Why has the equivalence of same-sex and opposite-sex relations suddenly become a moral and social absolute? That it has is plain to see. In the Supreme Court’s recent Windsor decision, which struck down much of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the majority found that the only reason for denying equivalence is a desire to harm same-sex couples. Overcoming this supposed bigotry is now an overriding foreign-policy goal of the United States. It is worth complicating our difficult situation in the Middle East, for example, to fly the rainbow flag over our embassy in Tel Aviv. Nor is general acceptance of homosexuality enough. Prominent voices call for stamping out opposition as hate speech, since its very existence destroys equality by affecting the social environment.
The new orthodoxy on homosexuality is about more than sex. It is an outcome of a profound change in traditional understandings of the world, the abolition of natural meanings and essences in favor of will and technique. Man, accepted public principle now tells us, is not a created or ultimately even a social being. Nor is he a composite of body and soul with a nature that reflects natural functions and goals. He is pure subjectivity, a Cartesian ego not tied to any role or quality. This sovereign independence, now seen as the basis of our unique dignity as human beings, requires that the ego be able freely to choose his values and connections, unhindered by any natural or social limits.
For that reason he has to be free to treat the world outside the ego as raw material for his purposes. That world includes his body, which has no intrinsic meaning or proper use. Indeed, it especially includes his body, because it is uniquely his and not shared with others, so it is no violation of justice for him to make it entirely his own to do with as he wishes. Moreover, sovereign independence is an ideal that must be striven for, and gaining command over the body is part of that struggle. We feel pains, pleasures, instinctual drives, and natural urges with an acute intimacy. This vulnerability makes it imperative for the Cartesian ego to have unimpeded dominion over the body. To say otherwise, to suggest that natural goals or moral traditions override the authority of the ego, would amount to a direct assault on human dignity by subjecting the ego either to blind matter or to another’s ideal of life. And that would treat the human person as less than an autonomous adult human being.
If each of us has an equal right to choose his connections and create his values, then a system of laws that officially honors traditional arrangements that some favor and some do not—especially laws about how we use our bodies—is inherently oppressive and an insult to dissenters. And so we find ourselves in today’s extraordinary political climate, in which support for immemorial understandings is seen as outrageous bigotry.
That uncomprehending revulsion points to the religious character of the new orthodoxy of the Cartesian ego and its rights. We find this visceral horror at traditional moral judgments not just in the Windsor opinion but also in universities, the media, and other institutions that reliably reflect socially dominant opinion. This reaction, perhaps best understood as a taboo response, springs from a sense that those who reject “marriage equality”—the view that same-sex and opposite-sex relations are interchangeable—are attacking what is most precious and sacred.
Like other religious orthodoxies, the new orthodoxy on homosexuality and other issues is based on a belief about the Most Real Being. At least with regard to moral matters, that being is now thought to be the ego: I am that I am. The self is viewed as a divine power that legislates its own moral universe. As long as the resulting behavior does not harm others, we must accept this self-legislation as valid. Today’s reigning consensus may not recite creeds, but it has one. The ego has the right to define the nature “of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” words used by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey to express the essence of what it means to live in a free society.
It is not an accident that the right of self-legislation has come to focus especially on sex, sexual identity, and the human body’s configuration in male and female forms. Sexual desire is quite strong in most people, and receives added emphasis in a consumer society that uses sex to sell. The ego feels acutely vulnerable to its demands, and that vulnerability has led to insistence on an all but absolute right to give sexual desire whatever shape we wish. In the past, traditional morality licensed sexual desire within the framework of marriage. Now, in deference to the sovereign ego, it is my affirmation of my sexual desires that licenses them. In effect, the ego creates a moral universe that transforms sexual desire into a chosen identity that lets me “own” these desires rather than feel subjected to them.
For progressives, a commitment to justice and human dignity therefore requires a social order that gives everyone self-licensing sexual freedom. This means removing even the most subtle forms of censure. Everyone’s choices (short of harming others) must have an equally honored position in social life. Otherwise, some people will not have equal power to legislate their moral world. Since the equal right to self-legislation is absolutely fundamental, its denial cannot be justified by appeals to goods such as support for the natural and traditional functions of marriage. That is why the Windsor majority, as Justice Scalia noted, viewed those who reject the equivalence of same-sex and opposite-sex marriage as hostes humani generis—enemies of the human race. They—we—are attacking self-legislation, the basis of human dignity and a free society.
To describe the present situation in this manner is not, of course, to say that most people think of it this way, at least not explicitly. One can deny, minimize, mistake, or ignore aspects of a situation. One can also call them by different names or analyze them from different perspectives. But the trend is plain to see in varied tendencies in our public life that converge on human autonomy as an all but absolute standard.
If we look at legal principles, for example, we see that more and more they privilege individual decision over nature and history: Nature is an obstacle to overcome, and a history of oppression deserves no deference. Thus, the courts now proceed on the assumption that there is nothing to be learned from traditional sex roles or past legislation regarding public morality other than lessons on what to avoid. That is why the Windsor court treated marriage as simply a legal construction to facilitate the goals of those choosing to take advantage of it. It could be no more than that and remain legitimate under our established religion of the self-legislating ego.
Or we can consider the situation from an institutional standpoint. The people in charge today want to run society as a universal technically rational system of production and consumption. That outlook leads them to speak of man as a consumer, a human resource, or perhaps a voter to be periodically messaged and mollified. The result is that they have very little reason to see him as a person with a history, or even a family, since he is understood as interchangeable with other components of the system. The same elites tend to think that everyone takes their view of life, which means being motivated primarily by career and the prospect of untrammeled choice among whatever products the system offers.
One doesn’t need, therefore, to imagine that we are ruled by people who have philosophized their way to the new god of the sovereign ego. They are led to that view by their position in a society organized in accordance with economic, administrative, and bureaucratic principles that encourage an image of man as a pure ego with no given ties or qualities, who defines himself and creates his good by his choices. That is why the dreams of young people, especially those from poor or difficult backgrounds, carry such rhetorical weight. Each of us, no matter what our disadvantages, must be able to make his vision of his future self a reality, even if that vision is a wholly subjective creation with no evident path to fulfillment. “Living your dreams” reflects a triumph of the sovereign ego over reality, which is why we thrill to its ambition.
Liberalism is famously cautious and moderate, and it camouflages its dogmas and insulates them from criticism by denying it has any. It therefore seems odd to say it has become what amounts to a religion. Nonetheless, it relies as much as any other form of society on common understandings of what matters, what is real, what is right, and what justifies sacrificing life. These understandings, like the grammar of a language, form a system that makes coherent discussion possible. They determine which arguments win, and which opinions are permitted to be expressed in public.
As in other societies that are a mixture of different and sometimes contradictory elements, the religious outlook characteristic of liberalism has generally been mixed with other tendencies. In America, for example, a moralistic Protestantism that emphasized family values was long considered an indispensible element of a free society. Recent developments indicate that liberalism is finally abandoning such connections and becoming ever more clearly a deification of human subjectivity.
Consider, for example, the ever more striking consequences of what is now the accepted principle that discrimination is determined from the standpoint of the person who feels discriminated against rather than on the basis of objective criteria. The color-blind, sex-blind, and merit-based standards that were once thought the essence of opposition to discrimination have been replaced by inclusiveness, the demand that everyone is entitled to an accepting world. It is the victim’s I am and not factual circumstances or the attitudes of others that determines what he is, and the world should take him at his word and celebrate him in his chosen identity. Anything else is oppression.
Once again, sex and the body come to the fore. This is in part for a reason already discussed—the threat posed by the power of our instincts to the ego’s claim to sovereign command over all things. Sexual freedom has also become prominent, though, because the economic, adminstrative, and bureaucratic arrangements that dominate our world are indifferent to such matters and therefore make few limiting demands beyond prohibiting coercion and encouraging good hygiene. So today if Bradley Manning declares he is a woman, he is a woman, although one who still has a male body. To say otherwise would be to assert privilege, deny him his full humanity, and reject the rightful sovereignty of individual subjectivity. And to afford that recognition costs little more than reissuing a birth certificate—other than rejecting fundamental cultural traditions and falsifying physical reality. But this does not disrupt our interchangability and right of self-definition; it promotes them.
The nonoperative transsexual is a fairly recent development, but the step-by-step approach that led to the now required recognition of such an identity is typical of liberalism. Other forms of political modernity used revolutionary violence in an attempt to bring the social order in line with the modern technological understanding of reality. That approach gave rise to inhuman and comparatively short-lived utopian experiments.
Liberalism has been more successful in its preference for law, process, and reason. The approach grinds slow, but it grinds exceedingly fine. Law works itself pure, as Ronald Dworkin noted, and principles eventually become clear in their application. The process has been aided by the scale of modern social organization and the cultural diversity of those subject to it. The ultimate effect, now realizing itself around us, is to turn liberal society into an ideological state that denies it is such. It recognizes no restrictions on its mission to remake man and the world for the sake of our freedom to define ourselves and our world in accord with individual perceptions of who we “really” are—no restrictions, that is, other than those that serve a preference for moving slowly, varying tactics, and applying therapeutic techniques so that changes can be made with a minimum of friction and ill feeling.
There are nonetheless limits on contemporary liberalism and its religion of the free and unconstrained ego. In truth, it does not try to include everybody in everything. Discrimination and exclusion based on wealth, bureaucratic position, and educational certification are accepted because they are thought necessary to the functioning of a commercial and bureaucratic society. Nobody influential doubts that the SAT is a legitimate basis for discriminating and rewarding. How else can we recruit and train the kinds of people we need to run our system? What is forbidden is exclusion based on qualities and connections not immediately relevant to these purposes, such as those related to inherited family forms and cultural community.
Also, the new religion works best in the domain in which it arose, the public life of Western industrial society. Human life encompasses more that that, so there is constant pressure from other tendencies of thought and feeling. Religion, family and ethnic loyalties, and persisent if unackowledged distinctions between male and female roles continue to influence people. Liberalism handles the problem by allowing traditional modes of life to play some role, at least if the practical consequences can be strictly limited or turned to the advantage of the overall project. Thus, varied forms of private spirituality and warm feelings about our “roots” are allowed as long as they have no social or institutional implications. Non-Western religions are also allowed a certain scope, presumably because favoring them undermines what is left of Christian hegemony. And reverence for the natural world is sometimes allowed to interfere with economics, as with climate-change activism, as long as the interference seems to favor long-term well-being, or when the cost seems small in comparison with the social value of an outlet for moral passion, as when areas are declared wilderness to preserve the purity of unspoiled nature.
Such exceptions seem discrete and manageable, and the liberal order looks reasonably stable. It has been remarkably successful in bringing about radical changes demanded not by practical considerations but by dogmas that have proven impossible to resist, in part because they present themselves as freedom from dogma and insistence on open-ended individual choice.
However, as with other political systems and established religions, contemporary liberalism has weaknesses that will eventually tell. We do not really create ourselves, and it is impossible to escape natural and historical patterns. As a result, the attempt to abolish nature and history in favor of human self-creation means a tendency to falsify reality. The more liberalism advances, the stronger that tendency becomes. We see this in the absurd lengths to which many now go to avoid talking about human beings as male and female. This is not an innocent falsification but instead denies young people basic categories by which to orient themselves as they are drawn together by their instincts.
The liberal religion also lacks the ability to strengthen bonds of solidarity, not a surprising flaw given its worship of the sovereign ego. To a great degree, it disguises this weakness by rallying people to fight for the next stage of liberation and against real or imagined threats to what has already been attained. This tactic may lose effectiveness as successive stages in the advance of liberalism become more absurd than inspiring. Not everyone feels inclined to take it seriously when LGBT activists speak earnestly about the imperative of creating a “safe environment” for those “questioning” their sexuality on the country-club campuses of elite universities.
Class differences that are at odds with governing ideals but necessary for the operation of the system are also likely to lead to problems. At present, prosperity and propaganda defuse resentments that flow from these differences. The differences have been growing, however, and they seem likely to grow still more, owing to global competition and the ability of the able, educated, and successful to carry on orderly and purposeful lives based on careerism while those on the other side of various divides find their communities and ways of life falling apart. The liberal regime’s answer to the problem is to train people to adopt the orderly careerism of their betters. This may work for some, but not everyone can be above average, and some people prefer to live for the sake of family, faith, community heritage, or other noneconomic goods. Liberalism is an enemy of those goods whenever they come into conflict with the sovereign ego, and people may not find that aggression tolerable forever.
When social crisis comes or deep dissatisfaction boils over, liberal society is not likely to deal with the problem effectively. Its denial that it has dogmas means it cannot reflect on and adjust its core convictions, something self-consciously dogmatic traditions have always done. In any event, those convictions are too simple and abstract, and therefore too categorical and demanding, for basic reform to be possible. They establish a comprehensive standard for human relations that can locate the blame for problems only in insufficient liberalism. The crudeness and sporadic brutality of relations between the sexes, for example, even at our most prestigious universities, results largely from liberal attempts to break down traditional norms for our relation to our bodies and from the consequent disordering of social understandings that tell us what men and women are, how they differ, and what they have a right to expect from each other. Insistence that such matters are wholly subject to the decision of the sovereign ego makes it impossible to turn back the clock and provide a more welcoming environment for traditional understandings that once helped people—especially nonelite people—establish stable and productive connections that support dignified and satisfying lives.
No tendency attains complete victory or lasts forever. That applies to today’s liberalism as well. The more complete the liberation it brings, the less persuasive its claim that more of the same is needed to overcome supposed bigotries and other antiliberal influences from the past. At some point people will begin to blame liberalism for life’s difficulties, sometimes justly, but sometimes less so, as all societies are flawed and to be human is to suffer. Liberalism will lose the support it needs to maintain itself, and people will find their way back to a way of living more firmly based in reality. A conception of the divine other than the divine ego will return, and a broader understanding of moral reason will arise with a place for natural patterns.
Nonetheless, the road back is likely to be long and bumpy, and for the time being the demands of liberal dogma grow ever stronger. So for now, those who reject the liberal religion need to think very hard about how to limit the excesses of current trends, and keep something better alive for future generations.
The first step in the struggle is to drive home the falsity of the persistent view that liberalism is a nondogmatic method for accommodating the largest possible variety of opinions and ways of life. Cultural debates are always conflicts between orthodoxies. Our own debates about sex, marriage, and family must be understood and judged as exactly that rather than misconceived as a conflict between irrational dogma on one side and tolerance and freedom on the other. This is becoming easier to do, now that a whole generation has been raised under the regime of political correctness. A backlash against that regime is already visible among young people. What is needed is to convert dissatisfaction from cynical abandonment of concern with public affairs into reasoned and constructive engagement. It appears, then, that the culture war is not over. Understood for what it is, it has hardly begun.
James Kalb is a lawyer and the author of, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).