At one time, for better or worse1
, the state thought it had a role to play in upholding personal morality. To this end, it passed laws against prostitution, public drunkenness, adultery, pornography, and various other things that were seen as leading to a decline in public morals. The justifications for doing so were mostly of a religious, or at least, spiritual, nature, arguing that such behavior coarsened mankind, tarnished him and so on. There were some who offered pragmatic arguments about such lack of public morals leading to other crimes, but for the most part, those arguments are of more modern provenance, when we had to develop secular arguments for ethics. In the past more spiritual arguments were far more common.
As the 19th century wore on and and bled into the 20th, policy gradually became more secular, and religious argument fell into some disrepute. It took quite a while, but over time secular forces began to undermine the public morals laws. Not all of them, certainly, but many. For example, adultery, though for a time remaining technically a crime to give grounds for divorce charges2
, became less and less a public matter and more a private one, as did sexual relations between unmarried individuals. Similarly, drunkenness, loitering, vagrancy and many other nuisance charges fell into disuse, as alcoholism became an illness and homelessness a noble affliction rather than a sign of idleness. Even homosexuality, once quite a scandalous charge, became not only permissible, but accepted3
. There were exceptions, of course. As laws about sexuality became more lax, drugs laws were born, and became ever more strict. (Though, as we shall see, in part there is a very good reason for that4
.) Nor did laws against prostitution ever disappear except in a very few locales.
None of this should come as news to anyone alive today who knows anything of history. Much that was once illegal, from pornography to birth control, is now commonplace. And, in part, if not in whole, it arose because of an argument from a secular morality. Basically, an effort to remove ethics from the religious realm, or, more accurately, to argue that since there was no single revealed set of ethical standards, it was not the place of the government to enforce an individual ethical standard.
What is amusing is that the same materialist ethics actually had a flip side, an authoritarian evil twin, which came into its own only a few decades ago, and is today coming to rival the more liberating materialist ethic. And, in a quite ironic twist, this authoritarian version of materialist ethics, should it come to be applied consistently, will likely end up reinstating all those rules the earlier movement eliminated.
Allow me to explain.
Many, confronted with a purely material world, without an afterlife, or with no certainty of one, develop the belief that their lifetime upon this earth must be prolonged to the greatest extent possible5
. This is not the sole motivation behind today's fixation on "health" as an absolute value6
, but it definitely is one of them. As George Carlin once commented, "We lost the soul, so we'll save the body." Without any prospect of existence beyond the immediate material, the material is made the end all.
Which would be fine were it held as a purely individual faith. But those who adopt this belief often embrace it with a missionary zeal, convinced those of us who do not place health above all else are misguided fools who need salvation, and thus the modern "health nazis" are born. And we are greeted by the sight of the same people who once campaigned against the government "meddling in our bedrooms" telling us the government should be meddling in our kitchens, and our smoking habits, and our gardens and our choice of pesticides, and automobiles and just about everything else. We are told the state can't keep children from fornicating, but can keep them from eating burgers. That we have no right to tell someone with whom he can copulate, but have every right to dictate every morsel of food he places in his mouth.
Which is where the irony of the whole situation arises. You see, the original movement, for better or worse, made certain areas of individual choice sacrosanct, and we still abide by that today, for the most part. But, at the same time, the modern successors have made health the sine qua non of policy. And, whether sacrosanct or not, sexuality, for example, has an influence upon health. And so, while saying we cannot allow an individual to consume transfats because of some minimal health risk, at the same time we are prohibited from establishing, say, an AIDS registry7
, or legally prohibiting those with known STDs from transmitting them to others.
Such contradictions cannot long stand. One way or another, this one will eventually collapse, and, as authoritarian movements almost always win in such conflicts, I expect to see the end of sexual liberation. Given that extramarital, premarital and other sexual encounters have detrimental health effects, I would expect to see increasing pressures to return to a more puritanical view of sex. Not that there won't be resistance, those promoting sexual freedom will certainly struggle, and the gay rights movement, having been long associated with them will join in as well8
, but, in the end, I expect that we will see a return to much less liberal sexual attitudes, ironically thanks to many of the same thinkers who gave it to us originally, or at least their descendants. Of course, only time will tell.
1. In general, I oppose the government involving itself in such questions. However, I support quite strongly allowing the public to eschew any and all contact with those whose morals offend them, including refusing to trade and other actions which would today be illegal. I believe allowing such shunning would actually create a stronger force than government laws, while not using the power of the state inappropriately. However, as we have not had the freedom to do so for quite some time, it is a hard point to prove at the moment. (See "The Consequences of Bad Laws
", "Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction
", "Shame and Understanding
" and "Social Pressure
2. For those who are quite young, or who don't recall, "no fault" divorce is relatively new. Originally divorce required grounds, such as adultery on the part of one party, though even before no fault divorce "irreconcilable differences" was invented as a way to allow for a basically amicable split. Because grounds were required, the criminal charge of adultery persisted, and tot his day remains on the books in many states, though, as should be obvious, is rarely if ever prosecuted. (The UCMJ is another matter. I am not up to date on current practice, but I know about a decade ago they were still taking adultery by service members, especially officers, quite seriously.)
3. Again, I do not say this is a bad thing. Unlike some other conservatives (though like many others), I am of the mindset that government power is best limited to preventing one individual from violating the rights of others. When it comes to moral questions which do not involve the violation of rights, social disapprobation, persuasion, education, individual conscience and a host of other tools seem much more appropriate. Especially as questions of what is and is not proper individual morality have so many and widely varied answers, even within a single branch of Christianity, much less within a single faith, or within the nation as a whole, it seems absurd to pick a single answer and force it upon the whole. If we select wrong, in even one case, then would we not be forcing the whole of the nation into immorality? That seems worse than allowing individual error to persist.
4. The movement to prohibit drugs was in part an outgrowth of the health nazi movement, but it had other roots as well. For example, as drugs were associated with both counter culture movements and minority groups, fighting drugs, especially in the early 60s and earlier, was a convenient means to attack those groups without obviously doing so.
5. Obviously, a fixation upon health is not limited to those holding these beliefs, but there is definitely a historical tendency for strong "wellness" movements to arise during periods when secular feelings run high. (Eg. The National Socialist Movement, many 19th century American utopian movements, etc.) Not that there are no religious movements which promote individual health, but it seems to have a much stronger hold when one is deprived of belief in an afterlife.
6. See my essays "Absolute Values
7. Though, thanks to our inconsistencies, some diseases, even STDs, are tracked in some states, despite "reproductive freedoms". Because the change in perspective was so recent, what is and is not a violation of individual sexual liberties is still not quite a settled question, and, as the authoritarian tendency which will move counter to such freedom is already on the rise, I do not expect such questions to ever be settled.
8. Then again, many in the gay community have become involved in health care activism, which sometimes takes on a quite authoritarian cast, so it is likely there will be strong division here as well. (Not to mention that the gay rights movement, despite liberal beliefs, is not synonymous with all homosexuals, and so there will be many gay voters adopting different positions entirely.)
There is nothing unusual about such a backlash, to be honest. Many radical movements originate with antinomian elements. Many variations of communism, and even some factions with the national socialist movement, espoused the destruction of traditional morality. However, over time, either the excesses of such movements bring a backlash and a renewed puritanism, or else the authoritarianism in other area begins to apply itself to those areas which were previously governed by traditional ethics. (As is the case here.) Whatever the cause, what starts as a wild, unrestrained anarchic movement very often ends up even more puritanical than the beliefs it hopes to replace. (Though there may remain, here and there, areas of license, either through simple oversight, or for practical reasons, such as the national socialist disregard for monogamy when creating plans for breeding centers.)
I realize this sounds like I am championing the cause of traditional morality and government enforced ethics, and nothing could be farther from the truth. If there is a point to this essay it is that a movement without a clear vision and a proper understanding of the role of the state can often achieve good goals only to have them slip away. Though, in some cases, I disagree with the directions in which the sexual liberation movement took, especially its tendency to try to shock the public in hopes of "educating", I agree with removing the state from many issues. But, as we can see, because they lacked a proper understanding of the role of the state, in the end their own movement ended up in conflict with them, and, if I am right, will end up destroying what they created