from Books & Reviews
by Francis Canavan
(Rowman and Littlefield, 1995)
This tightly-written, scholarly but readable book provides a context for understanding the cultural struggle that is currently being played out in our schools and courts. Must a democratic society teach children that homosexuality is equal to heterosexuality? That lesbian mothers are as good for society as a traditional family? Is social affirmation of homosexuality a legitimate civil-rights demand?
Francis Canavan, a Jesuit scholar and professor of political science, attempts to sort out the ways society can function under the conflicting demands of pluralism.
He makes several key points. When individual liberty is the only acknowledged ordering principle, community disintegrates, and government becomes nothing more than the arbiter of an unending series of competing claims for "rights." He believes it is essential that we acknowedge a public philosophy. Subjectivism and liberalism are not "neutral" philosophies. Philosophically, one side always wins.
He notes that the moral and intellectual consensus on which our society has lived is rapidly disintegrating. "There is a widely diffused feeling that we are ceasing to agree even in basic aspects on what man should be and how he should live...For multitudes today, truth is only what the individual thinks is true, good is only what the individual personally prefers, and justice is his right to act on his preferences." Liberalism, the guiding principle of our society, has "blossomed into mere permissiveness."
At the core of this insistence on unlimited liberty is the belief that there is no objective good, and that all lifestyles and convictions are merely subjective tastes and preferences, all of which are equally entitled to protection under the law. In fact subjectivism is, he says, the essence of liberalism.
"Yet liberty and equality cannot be the highest values of a political system because they relativize and ultimately destroy all other values. When we make them our supremne norms, we have no set of objectively valid human ends that can provide answers to the questions, 'Liberty for what?' And 'Equality in what?' We therefore cannot have the communal beliefs without which, in the long run, there is no community. In short, American society now lacks what Walter Lippman once called the public philosophy...We are left with an unending battle between conflicting claims to liberty and equality, and no publicly acknowledged principle which to resolve the conflict."
The problem is, he says, that subjectivism and individualism are not "neutral" philosophies. "The pluralist game will continue to be played, of course, because there is no other game in town. But there is no need for it to keep on being a confidence game in which one side proclaims its cause as neutrality, and the other side is gullible enough to believe it. Societies do face moral issues to which they must give moral answers...We shall play the pluralist game more honestly, perhaps even with better results, if we admit openly what the game is, and what stakes we are playing for."
Even in a pluralist society, he says, there is a public morality. "Divided though it be, the community is a community by virtue of what its members have in common. Among the things they hold in common are certain moral values and principles." The values of the majority of the community determine the norms that society will favor or even impose--either by pressure of opinion or by force of law.
For example, civil-rights laws which single out homosexuals are not simply "neutral" applications of liberty and equality. "To the extent that they are a demand for public acceptance of homosexuality as a separate but equal way of life, [they] pose an issue to which there is no neutral answer. This is a demand that the public commmit itself to a particular view of the nature and function of sex in human life. Faced with this demand, the public and its government cannot commit itself to a specious neutrality by leaving the matter to individual consciences...government is under constant pressure--to which it frequently yields--to use its power to promote or enforce new norms in the guise of leaving normative decisions to individuals. The net result is not no norms, but different norms and reshaping of the institutions of society."
Because our democratic society assumes it can uphold no rational standard for a heirarchy of values, "we stipulate that all goals are equal...Justice thus loses all substantive content and becomes pure form...The pluralistic society, therefore, stands upon no moral principles, but is unified only by the procedural principle of an official neutrality."
"The attack on social moral standards is most obvious at the present time in the demand for 'gay rights' laws. The demand succeeds as often as it does because in this country's current egalitarian mood, it is hard to mobilize public sentiment against laws that only seem to forbid discrimination. But the thrust of these anti-discrimination laws is toward a deep change in social morality...
"Some like chocolate, some like vanilla. Some like Mozart, others prefer heavy metal. Some like girls, some like boys. ..It is all the same because man is a bundle of desires, and each man strives to satisfy the desires that he has. Society's only task is [supposedly] to preside over the striving with impartial neutrality so that we can all live together in peace."
In summary, Fr. Canavan says, "A pluralist society must perforce strive to be neutral about many things that concern its divided citizens, but it cannot be neutral about all of them. If it tries or pretends to be neutral about certain issues, the pluralist game becomes a shell game by which people are tricked into consenting to changes in basic social standards and institutions, on the pretense that nothing more is asked of them than respect for the rights of individuals. Much more, however, is involved: on the fundamental issues of social life, one side always wins."