The passion surrounding the so-called “social issues” in American politics, from reproductive rights to gay marriage, is exacerbated by the fact that to some degree “the issue is not the issue,” as the Sixties slogan held. In other words, what is really at stake is not merely the nominal subject of the debate, but also a clash of worldviews.
The United States, like other offshoots of Europe and Europe itself, is the heir to three distinct moral systems: custom, creed, and contract.
Custom is the source of one kind of traditional morality. What is right and what is wrong is determined by tribal tradition, as passed down by one generation to the next.
While customary morality in one form or another is as old as humanity, creedal morality — the ethical system of organized, scriptural religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is only a few thousand years old. Writing is a technology, and there could be no scriptural religions until that technology had evolved. Furthermore, scriptural creeds require at least some of the population to be literate. Only agrarian or industrial societies have sufficient surplus to support a specialized class or caste of clerics to serve as the guardians and interpreters of the sacred texts.
Contractarian morality — ethics and politics based on individual rights and individual interests — is even more recent. There were foreshadowings in the ancient world. Epicurus cryptically defined justice as agreements among people not to harm one another and social contract theories of the origin of government were familiar already in ancient Greece and Rome. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam were hostile to such thinking. It was only the gradual secularization of the West beginning in the Renaissance and Enlightenment that allowed weakly Christian or wholly secular social contract theories based on individual rights like those of Gassendi, Hobbes, and Locke to become influential, to the point that they served as the rationales for the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.
The three moralities of custom, creed, and contract locate moral authority in different groups. In customary morality, authority is the possession of the village elders, who are experts in local tradition. In creedal morality, while divine truth may have been revealed to individuals in the past, their death or ascension to heaven means that authority resides with the clergy who interpret divine teachings as recorded in this or that set of scriptures. Contractarian morality is radically democratic, appealing as it does to the consensus of a majority of free citizens of a free state — a consensus reached on the basis of persuasion from premises that are “self-evident” (to use the term from the U.S. Declaration of Independence).
Corresponding to these three theories of social authority are three modes of argument:
Custom: “We should do X because our ancestors have always done X.”
Creed: “We should do X because God or the gods commanded us to do X.”
Contract: “We should do X because X is in the self-interest of all of us, when we properly understand our self-interest.”
Since the Enlightenment, contractarian reasoning has been associated with classical liberals, left-liberals, and libertarians, who take it to a utopian extreme. With the exception of many libertarians, most modern individualists concede that individual liberty and choice can be limited to promote the public good, however defined. Pure utilitarianism is not very influential, but the individualist, contractarian theory that dominates modern public discourse in democratic countries allows a role for utilitarian arguments in areas that do not affect the most fundamental rights.
Conservatism in the modern era tends to be associated with the claim that attempts to extend the realm of contract too far, at the expense of creed, custom, or both, will inadvertently undermine society and produce anarchy.
The dilemma for conservative critics of modern, contractarian individualism is that, in order to reach a broad public, both conservative champions of creed and conservative champions of custom are compelled to adopt the language of individual rights or utilitarianism in order to argue for public policy positions which they and like-minded people adopt on other grounds.
Religious conservatives, for example, will not persuade anyone other than their fellow sectarians if they oppose abortion or gay marriage by citing this or that biblical verse. For strategic reasons, religious opponents of abortion thus speak in public of “the right to life” of the unborn, borrowing the language of Enlightenment natural rights liberalism. Similarly, the major public argument of religious conservatives against gay marriage has been a secular utilitarian one: allowing gay men and lesbians to marry might weaken the institution of marriage. In the U.S., the argument that gay marriage will lead heterosexuals either to divorce in great numbers or shack up without benefit of clergy to date has not been very influential in shaping public opinion.
Conservative defenders of customary morality face a similar dilemma. “It was good enough for my grandparents and it’s good enough for me” is not an argument likely to win many converts in a modern society. For that reason, beginning with Edmund Burke and David Hume, sophisticated defenders of customary arrangements have generally made two utilitarian arguments for tradition.
One utilitarian argument for tradition, associated with Burke and his conservative successors, holds that society is a fragile web and if you pull too hard on one strand the entire thing may come unraveled. This combines a classic slippery slope argument with warnings about unintended consequences. Relax censorship of popular music now and before you know it there will be mob rule and the guillotine.
But this “road to ruin” argument in favor of inherited tradition is weak, because in the past conservatives and reactionaries have used it to oppose so many innovations that are taken for granted today. Universal adult male suffrage, the emancipation of slaves, female suffrage, the legalization of unions, the abolition of segregation, the end of child labor—in every case, conservative opponents predicted that the result of a reform would be the collapse of society, followed by anarchy or despotism. Civilization, it turns out, is far less fragile and far more resilient than most on the right have believed.
What might be called the Humean argument for convention or tradition is less apocalyptic. All customs or conventions are not wise and sound. Inherited traditions include the wise (young children should be supervised at play) and the horrible (old ladies who give you the evil eye should be burned as witches). Even so, it might be argued that there is a rebuttable presumption in favor of any long-lasting custom—a presumption that it has survived because it serves some useful purpose.
In this case, the task of the defender of a particular custom is to make a plausible utilitarian case for it, a case of which most followers of the custom themselves may be unaware. For example, Aristotle in the Politics argued that pregnant women should be encouraged to take daily walks to the temples of the gods who watched over childbirth. The goal was utilitarian, even if the rationale was religious.
But this example from Aristotle illustrates the weakness of this kind of conservative case for custom. If the only customs that are legitimate are those that can be shown to have utilitarian rationales, then that makes a case for utilitarianism—by itself, or subordinate to natural rights liberalism—rather than a case for reverence for customs in general. If pregnant women should exercise, then just say so. There is no reason to invoke either divine revelation or immemorial custom to justify the practice in a modern society. A practice is either useful on its own merits or it is not. Whether it is ancient or novel is immaterial.
What about the future? Today the majority of the human race for the first time in history lives in urban areas. Customary village morality inevitably loses its hold on city-dwellers in large, anonymous conurbations.
Moralities based on creed and contract compete to fill the vacuum left by the erosion of custom in a world of cities. Some individuals alienated by the pluralism and anonymity of modern urban life, in America as elsewhere, continue to find a substitute for the old village community in sectarian versions of religion. But attempts like those of the Iranian mullahs and Shia jihadists to create theocratic states—creedal dictatorships–require a costly apparatus of terror, repression and censorship. In the case of Marxism-Leninism, a secular creed, the high costs of repression led to the attempt being abandoned or relaxed everywhere in the communist bloc outside of North Korea.
In any case, outside of a few Muslim societies theocracy is not a modern political project. Europe is post-Christian and the U.S., with its rapidly rising secular minority, is only a generation or two behind. Hindu nationalism is more ethnic than religious. East Asia, with its traditions of religious pluralism and syncretism, does not have anything like the powerful Abrahamic traditions of Europe and the Muslim countries.
The decline of creed would not mean that the triumph of contract is assured, either in extreme libertarian or moderate liberal forms. Even in societies in which supernatural religion plays little or no role, social order will be shaped by some combination of contract and custom. Depending on the relative mix of the two, a society may be more or less liberal. Japan and South Korea, for example, are modern liberal democracies, but their societies seem highly homogeneous and communitarian to outsiders.
It is possible, then, that the decline of creeds will leave the field of contest to contract and custom. Burkean and Humean defenders of custom may prove to be right, in the future if not the present. In the past few centuries, conservatives have repeatedly been wrong about how deep the non-liberal foundations must be sunk, in order to support the superstructure of a liberal, contract-based society. But they may be right that the individual society of contract cannot exist except upon some minimal base of customary consensus. In Aesop’s fable, the boy who cried wolf turned out to be right about the wolf, in the end. •