The Shock of Recognition

 
 

Newly defined and vigorously enforced rights have proliferated even as they are uprooted from any philosophic grounding.

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In the matter of sexual mores we can note a tendency similar to that observed in Neuhaus’s Law, coined by the late Fr. Neuhaus, that “where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” One might say that the law of changing sexual mores goes as follows: “Whenever the illicit becomes optional, the illicit will sooner or later oblige support.”

Popular attitudes on the use of contraception bear this out. Once thought immoral or illegal, contraception is now considered a moral responsibility. Not only may one use contraception, but one ought to use contraception if one is to be morally responsible. Similar changes are observable in the debates surrounding sexual activity outside of marriage or the nature of marriage itself. Premarital sex is “normal behavior” the research says, and we are left to wonder if normal describes a statistical or moral claim. Likewise, the reasoning of Judge Walker’s Proposition 8 ruling appears to treat the arguments against same-sex marriage as no more than the bigotry of tradition, thus lacking moral or legal force, and not the sort of position respectable and enlightened individuals could take seriously. Again, what was once illicit is now to be recognized and supported by all right-thinking persons.

In its declaration of sexual rights, the International Planned Parenthood Federation takes sexual inversion to full term, claiming in its seventh principle that states are obliged to “respect, protect and fulfill the sexual rights of all.” Respecting sexual rights requires states “to refrain from interfering … with the enjoyment of a particular right.” Protecting sexual rights requires states “to take measure that prevent third parties from interfering with human rights guarantees,” and this, the IPPF indicates, includes holding accountable “not-for-profit and religious entities, as well as individuals.” Fulfilling sexual rights requires states to adopt “legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial, promotional and other measures towards the full realization of the right.”

The list of enumerated rights to be respected, protected, and fulfilled is quite extensive, including the right to pleasure, right to abortion without restriction, right to contraception, the right for everyone to marry or not as they choose, the right to explore dreams and fantasies without guilt or shame, and the right to information on non-conforming lifestyles. They assert all of this despite the rather obvious (and potentially absurd) difficulties of how the state is to fulfill the right to pleasure and fantasy or protect individuals from “problematic” religious teachings.

Those structural difficulties aside, the most serious problem of the sexual inversion would appear to be justifying such rights claims. What, precisely, grounds these rights? The IPPF notes that sexual rights are human rights but does so without any explanation or defense. This is just as well, since any defense or grounding of the rights places their conclusions in jeopardy of incoherence.

Classical liberal theory grounded natural rights in “substantial equality,” as French political theorist Philippe Bénéton terms it. In theory, not always in practice, the liberal taught that humans were equal in their humanity. All were equal in their substance even if differing in religion, politics, class, race, sex, ability, and so on. Consequently, natural rights were acknowledged in recognition of sameness. Others were the same flesh and blood and soul as me, and I was to look at others and recognize that this “other” is morally equal to me in dignity and rights.

Now it is not so. Bénéton argues that classical liberalism and its assumption of sameness is undone by subversive and radical versions of contemporary liberalism. Having refused to accept any limitations on freedom, radical liberalism must also lose human equality, for a substantial human nature would imply a stable, fixed order wherein some actions would be considered more or less worthy of a human. But such order and its assumption of value is antithetical to a purely indeterminate freedom whereby one is entitled to each and every identity one claims for oneself.

Of course, a refusal of human commonality renders recognition of the substantial equality of the other impossible, for if neither I nor other persons are defined by our common humanity, what could possibly oblige me to treat them with the same dignity I demand for myself? How can we claim human dignity when a common measure of humanity is refused?

Using the Genesis story (as literature rather than as an authoritative text), consider Adam’s recognition of Eve upon waking from his slumber: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.…” Adam recognizes her difference; she is other, she is not him, but a distinct “this.” At the same time she is the same; she is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” She is not just a distinct thing but a distinct person—like him, she is a Thou.

The story of Adam’s recognition profoundly bears the truth of human reality. We are meant to be with and for each other, but find ourselves with a distorted politics of recognition. Having refused the moral foundation—and limits—of substantial equality, we lack grounds to recognize the equality of the other. Rights proliferate precisely as they lose their grounding and meaning. No longer able to recognize the other as equal in substance, we instead look at the other without recognition—they are strangers, alien. We claim purely indeterminate freedom for ourselves, but such freedom is possible only on the condition that the stranger recognizes our indeterminacy and leaves us alone. In other words, rather than beginning with the recognition of similarity in substantial equality, we instead define our rights as our wish to be ignored and left alone in solitary freedom, a freedom denying our nature as relational and hospitable to others.

If we stopped here we might simply have a society of persons politely ignoring each other, but as we are well aware this is not the case. The IPPF asks for something rather more than to be left alone. It aggressively claims that the rights it identifies must be respected, protected, and fulfilled, and it further stipulates that such actions require defense against religion. Rather than simply demanding to be left alone, the new sexual inversion demands recognition, even when there are no grounds for this recognition.

The politics of recognition required by the sexual inversion is confused and self-refuting, for insofar as rights claims are not grounded in reason or nature but simply express will, those very claims become entirely dependent on others’ recognition of that will. If the other recognizes the claim, the claim is established; if not, the claims are thwarted. Consequently, such rights-claims, so construed, cannot obligate recognition since they lack grounding other than arbitrary will. Lacking the force of reason, they are supported only by forceful and vigorous assertion.

The confusion will spread, and as it does, we become more and more a people shrilly demanding the hospitality of others even as they reject the substantial equality which grounds the obligations between all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

R. J. Snell is an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University.

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