Sovereign selves

Lately I’ve been reading some conservative, religion-friendly material on bioethics. Not because I greatly care about bioethics per se, but because biotechnology seems to be something that bothers religious thinkers, and so I figure anyone who works on science and religion like I do should keep up with some of the arguments.

One impression I’ve developed is that a lot of the conservatives really don’t understand science. I don’t mean technical details as much as the nature of science. A common theme is the confusion of applied science with basic science. So, for example, when they write about stem cells, they only discuss matters having to do with “cures,” ignoring the intellectual reasons scientists are interested in stem cells regardless of biomedical applications. Now, I have to admit the fault lies partly with the scientists. We always sell research to the public by promising immediate applications. But I would have hoped a more serious debate would reach beyond the PR bullshit.

Maybe more seriously, there’s a lot of religious conservative befuddlement about the substance of the science relevant to biotechnology. When conservatives write about stem cells, abortion, and so forth, I often suspect that for all their ostensibly secular griping, ideas about ensoulment and God’s Laws are lurking in the background.

Still, there are some interesting ideas out there. For example, there’s the regular accusation that liberal individualists, who are those most enthusiastic about science and its applications, ignore concerns about continuity between generations, make individual freedom and choice the be-all and end-all of ethics, and deny any higher social purposes beyond individual well-being. Liberals, this accusation goes, overlook how humans are embedded beings defined by their unchosen relationships. They pursue an ideal of the “sovereign self,” free of constraint and unchosen encumbrances. This leads liberals to ignore obligations to the weak and the dependent, particularly those of us in the early and late stages of life. And naturally, a “society” composed of such self-centered individuals will also reject the very possibility of higher purposes. The ethical horizons of liberals and secular humanists are restricted to alleviating individual suffering, staving off death, and preventing those forms of injustice due to the random, uncontrolled aspects of nature. While conservatives do not discount these as worthy concerns, they insist that there is more to life, that morality transcends such fundamentally self-centered interests.

I get this sort of thing even in conservative books that are not about bioethics. I just finished Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. (I don’t recommend it. It’s learned, but also tendentious and boring.) But there too, she continually veers off into bioethics as an illustration of what she dislikes about liberal individualism and the sovereign self.

Now, I can’t set aside conservative concerns about the sovereign self as simply mistaken. I will concede that sometimes liberal ethical thinking puts too much of an emphasis on individual autonomy and choice as supreme values. And conservatives are correct that such an overemphasis will have the most obvious effects where we are concerned with the unavoidably weak and dependent. We are not little gods. We always live lives full of constraints, dependence, and relationships. Indeed, many of our most valuable relationships, such as that of our families, ethnic and religious allegiances, and political associations, are completely entangled with coercive elements. If the liberal dream is one of complete human freedom, this is at least unrealistic, perhaps pathological, maybe even dangerous.

Fair enough. But I don’t think that describes more serious versions of liberal humanism all that well. Most importantly, those conservative thinkers I’ve been reading fail to capture a very important aspect of what I would consider a more mature liberal ethical orientation: the demand for participation rather than for a complete emancipation from constraint.

So, yes, liberal humanists can and should acknowledge constraints and dependence. We do not choose our families, but that is a stage for many of our most intense relationships. Our relationships define us to a significant degree. We do not choose the society or political system we are born into. But that is, almost always, the arena in which we are public moral actors. All this is hard to deny. But in all that, I think liberals want to be able to participate in shaping the relationships that constrain and define us.

For example, we are not happy with a strict family where the paterfamilas sets the rules. Instead, we prefer a more egalitarian family, where we participate in shaping our lives together. This is not the same as a collection of atomized sovereign selves having “equal” exchanges based on choice. Nonetheless, it is still a relationship that we make together, rather than leaning entirely on “higher purposes” handed down from on high.

In politics, we are not content with a traditional society where all acknowledge the God-given roles to which we are supposed to conform. Instead, we prefer something more democratic. We might not have chosen our neighbors or our politics, and we may be coerced into paying taxes or performing national service. Yet we want to participate, to have a voice in our collective affairs and a chance to shape our societies in ways which may be more to our liking. Indeed, by participation, we have an opportunity to make relationships and reconcile ourselves to unchosen constraints.

I don’t think such an approach solves all problems or that it should change the minds of conservatives. Too much of our moral outlook depends on individual temperaments and interests for me to hope that rational people must inevitably reach a moral consensus. Nonetheless, perhaps I can hope for some minor progress: that those conservatives interested in serious debate rather than just political victory should represent liberal humanism more accurately. We do not have the same goals as conservatives, and yes, this is in large part due to a different conception of human freedom. And yes, liberal humanism is sustained by people with a distinctly modern temperament, who have “buffered selves” that start out at a further distance from established social moralities and religious convictions. Nonetheless, most of us are nowhere near close to the common conservative caricature of self-centered, spoiled brats absorbed in a quest for absolute sovereignty of individual choice. That stereotype has no place in the scholarly literature, and lately I’ve been seeing far too much of it.