to have transcended it some generations ago.

In my recent reading I have happened across the following three stories, each highlighting the continuing relevance of ethnicity in the West.

The first deals with an unhappy topic: the suicide rate amongst adoptees in Sweden. A large scale research project has found that children adopted from overseas are several times more likely to suicide than ethnic Swedes.

Why? One plausible explanation offered by the research is that it’s “not unusual for foreign adoptees to have greater problems in finding their identity in relation to their parents and society as a whole.” In other words, they suffer because they are less sure of who they are both in terms of their family and their ethnicity.

(After the Asian tsunami the UN discouraged adoption offers from Australia for precisely this reason.)

Then there is the following snippet of information from a science website:

If your spouse is genetically similar, you’re more likely to have a happy marriage ... Child abuse rates are lower when similarity is high, and you’ll also be more altruistic and willing to sacrifice more for someone who is more genetically like you, research shows.

This supports data produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing that divorce is twice as likely when spouses are born in different countries.

Finally, there was the newspaper report on housing trends in Melbourne. The featured family, the Gannons, were moving from West Brunswick to McKinnon for several reasons:

I saw it as a very good area to bring up a family, probably as opposed to where we live at the moment. Nothing against it, but you’ve got schools that aren’t that great, a big influx of migrants, we’re not that far away from Housing Commission, which affects the schooling, so that was a consideration.

All these cases involve serious issues: where to raise your family, marriage outcomes, mental health. In each case, ethnicity remains an important factor and can’t simply be relegated to a sentimental B-League, as some liberals might expect us to do.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Are men the cosmic enemy?

There are enemies, and then there are cosmic enemies. What is the difference?

Let me explain it this way. There are liberals who believe that humanity can be decisively liberated, so that the "new man" who is free and equal can triumph and thereby achieve the proper end of history (i.e. of human progress).

But what is stopping this decisive victory of the new man? Why can't we move forward and be liberated?

Some political moderns (usually radicals of various kinds) answer: there is an enemy group, an oppressor group, which is frustrating the arrival of the new free and equal man.

This oppressor group comes to be seen not just as a normal political rival or opponent, but as a powerful "cosmic enemy" whose existence prevents the realisation of our true humanity.

The hand of the cosmic enemy is detected in all the problems we suffer, to the point that the normal rules of morality are put aside and it is thought desirable to abolish the very existence of this enemy.

But who exactly has filled the role of this cosmic enemy? If we go back to the time of the French Revolution, the aristocracy were seen to be the enemies of "liberty, equality, fraternity" and a considerable violence was meted out to them in order to abolish the ancien regime.

So this represents, perhaps, the first development of the idea of a "cosmic enemy".

At the time of the Russian Revolution, it was the bourgeoisie who were thought to be the natural enemies of a workers' state, again with violent measures attached.

However, the fullest development of the idea came with Hitler, who identified the Jews as the cosmic enemy, and who violently sought their annihilation.

And since then? There still exist whites who see the Jews as a cosmic enemy. But it is more mainstream now for gentile whites themselves to be seen this way.

The most obvious example is the politics of Noel Ignatiev, a Harvard professor, who publishes a journal with the motto "Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity". Ignatiev has written that "The goal of abolishing the white race is on its face so desirable that some may find it hard to believe that it could incur any oppostion".

Finally, there is also a current within feminism which views men as a cosmic enemy. Consider the following quote from Higginbottom and Roy in Feminist Action 1 (1984):

Men's minds are not true ... We must learn about men and their archetypes in order to put them back in their place - they are an aberration and out of control ... Men won't exist for much longer.

Here we have feminists yearning for the very abolition of men. The Sydney Morning Herald published another feminist piece earlier this year, by American columnist Maureen Dowd, which also breezily contemplated the extinction of men.

Dowd quotes a male researcher, Dr Bryan Sykes, who has perfected the "men as cosmic enemy" line. According to Dowd,

He fantasises about "a world without men", a version of the mythological "cult of Diana" hunter-gatherer societies where women were in charge and men were just there for entertainment, where there would be "no Y chromosomes to enslave the feminine, the destructive spiral of greed and ambition diminishes and, as a direct result, the sickness of our planet eases. The world no longer reverberates to the sound of men's clashing antlers and the grim repercussions of private and public warfare."

It is this kind of thinking which is the most dangerous kind of "hate speech", because it is not merely a criticism of an opposing group, but a totalising world view in which the enemy is responsible for a failure to achieve the promised land, so that the abolition of the enemy, even by violent means, is eagerly anticipated.

But note that this notion of a cosmic enemy stems from a "progressive" politics. It rests on the idea that the arrival of a "new man" is imminent, but is frustrated by the cosmic enemy.

It is difficult for conservatives to understand this mentality. For us, the human condition does not allow an "end point" to history. There will always be a struggle to achieve what we think is ideal in society, not just because of the challenge of outsiders ("enemies"), but even more so because of the inevitable frailties existing within our own natures.

(Hat tip: this post, including the term "cosmic enemy", was suggested by comments made by the American traditionalist, Lawrence Auster, at his website View from the Right, as well as ideas expressed at the same site by the commentator Matt.)