We’re hearing lots of reports that sentiment at the recent CPAC (Conervative Political Action Conference), and elsewhere , tended to favor legalizing same-sex marriage or at least abandoning opposition to it.  George Will characterized the event as providing evidence for the “rise of the libertarian strand of Republicanism.”

Here’s the way Senator Rob Portman characterized it when he announced his change of heart on the subject, one that I don’t think was calculated for political benefit:

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he supports allowing gay couples to marry because he is a conservative, not in spite of it. I feel the same way. We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society. We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.

Let’s start with his statement about personal liberty and minimal government interference. Most would call that one of the hallmarks of American conservatism, but I say: not so fast. It all depends upon why you favor these things. Perhaps you think that an individual—Thomas Hobbes’s “ordinary husbandman”—is the best judge of what’s good for himself or herself. If it’s a matter of mere preferences, there’s no reason to think that anyone else’s preferences ought to be substituted for my own. And whatever superiority there might be in another’s reason or judgment doesn’t compensate for the difference in preferences. The fact that your IQ is higher than mine gives you no basis for saying that you may substitute your preference for rocky road over mine for mint chocolate chip.

So far, so good, but the devil is in the details. There are still two questions—at least—to consider here. The most obvious one is how we distinguish between matters of personal preference and those matters of the common good which require some sort of common judgment. I might add to this also the issue of how we arrive at a common judgment: Is it by collecting private preferences or some process of rational deliberation, in which it’s conceivable to consider relevant differences of authority or judgment? The former is not obviously conservative, the latter may or may not be.

A second consideration here is the status of reason. Is the distrust of government based upon a distrust of human reason generally or upon a claim of the sufficiency of individual reason? Confidence in the sovereign sufficiency of human reason to guide one’s life isn’t exactly conservative.

Perhaps a better model for the role of reasonable conservatism is the Kass-Mansfield brief in Hollingsworth v. Perry (the California Proposition 8 case). Consider, for example, this statement:

There could conceivably come a time when supporters of traditional marriage are compelled by scientific evidence to acknowledge that same-sex marriage is not harmful to children or to society at large. That day is not here, and there is not the slightest reason to think it is imminent. It is no less possible that scientific evidence will eventually show that redefining marriage to encompass unions of samesex couples does have harmful effects on our society and its children. That day is also not yet here, but there is no basis for this or any other court to conclude that it will never arrive. Now and for the foreseeable future, claims that science provides support for constitutionalizing a right to same-sex marriage must necessarily rest on ideology.

The statement doesn’t rest upon a doctrinaire view of small government and large personal freedom. It doesn’t insist upon the unassailable authority of tradition. It doesn’t run ahead of the evidence in the name of some abstract ideology. Rather, it insists upon the scrupulous and careful weighing of the evidence, as it becomes available.

What’s more, the Kass-Mansfield brief offers a somewhat different version of the relevant common good than does Sen. Portman. The latter relies upon the following abstraction—the “family unit” is the “fundamental building block [is there another kind?] of society.” For him, the family is the locus of “long-term commitments” that “foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.” He says nothing about children. I have nothing against contractual commitments (which, by the way, assume as well as promote personal responsibility). But the abstraction of Sen. Portman’s argument leads us in two directions that it would be hard to regard as conservative.

The first is that it treats all long-term commitments as equally contributing to community and responsibility, thereby providing us no basis for distinguishing between two-person and multi-person marriages. (For the recond, I doubt he intends this, but he is a prisoner of his own abstractions.) The second is that the language of commitment is, in a sense, subjective. I enter into commitments voluntarily, as it pleases me. The language of obligation, which he doesn’t use, implies responsibilities that aren’t necessarily voluntary, such as moral laws that oblige one whether one consents or not. Such language ought to roll trippingly off the tongues of conservatives.

By focusing on the contested terrain of the effect of same-sex marriage on the well-being of children, Kass and Mansfield call our attention to obligations that are in no sense of the term voluntary. Whether we like it or not, children deserve our concern and care; we are obliged to care for and about them. They provide reasons for entering into “long-term commitments” that aren’t simply a matter of personal preference. I recognize that there are all sorts of “reasons” for paying attention to the connection between child-rearing and family formation , but, as they say, the heart has its own reasons and doesn’t really require social science.

We can, and should, reason all we want about these matters, but we have to recognize that at the center of our concern ought to be a consideration that isn’t in the first instance “rational.” Leon Kass and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. get it. So should all the others who call themselves conservative.

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