Stanley Kurtz on taboos and fairness

Stanley Kurtz has a generally sensible discussion at NRO of the practical function of sexual taboos, that by defining what is fitting within sexual relations they make it possible to rely on such relations to be something definite and so make family life possible as a social institution. He then says:

I would rather accept some disruption in family stability than go back to the days when homosexuality itself was deeply tabooed. The increase in freedom and fairness is worth it.

On its face, the comment makes little sense. After all, if homosexuality isn’t destructive, there’s no sense tabooing it, and if it is, permitting it would be unfair and violate the freedom of those forced to live with the resulting destruction. Nor does the language express a balancing of the homosexual interest in doing what one wants with the general interest in family stability. Rather, it seems to express an opposition between rational standards of freedom and fairness on one hand and necessary taboos on the other.

What Kurtz’s comment and discussion as a whole seem to express, in fact, is what might be called the conservative liberal position. They also provide a good demonstration of the uselessness of that position. In effect, the conservative liberal position accepts the liberal view that values are essentially man-made, and that what’s important is satisfying human goals “fairly”—that is, giving everyone’s goals equal weight. That is why allowing homosexuality is thought to advance freedom and fairness, and to that extent to be a good thing. The view then notes, however, that society can’t be fully rationalized on such a basis, so some standards understood as transcending human goals (“taboos”) are going to have to be accepted so that liberal goals of freedom, fairness and well-being can, within the limits of what’s possible, actually be achieved. Such taboos might include, for example, conventions that burden homosexual relations in secondary ways, for example by denying “gay marriage.”

The problem, of course, is how it can be decided what violations of utilitarian liberal rationalism and equality are going to be allowed in the society’s morality, and once the decision is made how the allowable taboos can be put forward with a straight face as binding “transcendent standards.” After all, everyone with a brain will know that to the extent the standards or taboos deviate from rationalism and equality they are allowed to continue only for the sake of liberal utilitarian goals, and that in fact they aren’t “transcendent” but concessions to human irrationality that should be restricted as much as possible for the sake of “freedom and fairness”—the equal rational legitimacy of the conduct they condemn. If that’s so, though, how much force will they have and why should anyone accept them?

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