SELF-OWNERSHIP AND "THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS" - THE PROBLEM
"Bill, are you happy?"
A psychological counselor asked me this some 20 years ago as I struggled with my own coming out.
Happiness . . . Personal fulfillment . . . The show Cats stated its own feline definition for happiness as, at least, peace of mind and contentment. ("Touch me and you'll know what happiness is…..")
A generation ago, young people learned that they owed obligations to family and community before they could even think about establishing their own adult identities. Young men were subjected to conscription, and (deferments notwithstanding) were potentially required to run a gauntlet where they offered their virile yet fragile, vulnerable bodies to defend the country. Young Mormon men (even today) gave up two years of young adulthood to spread "the Gospel" at their own expense. In those olden days, you courted a member of the opposite sex, fell in love, and remained affirmatively sexually interested in one partner for a lifetime, primarily in order to raise children, but also to belong to a support system. You needed family to have an identity of your own, apart from the collective games and tribunals of adolescence. You loaned your sexuality ¾ affectionate monogamy with one spouse appropriate for your weaknesses ¾ to the common good, and didn't ask questions. You didn't let pornography or even fantasy spoil your supper. The Mormon Church has always "helped" less aggressive young men cultivate the heterosexual interests required of them to fit in.
Then came the Liberation of the late 1960's and 1970's. It meant different things to different folks. You could be more than you are, OK. You could transcend your reality. This might mean the "experience" or "happening" of mind-alteration with drugs. Or it might mean a new place for sensuality. It could quickly melt into a grimy slush of self-destructive, dangerous hedonism. At best, it meant ambition, a desire to express oneself and leave a positive mark on the world, regardless of the limits of family ties. Then it meant self-actualization and not just immediate gratification.
My own life would provide a subtle lesson in what liberation means, psychologically. I grew up somewhat the stereotyped "sissy boy" only child, spoiled perhaps. I did not find it easy to establish and keep intimate long-term relationships with people (men) who, because their masculine qualities seemed to need edification rather than desecration, really excited me. Women, I thought, had it made and could take themselves for granted; men of honor would sacrifice themselves for women and the progeny from their own bodies. And I was never comfortable around small children. I built an intellectual world in which I could live and express myself very independently. I played piano, composed, wrote, and entered chess tournaments. Musical themes, chess openings, intellectual ideas ¾ all these things came to seem as alive and spirit-filled as real people. These phantoms established and ordered their own worlds, and in retrospect is seems that they announced the rise of individualism. Stars, galaxies, quasars, all these things reproduce themselves ¾ just not sexually. God, to me, was in everything ¾ call it pantheism, Gaia. Perhaps the political climate during my adolescence, with its new emphasis on brains and science (apart from social relationships and family) as a Cold War weapon, helped shaped my attitudes.
I found I owned a talent to write, and to tell the brutal truth about things that make people uncomfortable about the most sensitive things, like identity, family, and sexuality. I do ask and do tell. My independence, my freedom to say exactly what I want and maintain a reasonable enough income with my information systems skills to stay totally independent, became my essence, my best personal trait. I have no specific loyalties, particularly politically, because neither the "left" nor the "right" gets it right.
What's wrong with this? Nothing, really? Different strokes for different folks? Diversity is good!
Right after this New Year's Day, my life changed, at least temporarily, in a half-second, as my left-foot hydroplaned on a hard wet surface and I didn't get up for two weeks after a complicated hip operation. As I went through rehab and was discharged to go home alone, therapists constantly asked me if "family" members could come and help me bathe, dress, do laundry, shop. All of those are adaptive things that we take for granted.
I have, over the years, developed my circles of friends, whom I love (at least in "fair weather") and with whom I share some intimacy, short of outright sexuality. But that's not "family." If you're really laid up, a spouse, or perhaps an unmarried sibling or offspring drops everything and stays with you all the time, and helps you with the embarrassing neutral equilibrium of the potty. I don't have that, nor do I necessarily want it. It seems healthier for me, as a person, to steer my own course and nurture my own purposes, without demanding the psychological (and sexual) loyalty of just one other person. For me, rewarding relationships are based on what of myself is uniquely mine to give to others with great potential, not on what I get (or give) for some kind of minimal physical and psychological maintenance. That principle actually makes me more interesting! If I can make this stick, then I can pick out the specific people who possess qualities I value ¾ even idealize ¾ and love them according to the "best interest of the other person" method.
I defy the demagogues who dictate the direction supposedly needed by ordinary men. The head of Promise Keepers urges men to dedicate their entire personal surplus, outside of work, to supporting their own churches as well as their wives and children. Minneapolis pastor Marc Hammond urges parishioners to "pick someone you will be accountable to."
This brings us to what the political conservatives are always reminding us. Their buzzword is, of course, "family values" ¾ a phrase which suggests lifelong affirmative sexual interest to one opposite-sex (and "complementary") partner and identification with raising kids ¾ all as replacement for juvenile and possibly narcissistic sexual adventures and even mental fantasies of conspicuously manly excellence. All of this commitment is to be achieved by a social or fraternal rite of passage that initiates adulthood! The family is the proper ultimate safety net. Nobody is perfect, and everybody needs help sometimes; but it mustn't fall on the institutions of "society." Moreover, family gives one a reassurance of being cared about as one grows older and possibly less independent. People, especially those with religious convictions, may believe that going into marriage is a test of faith, that one will find in marriage the necessary qualities for oneself that could never be discerned from either intellect or a series of "serious" friendships. The integrity of the family depends on an adult's propensity to remain sexually interested in one opposite-sex partner for a whole lifetime, and then to put one's own children above all other pursuits, even to the point of sharing a family bed with them ¾ all of these things are taken as equivalent to adult maturity and personality depth. (Remember those ads for minivans: "Got a big family?") This is hard to believe in the days of single lifestyles, corporate relocations, and two-earner families where both spouses laboriously weigh work against family and where, despite their rhetoric of "family first," both family and career are important to a whole "personal identity." A singleton like me, who puts personal cultural expression above people, is the proverbial accident waiting to happen. Family obligation can preclude personal ambition, or it can rebuild it.
And family formation and loyalty is a basic moral obligation that precedes everything else (except, in the old days, military service) because this is how kids are to be raised. You prove that you can take care of your own family (or others besides yourself) before your personal accomplishments are recognized at all! Everyone should do his part, or relegate to a kind of Mormon-style subservience ¾ or, better, become a priest! You're part of a family before you're a trustworthy adult person at all. You don't ask questions about such moral postulates.
In fact, the approbation of external institutions ¾ the church and particularly the state ¾ is held to give personal partnerships (legal marriages) credibility and therefore to give adult persons ¾ especially young men of average means or less¾ credible moral direction. A renowned psychologist like Dr. Laura Schlessinger (actually degreed in physiology) derides lack of allegiance to legal commitments and institutions as part of a lack of character, but never gets around to admitting that this defines the unmarriable as second-class, lower-deck citizens.
However, a simpler formulation can summarize the conservative view of moral public policy. That is, some behaviors are not immediately harmful to competent people but should be discouraged or even prohibited in order to protect the more vulnerable, impressionable and disadvantaged (particularly younger) members of society.
"Whoa!" cries the political left. Families can cover up great injustices (even Mafia-style crimes) and perpetuate enormous, undeserved disparities of wealth. To his credit, social justice and "fairness" are the conventional liberal's biggest concerns. It's unfair that people can build and transmit family fortunes by exploiting the work of the underprivileged. (Hence, the ties between gay liberation and the political left in the immediate post-Stonewall days). This observation doesn't stick just to rich people. Middle-class people like me, with sedentary "desk jobs" but good pay and benefits depend on the labors of the less fortunate (often cheaper Third World labor) to maintain our standard of living ¾ and sometimes we're not conscious of this dependence. The "liberal left," perhaps more so during the Nixon years than now, has been quite commendably preoccupied with notions of "deservedness." So some persons do not "deserve" the lives (and money and recognition) they enjoy if their lives were not possible without the unfair subordination (even "oppression") of others. A typical liberal- left car bumper sticker reads, "I am not free while others are still oppressed." The left disdains the cultural distinctions between professional jobs done in "good clothes" and hard manual labor, to the point that some inner city youths do not believe than an honest living makes any sense at all. Of course, sometimes the left deteriorates into outright communism: nobody deserves anything without the common democratic consent of "the people." More often, the left projects the notion that the way to improve your lot is to identify your oppressors and get together with others who are similarly exploited, and go to the politicians to regulate your overclass in order to get you what you want ¾ and by all means, be loyal to your political and labor leaders ¾ don't question them!
Both the political right and left also correctly maintain that society might not be able to "afford" so much independence from all their citizens, under the rubric where morality is circumscribed by visible consequentialism. Bad things happen. Countries have to be defended from invaders, mostly by young men (or at least now by young adults). Underprivileged children especially need stable family role models. People, following only their own compasses, may squander natural resources and gradually destroy the environment. (Could we see gas lines some day because of global warming?) "Private" sexual behavior might threaten the public health of a whole civilization through the mechanics of sexual ecology. Drugs would gradually consume productive lives. On the other hand, it is remarkable how well we have come through all of our national crises since early in this century, all the while individualism has grown. Maybe that provides us with a subtle lesson.
In my Do Ask, Do Tell book, I advanced the notion of a morality based on an individual's absolute accountability to himself (and for directly harming or breaking promises to others). One will be made to answer for one's own personal mistakes (and even plain bad luck!) Responsibility started with non-aggression and was extended to a certain level of altruism in which one shared by psychological mitosis with others. Such an ethic could gradually be implemented with today's generation of young adults, and it could gain further philosophical justification from the "Honor Principle" (DADT Chapter 4 and 5, discussions of Joe Steffan's book) ¾ which had come a long way from the days when young men regarded "honor" as sticking together with their buddies in risky ventures to protect wives and children. In individual cases, the consequences of this individualistic ethic might become mean and harsh. After all, people can't choose their genes or prevent abusive behavior by their parents (especially before they are born). Individualism and personal accountability ¾ predicated on individual equality before the law ¾ cannot bring about equal outcomes without group alliances. The neutral equilibrium encouraged by individualism sounds like a reason for adhering to traditional family values with their lifetime commitments for mutual intimate support! But I am talking about a political and social principle. We want to see people learn to develop their own moral senses, without turning over moral thinking to preachers and, particularly, politicians and judges. The alternative, which we are trying to outgrow today, is to allow social institutions ¾ most of all the state with all its police powers ¾ to encroach upon and nibble away at the psychological freedom and personal direction of individual people, even in the most sensitive, personal areas. Religion, especially, purports to make morality "simple" so people can simultaneously get "saved" and get real lives.
Expanding personal responsibility composes the moral basis of libertarianism, a political system in which central government's powers are limited as much as possible, beyond the basic functions of national defense, international relations, enforcement of contracts through the tort system, and enforcement of criminal law (where there are tangible "victims"). I turned toward libertarianism after the debacle that followed President Clinton's attempt to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military (DADT Chapter 4). But my own sense of libertarianism is not simple anarchy or getting rid of government where it may uplift, but rather getting government out of people's own psychological lives and making people more aware of the dangers of letting government barter the interests of various groups to solve large-scale problems. My approach, after all, grew out of some very personal encounters with such issues as conscription, AIDS (and the political meltdown it nearly caused), gays in the military, and unusual personal dynamics ¾ not the more usual route involving brushes with the IRS or ATF. There are big differences between "exploitations" by the rich and intrusions by government, even though money, at least in the pre-information age, has bought most government influences. The greatest of the dangers from typical politics is that people will see their own liberties as derived from their group associations and coalitions rather than from their own cognitive and moral resources. Rather than think for themselves, they send money to politicians. Rather than help themselves, they count on using government to confiscate from others personally blameless but somehow part of a "class" which has oppressed them. Yet, there is a bit of paradox: when people are free to explore themselves psychologically, they gradually learn that an important part of individual growth is learning to meet the real needs of others, whether or not with the approbation of culture and especially the state. They will learn a simpler precept: that some behaviors may be legal and yet at best amoral if they turn out to be self-destructive.
Now, we can certainly follow more traditional thinking, where people accept moral direction from officially recognized sources, and conjure a political moral "utopia." Traditional marriage could be strengthened, and more privileges could be afforded to families with children. There is enormous tension in our culture between self-directed persons (a minority) and those socialized and channeled by the steel frames of family life ¾ both sets of people, in fact, feel "discriminated" against. Frankly, we need to face squarely the political and cultural question: Do we need to expect people without their own children to make more sacrifices in order to help volunteer parents? If we did, the "unfairness" of (state-supported) family-based privilege and advantage could (according to liberals) be offset by massive redistribution of wealth and social welfare. But people without children often take care of others than themselves (such as aging parents). But people with no dependents at all might come under fire if the world regresses away from increased wealth because of environmental pressures, energy problems or renewed international political instability.
This can work temporarily in some relatively homogeneous cultures like some Scandanavian countries. In general, however, national utopianism tends to lead to situations where individuals become disempowered.
Even as we have survived many crises ¾ world wars, the Cold War, terrorism, drugs, AIDS, economic instability, oil crises ¾ with our basic freedoms intact and actually growing - we see many grave problems that can occur with a quickening in the next century.
We still allow government to label people as unapprehended felons for "crimes" government cannot prove; we allow government to seize property without due process, to conscript, to redistribute wealth from one to another, and to favor certain conformist behaviors over others. I favor an incremental approach to these problems, one that works within the system. It seems high time that we look back and decide just where we want to draw the line on the police powers of government.
It will not always be easy to delineate the powers of government, protecting both individual liberties on the one hand and the safety and welfare of the majority in a society where there are many external threats and many unstable and disadvantaged people on the other. The baseline principle of individual accountability, if extended mercilessly, could indeed lead to a Darwinian society where only the powerful and "beautiful" get cared about. As a counterweight, personal responsibility could be understood as including caring about others.
But to do that we need to look back at all of our basic rights, and play devil's advocate with every one of them.
After all, when government, under the guise of democracy, is given the warrant to redistribute wealth according to "need" and to restrict personal expression based on indirect influence on others ¾ both outside of what would be ultimately accomplished by a truly free market ¾ the capacity of all individuals to set their own priorities and live their own lives without the prior approval of others is compromised.