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Moralizing, and government

Judging from the recent buzz in the media and in Washington, the big questions of the past couple weeks have been if renowned moralizer William Bennett is a hypocrite for gambling, and whether condemning homosexual acts makes Rick Santorum a bigot. That these should be the questions asked isn't particularly surprising — in Washington, after all, appearances are everything — but those questions miss the important point, which seems to go untouched despite all the scandal flaring up at its periphery. No matter who's running it, the government shouldn't be enforcing moral judgments on private citizens in the first place.

William Bennett is in some sense a hypocrite, yes. He clearly has a gambling problem (the descriptions in Newsweek (here) and the Washington Monthly (here) are damning in two respects: He's lost an astounding $8 million; and he sure sounds like he gambles compulsively (the industry term for his kind of gambler, an industry insider says, is "loser")). And he has been an outspoken advocate for strict moralism, according to the moral principles he happens to adhere to. So the extent to which you seem him as a hypocrite will depend on how much of a distinction you draw between gambling and the vices he chooses to denounce (which can't be very much of one, from what I understand of his views); he's certainly far from unimpeachable. So it's fair to say, I think, that people who care to are entitled to hold a low opinion of the man.

But, despite all the ruckus, that's all it is, an opinion of a man. Bennett's personal credibility will suffer, sure — but is that all this is about?

It sure seems to be. Michael Kinsley's Washington Post editorial on Bennett offered no harsher criticism than the remark that "although it may be impossible for anyone famous to become permanently discredited in American culture ... Bennett clearly deserves that distinction." And his piece earned high praises from the likes of Joshua Marshall and "Atrios" for capturing the essence of the matter.

That's the way Washington works, of course; attacking the man is far more effective than attacking the issue. Perception rules, and perceptions of men are far more malleable than understandings of reality. So, yes, the question of the week isn't whether Bennett's moralizing was right or wrong, it's whether someone can find a way to use it against the man himself — never mind that Bennett's personal failings have no bearing on the actual arguments in question.

The brouhaha over Santorum's remarks about the right to privacy (no one has one, he said) followed the same pattern, and, I think, swung even further wide of the mark. Did anyone really not already know that Christian conservatives generally think homosexual acts are immoral? There's nothing remotely scandalous in that bit of non-news (scandals are surprising, not routine), and it's basically all Santorum actually said — and yet it was the "issue" commentators invariably chose to attack him on.

As with Bennett, so with Santorum, of course; Santorum's opponents thought he might be vulnerable because of his "man on dog" remark (which, in its way, is more shocking than Bennett's $8 million). The crudeness of the remark was an opportunity to try and make him look bad.

Now, in some ways, this just is what it is — it's how it works, in Washington. And it would be foolish (i.e., naively idealistic) for political operatives to pass up such opportunities to score points on their opponents, and thereby improve their chances of effecting policy changes more to their liking (etc.). But it's incredibly frustrating; there's a genuine, important issue here, getting buried under the political machinations. It doesn't actually matter whether Bennett's a hypocrite, or Santorum's a bigot, because their (or anyone's) moral views have no place in our government to begin with.

There's a very simple reason why, too: Any system of "morality" governing private, non-harmful behavior is arbitrary — there's simply no good reason to say any non-harmful, private act is immoral. (The proof of this, by the way, is simple. Anyone who feels otherwise — who thinks there's some reason why an act that doesn't harm anyone is still somehow immoral — if asked to answer why, will eventually be reduced to saying something like, "But it's unnatural," where "unnatural" essentially means "I don't do it, or know anyone who does." And that is an arbitrary standard, if ever there was one. (Bennett's being so forgiving of gambling is a perfect example of this.)) And imposing arbitrary laws on its citizens is the worst harm a government can inflict on an otherwise free society.

So whatever personal moral beliefs Bennett, Santorum, or any other politician (including, to broaden the point a little, any would-be theocrats in Iraq) may have about private behavior, the beliefs themselves don't matter — none of them belong in government. That the government should take it upon itself to humiliate and imprison people (which is what we're talking about, after all — whether there should be laws against such behavior) for activities that harm nothing but the arbitrary sensibilities of those in power is both offensive and absurd. And that this issue should go unremarked even amidst such a raging public debate over the recent non-revelations of Bennett and Santorum is frightening: Is it such an ingrained — and irremovable — part of our system of governance that it isn't even worth talking about?

I hope not. Men like Bennett and Santorum don't belong in government, not because of their personal failings, but because anyone who thinks that the government should enforce their own personal values on private citizens has no place governing in a free society to begin with. And scandals may be an inescapable element of Washington politics, and even an effective means of shifting them, but they should hardly be the only thing politicians or pundits care about. An issue that genuinely matters is getting buried in this one, and it stinks.

May 7, 2003 2:54 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

Thanks for the excellent post. I agree with just about everything you've said. Especially important is the idea which bears repeating: the government shouldn't be in the business of imposing a certain set of morals on their constituency.

Posted by Damien Barrett on May 7, 2003 10:07 PM

"Any system of 'morality' governing private, non-harmful behavior is arbitrary."

That's true, but the sticking point here is the question of "harm," not "morality".

Santorum's point, for instance, isn't that homosexual behavior is immoral, but that it is harmful. Y'know, because gay people cause adultery and destroy families.

Moralizers like Bennett argue that even if there is no direct harm in actions done in private, there can be a trickle-down effect which is harmful. He's not saying that people should do what he says just because. He's pitches his morality as being right because it avoids the most social harm.

(Don't ask me about the cognitive dissonance Bennett must engage in to hand over $8M to the gambling industry as not being harmful. That's his issue.)

I do feel that the "harm" argument is just used to hide the "it's not natural" inclination of the people rallying against a given behavior. Determining harm in some sort of definitive way in complex social situations is close to impossible.

Posted by Mr. Nosuch on May 8, 2003 2:51 PM

the sticking point here is the question of "harm," not "morality".

Not in real life — only in politics. I mean, the arguments that private behavior somehow harms society are laughable, at least that I've seen — they're baseless, and circular.

There's no evidence for any of the idiotic claims Kurtz makes in his article, for instance, and the reasoning would still be absurd even if Kurtz started from actual fact. (For example, Kurtz writes, "Imagine a world in which consensual adult incest was legal. Once we see or hear of couples — even a relatively small number — who engage in legal, consensual, adult incestuous relationships, the whole idea of incest with minors becomes thinkable." Yeah, right. Imagine a world in which consensual sex between adults is legal. Oh Lord. The whole idea of statutory rape is now thinkable, according to Kurtz's (non-) reasoning. But, wait, it gets worse — consensual sex between adults is legal. Someone better call the cops, and keep that Kurtz away from small children. Sheesh.)

And the "harms" these people talk about don't amount to anything more than more of the same sort of immorality they want to outlaw to begin with. Even if we did suppose, say, that by making love in the privacy of their own home, two men could somehow send some sort of cootie out into society and infect another man or woman who, having been exposed to this new notion, decides to have sex before getting married — where, exactly, is the harm in that? If you don't believe that unharmful, private behavior is bad in the first place, then there simply isn't one.

(Of course someone could then make the claim that, if enough people did this, then we wouldn't have enough babies, etc., etc. But here we've lost touch with reality completely — unless history is replete with human societies that died out because they failed to put all the homosexuals in jail, and I just don't know about it.

There's another point, too, which is that private behavior simply couldn't actually hurt society if it were truly private; it would have to have some public aspect to have an effect. And when Santorum says, "I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts," he even seems to be saying it really just is the purely private aspect he has a problem with. I think this is an excellent indication of Santorum's true intentions — he thinks government should enforce his moral vision — and that it is also an indication that the concern, at least for Santorum, is homosexuality itself, not the indirect impact it supposedly has on society.

In any case, the actual soundness of the arguments in question doesn't matter in politics; they're perfectly convenient props for a widely accepted belief that people don't wish to actually examine, so much as rationalize (as you suggest). But there's another, last point that, in my eyes at least, would override those arguments even if they did stand up: Having the government repress private behavior is itself more harmful than private behavior could ever possibly be. Even if allowing gay men and women to have sex with each other without going to jail for it did somehow harm the rest of society, would it harm society anywhere near as much as repressing or locking up any noticeable segment of our population?

So, yeah, I know the people who say this stuff say the argument is about harming society — but they're full of it.

Posted by M on May 8, 2003 11:16 PM

Well said, and I heartily agree.

Though, sadly, these days, convincing arguments and sound reason are not nearly as important as repeated and vocal assertions.

But you clearly don't understand the self-evident conservative principle that non-marital, non-procreative sex of any kind is undermining and destroying western civilization, and must be stopped at all costs. That, and dividend taxes.

Posted by Mr. Nosuch on May 12, 2003 11:32 AM

And why are self-appointed authoritarians so slow to recognize that if they push their luck too far in trying to criminalize people they don't like, those people (immoral or amoral as they obviously are) may just choose to visit a little retribution on their adversaries? When you fail to show respect for people what says they have to respect you or your civil rights? This isn't Ghandi speaking, but if I were a loudmouth busy-body I'd apologize to my family and keep my address a secret. Conservative condescension always presumes it has the power of the state and superior force. This is a fallacy.

Posted by FREEMAN on February 3, 2004 4:42 PM

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