The recent high-profile controversies touched off by the HHS Mandate have elicited excellent debate—both here in Public Discourse and elsewhere—regarding the meaning, importance, and application of the American idea of religious liberty. They have not, however, elicited any substantial debate regarding the rational grounds for opposing the use of contraception in itself. In the numerous conversations I have had on this subject with family, friends, and fellow academics during this time, I have encountered a startlingly universal admission on the part of those opposing the contraception coverage mandate that their opposition was a matter of faith rather than reason. Almost no one, it seems—and the religious no more than the non-religious—thinks there is any rational basis for disapproving of the use of contraception.
The sort of argument put forward by Aquinas in the Summa Contra Gentiles (III.122), though in fact quite cogent, now fails to be widely persuasive as a result of the influence of modern philosophical critiques. This argument requires strong natural philosophical presuppositions and a carefully nuanced understanding that preclude its popular acceptance in the current intellectual and political climate.
There are, however, other and very different arguments available for contesting the desirability of widespread contraceptive use. Although these arguments stand little chance of altering the short-term course of public policy, there is still value in attempting to uncover true arguments simply for their own sake. And true arguments, if defended over an extended period of time, tend to become practically effective ones as well.
Tocqueville on Democratic Politics
In the famous speech containing the original invocation of America as a “city upon a hill” (1630), Puritan leader John Winthrop elaborated on the harmful effects of the Fall for political societies. Winthrop asserted that, through original sin, “Adam, himself rent from his Creator, rent all his posterity also from one another; whence it comes that every man is born with this principle in him to love and seek himself only…” Selfishness, according to Winthrop, is an integral part of fallen human nature, and individual isolation an inevitable consequence of the Fall.
Two hundred years later, Tocqueville, the most astute commentator on the early American Puritan communities, echoed Winthrop’s assessment of fallen human nature by identifying “personal interest” as “the only immobile point in the human heart.” According to Tocqueville, self-interest contains the dangerous potential to corrupt democratic political societies from within unless it is educated to become “self-interest well-understood,” i.e., self-interest that is enlightened by recognizing the integral relationship between one’s own ultimate interests and the interests of others with whom one lives. Self-interest becomes “well-understood” when people are drawn out of themselves through participation in local political communities as well as other voluntary associations.
This theme of educating self-interest, combating the sort of selfishness Winthrop identified as a direct consequence of original sin, is not a minor or ancillary point in Tocqueville’s famous analysis: it is, in many ways, the unifying thread of Democracy in America taken as a whole. According to Tocqueville, the focus on the value of equality in democratic societies naturally encourages an attitude of isolation on the part of democratic citizens. The built-in social connections of a hierarchical hereditary society are gone, and since everyone is like everyone else, it isn’t clear why anyone needs anyone else.
If a political culture of individual isolation comes to predominate in a democratic society, the society becomes ripe for the emergence of despotism or tyranny. This is because, as political thinkers since the ancient Greeks have commonly noticed, despots have a much easier time dealing with subjects one-on-one. Friendships and associations among subjects are actively discouraged by despotic regimes, since they rightly recognize these as a potential threat to their absolute power. Brutus, after all, wouldn’t have killed Caesar on his own.
For this reason, Tocqueville dedicates his entire two-volume work—including the famous discussions of the New England townships and of the crucial importance of Christianity—to describing how the early Americans have managed to counter the natural isolating tendency of democracy and maintain the sort of healthy self-interest that alone can sustain political liberty in an age of equality.
Applying the Tocquevillian Lens
If educating self-interest and drawing citizens out of themselves are indeed crucial goals for the health of any democratic political society, then an application of Tocqueville’s analysis to contemporary issues should lead us directly to an awareness of the immense political importance of familial relationships. Marital relationships contribute powerfully to the goal of mitigating natural selfishness. They supply consistent incentives for each partner to think of the other rather than or in preference to oneself—the common saying “happy wife, happy life” comes to mind.
It is having children, however, that works most powerfully to overcome natural selfishness. For much of their childhood, children cannot offer anything approaching the reciprocal companionship of a spouse or the sort of friendship that is only possible among equals. Parenthood involves the unconditional giving of oneself without expecting anything in return, and is therefore more contrary to the problematic self-centeredness of our fallen human nature than any other human relationship. To some extent, this effect is cumulative: the more children a couple has, the less self-centered they will tend to be.
This is not to say, of course, that parenthood is a sort of cure for selfishness—it may not work at all on some parents, and its curative effect on others is incomplete, at best. Yet, spread over a political society of hundreds of millions of people, there are powerful reasons to think that parenthood makes for better democratic citizens, and therefore that it is an important political good that is worthy of promotion. Parenthood works directly against what Tocqueville identified as the single most dangerous tendency of democratic societies, providing the heaviest social and cultural counterweight available to selfishness and isolation. Compelled to think a bit less of themselves than they otherwise would in their personal lives, parent-citizens might be expected to more readily form attachments to and cooperate with their fellow citizens in political life.
This Tocquevillian argument would, then, weigh in on the side of restricting access to contraceptives rather than easing the procurement of them, though there are, to be sure, additional considerations that may qualify this conclusion. To take one example, the potential political goods of parenthood would be expected to be realized much more reliably by individuals in committed marital relationships than by those not in stable relationships, and therefore perhaps the Tocquevillian argument against contraceptive use may only obtain—at least in a decisive way—in the case of married couples.
The Tocquevillian argument presented above does not, unlike the vast majority of existing arguments against contraception or its government-mandated coverage, provide a moral condemnation of contraceptive use in itself or by a single individual. Instead, it provides a primarily political condemnation of the widespread use of contraception throughout a democratic society. Selfishness and isolation are, as Tocqueville powerfully argued, attitudes that tend over time to lead democracies toward despotism. If this is an undesirable destination, perhaps we should begin to politically promote, rather than discourage or problematically ignore, parenthood as the most obvious and powerful means available to us for combating these destructive attitudes.
And to those who might be tempted to raise the specter of over-population, for the moment Aristotle’s sound dictum may suffice: “the city exists not only for the sake of living but rather primarily for the sake of living well.”