Since the 1960’s the West has increasingly become gripped by a new zeitgeist which might be summarised as ‘everyone should be free to do whatever they want so long as it doesn’t directly harm anyone else.‘ Some might add ‘without their consent‘ on the grounds that if people wish to be harmed why should anyone else stop that? However that might be the shorter form has all the force of an apparent truism. What reasonable person would unnecessarily restrict the freedom of another? Surely only the authoritarian or the bigot could oppose such an obviously fair proposition.
On closer examination though the idea can be seen to contain fatal flaws. It proceeds from an extreme individualism which holds that the individual has absolute priority over the family or society such that indirect harm to these things is considered to be less important than the frustration experienced by an individual prevented from fulfilling her or his desires. Moreover it assumes that the meaning of the word ‘harm’ is self-evident but that is far from being true as debates around issues like abortion, euthanasia or the compulsory wearing of motorbike helmets testify. The combination of these two errors is toxic and capable of producing great harm before the zeitgeist runs its course.
To take the second point first. In the West pluralism is normative, a thousand flowers bloom a thousand schools of thought contend. What this means is that there is no unified moral consensus nor is there an agreed basis upon which one can be formulated. The previous era was united around the propositions of Christianity a religion which is increasingly being rejected and attacked by Westerners. Nonetheless nothing has emerged which can both replace its moral formulae and command near universal support. Definitions of ‘harm’ produced by that system remain the default ones but non-Christians do not necessarily have any coherent arguments to defend these definitions which seem to persist merely by force of habit. Against this individuals and groups whose desires or appetites were suppressed or disapproved of under the Ancien Régime can advance their case, fine-tuned to speak the language of the zeitgeist, and those forces that feel uncomfortable about the demands can command no intellectually respectable arguments to counter them.
Given the plurality of views all that an agnostic society can affirm is that none of them are absolutely true but that some of them can be relatively true. Although faced with the question ‘relative to what?‘ there is no obvious answer. A case in point would be the social media response to the US Supreme Court ruling which redefined marriage to include same-sex partnerships. The hash-tag which emerged was #lovewins. Granted that most people used it as an intellectually vacuous emotional feelgood crow of triumph nevertheless there is an implicit and particular expression of the zeitgeist contained within it.
The #lovewins proposition is essentially that marriage is a private contract and that society through the State has no right to override mutually professed love between two persons therefore marriage should be permitted to same-sex couples. That being so, however, there is no basis for the State to deny any two persons who profess uncoerced love for each other from marrying. This would include a person who wishes to become the third or fourth spouse in a plural ‘marriage’ or the daughter who wishes to marry her father and so on. Although pointing this out is usually decried as scaremongering on the basis of #lovewins I can see no reason in principle for denying such persons the right to become married.
This brings us to the first flaw in the suppositions of the zeitgiest, extreme individualism. To argue that society as such has a stake in marriage sufficient for it to prevent polygamous or incestuous unions being incorporated within the institution is to accept the premise that indirect harm to society can override the principal of personal liberty. And of course the principle can be extended indefinitely. It is a curious thing in this context that many of the social liberals most vociferous in demanding an expanded series of rights for homosexual persons also demand restrictions on the freedom of people too eat to much, drink too much or smoke anything other than cannabis. That is, they accept the zeitgeist to the extent that it can be used to undermine the family but reject it when it threatens to do the same to the economy. Indeed, no significant philosophical or political school of thought would accept the argument that society is an uninterested bystander in social interactions and that every contract is private.
The crux of the matter really is this, the zeitgeist essentially consists of the ancient cry of people do do whatever their desires urge them to do regardless of the consequences. No State or society can, in truth, accept such a demand because it would lead to societal suicide. The plunging birthrate in nations which have made divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality normative is a significant manifestation of this truth. What has happened however over the past 50 years or so is that movements which have sought to throw of the shackles of Christian or other religious modes of thought have seen in the zeitgeist a powerful tool for mobilising people and have done so reckless as to the long term consequences of their actions. There is no sign of this process coming to an end any time soon.
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