The Corner

Moral Fetishism

Very interesting email from a reader:

Hi, Jonah,

Nice article in DT on empirical, consequentialist argumentation for conservative views.

Not that this is a “criticism” of the article, but I think you leaned a bit too forward against this sort of argumentation, and I was glad to see you comment at the end that it’s a complicated issue.

Surely it is a core insight of conservatism that certain standards of behavior are productive of good lives and therefore worth conserving, while other ways of life are not so productive and not worth conserving. John Kekes, my favorite philosophical spokeman for conservatism, makes this clear in his various books, for example A Case for Conservatism. Something has gone askew if we are meant to say that even if kids raised in some abominably liberal parental circumstance turn out to be better off than kids raised in traditional families, it’s still wrong to raise them in that liberal circumstance. That’s moral fetishism, fetishizing one value at the expense of all others, which, I maintain, is the core dysfunction of leftism (fetishizing, as it does, economic equality.) Yet, of course I agree with you that simple consequentialism is wrong. If socialized medicine produces a net gain in happiness, it still violates the rights of those paying for it. Yet, whose rights are violated by, say, lesbians going to sperm banks to make babies if those babies turn out happier? That’s where I go empirical (couple of old posts over at Right Reason). I’m almost sure that having one’s father be some donor who doesn’t give a damn about you must hurt; the empirical evidence counts in settling that contention. Further, even if those babies turn out happier, it may be in spite of the terrible hurt and due to lesbians’ higher earning power, say, or some other factor independent of the act of using a sperm donor to make a child. So, as you say, it’s complicated. But it seems to me you lean slightly too far forward against consequentialist argumentation. There are anti-consequentialist rights. But there is also the possibility of fetishizing bad ways of life one the wrong-headed grounds that doing so is the conservative thing to do. It’s not. Conservatism means to conserve the good values, not all the values. Opposition to the abolition of slavery was merely the semblance of conservatism. Real conservatives opposed slavery when they recognized its inconsistency with values we know we must conserve.

Also, you mention natural law as an alternative of argumentative basis. But that kind of argument will often need to show that certain ways are proper to us because they do in fact produce good lives.

I’m just saying, that’s all.

Best,

[Name withheld]

Update: Another reader responds:

Jonah,

I’m jumping in mid-argument here, but your E-mailer has me a bit confused.  He writes:

Yet, whose rights are violated by, say, lesbians going to sperm banks to make babies if those babies turn out happier? That’s where I go empirical (couple of old posts over at Right Reason). I’m almost sure that having one’s father be some donor who doesn’t give a damn about you must hurt

This example doesn’t make much sense because there were no babies until the lesbians went to the sperm bank.  No one’s rights were violated when the lesbians went to the sperm bank because the baby didn’t exist at that point.  He asks what if the babies turned out “happier.”  Happier than what?  Your E-mailer is asking about the relative happiness of a child against how happy it was before it was even conceived.  Also, if the child is hurt by not having a father, that hurt was imposed by the lesbians who felt that their desire to have a baby trumped whatever injury growing up without a father might cause to the baby.

That’s my two cents.

 

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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