Ethics: IV. Social and Political theories

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Every social and political theory is entangled with ethics. The great political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proclaimed that the person who would separate politics from ethics will fail to understand both. Despite the efforts of practitioners of "value-free social science," the concepts and categories with which political theorists work—order, freedom, authority, legitimacy, justice—are part and parcel of competing ethical frameworks. It is very difficult to talk about justice without talking about fairness. What is fair is an ethical question that cannot be adjudicated without some reference to what is good for human beings or what kind of good human beings may strive to attain. Terms that circulate within ordinary discourse, such as "fairness" and "freedom," are also central themes within social and political thinking. The implication for bioethics is straightforward. No matter how strenuously the bioethicist may hope to isolate his or her perspective from metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, and civic imperatives, social and political theory frames and penetrates all bioethical considerations.

The human sciences cannot be value-free. In Charles Taylor's words, "they are moral sciences in a more radical sense than the eighteenth century understood" (p. 51).

There are, according to Taylor, inescapable epistemological arguments for what might be called an interpretive approach to the human sciences, for human beings are self-defining animals. These self-definitions, in turn, take place within a context that shapes our understanding of self and other as well as our appreciation of human possibilities and the need for constraint. We are caught in conceptual webs. It is the task of social and political theory to make more explicit the nature of the frameworks within which we think and act, and hence, the context within which bioethical imperatives make themselves felt, whether as advances in human freedom, triumphs of human control, or dangerous new forms of oppression. Based on an interpretive approach to political theory, this entry will demonstrate why political theory must be normative and will go on to rehearse contemporary debates in social and political theory using the public/private distinction and the women's movement as illustrative examples.

Why Social and Political Theory Must be Normative

Terms of ordinary discourse serve as a conceptual prism through which we view different human relationships, activities, and forms of life. Most of the time we take such terms for granted. We are all shaped by ways of life that are built upon basic notions and rules. Political theorists concern themselves with the ways in which a society's constitutive understandings either nourish or deplete human capacities for purposive activity. It is, therefore, one task of the political theorist to examine critically the resources of ordinary language, revealing latent meanings, nuances, and shades of interpretation others may have missed or ignored. When we examine our basic assumptions, we enhance our ability to sift out the most important issues (Elshtain, 1981).

Society's understanding of the terms "public" and "private," for example, are always defined and understood in relationship to each other. One version of private means "not open to the public," and public, by contrast, is "of or pertaining to the whole, done or made in behalf of the community as a whole." In part these contrasts derive from the Latin origin of "public," pubes, the age of maturity when signs of puberty begin to appear: Then and only then does the child enter, or become qualified for, public activity. Similarly, publicus is that which belongs to, or pertains to, "the public," the people. But there is another meaning: public as open to scrutiny; private as that not subjected to the persistent gaze of publicity. The protection of privacy is necessary, or so defenders of constitutional democracy have long insisted, in order to prevent government from becoming all-intrusive, as well as to preserve the possibility of different sorts of relationships—both mother and citizen, friend and official.

Our involvement in one of a number of competing ethical or normative perspectives is inescapable. It is influenced by what we take to be the appropriate relationship between public and private life, for this also defines our understanding of what politics should or should not attempt to define, regulate, or even control. There is widespread disagreement over the respective meaning of public and private within societies. Brian Fay sees the public and the private as part of a cluster of "basic notions" that serve to structure and give coherence to all known ways of life. The boundaries between the public and the private help to create a moral environment for individuals, singly and in groups; to dictate norms of appropriate or worthy action; and to establish barriers to action, particularly in areas such as the taking of human life, regulation of sexual relations, promulgation of familial duties and obligations, and the arena of political responsibility. Public and private are embedded within a dense web of meanings and intimations and are linked to other basic notions: nature and culture, male and female, and each society's "understanding of the meaning and role of work; its views of nature; … its concepts of agency; its ideas about authority, the community, the family; its notion of sex; its beliefs about God and death and so on" (p. 78). The content, meaning, and range of public and private vary within each society and turn on whether the virtues of political life or the values of private life are rich and vital or have been drained, singly or together, of their normative significance.

The social and political theorist recognizes that no idea or concept is an island unto itself. Basic notions comprise a society's intersubjectively shared realm. "Intersubjectivity" is a rather elusive term referring to shared ideas, symbols, and concepts that reverberate within a society and help to constitute a way of life. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claims that when we first "begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.)" (p. 21e). Similarly, when we use a concept, particularly one of the bedrock notions integral to a way of life, we do not do so as a discrete piece of "linguistic behavior" but with reference to other concepts, contrasts, and terms of comparison.

As with the concepts of public and private, there are no neatly defined and universally accepted limits on the boundaries of politics. Politics, too, is essentially contested. An essentially contested concept is internally complex or makes reference to several dimensions, which are, in turn, linked to other concepts. Such a concept is also open-textured, in that the rules of its application are relatively flexible, and it is appraisive or normative. For example, one political theorist might claim that a given social situation is unjust. Another might argue that to label the situation unjust only inflames matters, because he or she believes that certain underlying cherished social institutions and relations should not be tampered with or eliminated in the interest of attaining a political or ideological goal. In another example, the feminist political theorist who believes that being born female in and of itself constitutes an injustice on the "biological" level may want to eliminate all sex differences and a public/private distinction as well, for she will see in distinctions themselves a ploy to oppress women (Firestone). Other feminist thinkers may find this view reprehensible, as it deepens rather than challenges societal devaluation of female bodies and a woman's central role in reproduction. This latter group sees injustice in inequalities that are socially and politically, not biologically, constituted. The point is not to eliminate a public/private distinction but to push for parity in male and female participation in both realms.

Boundary shifts in our understanding of "the political" and hence, of what is public and what is private, have taken place throughout the history of Western life and thought. Minimally, a political perspective requires that some activity called politics be differentiated from other activities. If all conceptual boundaries are blurred and all distinctions between public and private are eliminated, no politics can, by definition, exist (Elshtain, 1981). The relatively open-textured quality of politics means that innovative and revolutionary thinkers are often those who declare politics to exist where politics was not thought to exist before. Should their reclassifications remain over time, the meaning of politics—indeed of human life itself—may be transformed. Altered social conditions may also provoke a reassessment of old, and a recognition of new, "political" realities. Sheldon Wolin observes, "The concepts and categories of a political philosophy may be likened to a net that is cast out to capture political phenomena, which are then drawn in and sorted in a way that seems meaningful and relevant to the particular thinker" (p. 21). Thus each social and political theorist must be clear about what rules he or she is employing to sort the catch and to what ends and purposes.

Bioethical Issues in the Concepts of Public and Private

In the history of Western political thought, public and private imperatives, concepts, and symbols have been ordered in a number of ways, including the demand that the private world be integrated fully within the public arena; the insistence that the public realm be "privatized," with politics controlled by the standards, ideals, and purposes emerging from a particular vision of the private sphere; or, finally, a continued differentiation or bifurcation between the two spheres. Bioethics is deeply implicated in each of these broad, general theoretical tendencies that often touch on the private and the public, as in a case, for example, where a couple decides to conceive a child through artificial insemination by donor (AID). What happens to a society's view of the family and intergenerational ties if more couples resort to artificial insemination? What is the effect on the psychosocial development of donor children? What are the responsibilities, if any, of the donor father beyond the point of sperm donation for a fee? Do contractual agreements suffice to "cover" not just the legal but also the ethical implications of such agreements? Does society have a legitimate interest in such "private" choices, given the potential social consequences of private arrangements? Should such procedures be covered by health insurance, whether public or private?

Questions such as these pitch us into the world of social and political theory and the ways particular ideals are deeded to us. Thus, the social-contract liberal endorses a different cluster of human goods than the virtue theorist or the communitarian. Political and social theory yield ethical debates about these competing ideals of human existence. Moral rules—and whether they are to be endorsed or overridden—are inescapable in debating human existence and the human imperative to create meaning. "Public" and "private" and the relations of politics to each exist as loci of human activity, moral reflections, social and historic relations, the creation of meaning, and the construction of identity.

The ways in which our understanding of public, private, and politics plays itself out at present is dauntingly complex. Contemporary society is marked by moral conflicts. These conflicts have deep historical roots and are reflected in our institutions, practices, laws, norms, and values. For example, the continuing abortion debate in the United States taps strongly held, powerfully experienced moral and political imperatives. These imperatives are linked to concerns and images evoking what sort of people we are and what we aspire to be. The abortion debate will not "go away" because it is a debate about matters of life and death, freedom and obligation, and rights and duties.

Perhaps the intractability of many of the debates surrounding bioethics can best be understood as flowing from a central recognition that language itself has become a preoccupation for theorists and ethicists because of our growing concern for establishing norms, limits, and meanings in the absence of a shared ethical consensus. A persistent theme of contemporary social and political theory is that language helps to constitute social reality and frames available forms of action. We are all participants in a language community and hence share in a project of theoretical and moral selfunderstanding, definition, and redefinition. Our values, embedded in language, are not icing on the cake of social reasoning but are instead part of a densely articulated web of social, historical, and cultural meanings, traditions, rules, beliefs, norms, actions, and visions. A way of life, constituted in and through language, is a complex whole. One cannot separate attitudes toward surrogacy contracts, in vitro fertilization (IVF), use of fetal tissue for medical experimentation, sex selection as a basis for abortion, or genetic engineering to eliminate forms of genetically inherited "imperfection," from other features of a culture. These bioethical dilemmas do not take place in isolation but emerge from within a culture and thus engage in the wider contests over meaning that culture generates.

Contemporary Debates in Social and Political Theory

Current debate in social and political theory has focused on the question of whether to buttress or to challenge the liberal consensus that came to prevail in modern Western industrial societies. These broad, competing schools of thought are known as liberalism, civic republicanism, and communitarianism. A social movement informed by one or more of these traditions will exhibit conflicting tendencies and posit incompatible claims.

Liberalism comes in many different forms. Some liberal thinkers stress the individual and his or her rights, often downplaying notions of duty or obligation to a wider social whole. They assume, optimistically, that each individual's pursuit of self-interest will result in "good" for the society as a whole. Those whose analyses begin with the free-standing individual as the point of reference and the "good" of that individual as their normative ideal are often called individualists. In the nineteenth century, this standard of individualism was most cogently articulated by John Stuart Mill in his classic work, On Liberty (1859).

By contrast, communitarians begin not with the autonomous individual but with a social context out of which individuals emerge. They argue that the pursuit of individual self-interest is more likely to yield a fragmented society than a "good" and fair one. Communitarians insist that rights, while vital, are not the individual's alone. Instead, individual rights necessarily flow from rights recognized by others within a community of a particular sort in which responsibilities are also cherished, nourished, and required of individuals (Bellah et al.).

FEMINISM. The contemporary women's movement and the way in which it reflects, deepens, and extends features of these traditions illustrate the range of social and political debate. There is no single ethics or moral theory of feminism. Liberalism, with its vibrant individualist strand, has been attractive to feminist thinkers. The language of rights is a potent weapon against traditional obligations, particularly those of family duty or any social status declared "natural" on the basis of ascriptive characteristics. To be free and equal to men became a central aim of feminist reform. The political strategy that followed was one of inclusion. Since women, as well as men, are rational beings, it followed that women as well as men are bearers of inalienable rights. It followed further that there was no valid ground for discrimination against women as women. Leading proponents of women's suffrage in Britain and the United States undermined arguments that justified legal inequality on the basis of sex differences. Such feminists, including the leading American suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, claimed that denying a group of persons basic rights on the grounds of difference could not be justified unless it could be shown that the difference was relevant to the distinction being made. Whatever differences might exist between the sexes, none, in this view, justified legal inequality and the denial of the rights and privileges of citizenship.

Few early feminists pushed this version of liberal individualist universalism to its most radical conclusion of arguing that there were no bases for exclusion of adult human beings from legal equality and citizenship. Nineteenthcentury proponents of women's suffrage were also heirs to a civic-republican tradition that stressed the need for social order and shared values, emphasized civic education, and pressed the importance of having a propertied stake in society. Demands for the inclusion of women often did not extend to all women. Some women, and men, would be excluded by criteria of literacy, property ownership, disability or, in the United States, race. Thus liberal feminism often incorporated the civic-republican insistence on citizenship as a robust, civically demanding, and limited privilege rather than a legalistic and universalistic standing.

At times, feminist theory turned liberal egalitarianism on its head by arguing in favor of women's civic equality on grounds of difference, an argument that might be called neoAristotelianism. Ronald Beiner writes,

The basic conception of neo-Aristotelianism is that moral reason consists not in a set of moral principles, apprehended and defined through procedures of detached rationality, but in the concrete embodiment of certain human capacities in a moral subject who knows those capacities to be constitutive of a consummately desirable life. (p. 75)

Thus greater female political participation was promoted in terms of women's moral supremacy or characteristic forms of virtue. These appeals arose from and spoke to women's social location as mothers, using motherhood as a claim to citizenship, public identity, and civic virtue (Kraditor). To individualist, rights-based feminists, however, the emphasis on maternal virtue as a form of civic virtue was a trap, for they were, and are, convinced that only liberalism, with its more individualistic construal of the human subject, permits women's equality and standing.

The diverse history of feminism forms the basis for current feminist discourse and debate. These debates are rife with ethical imperatives and moral implications. Varieties of liberal, socialist, Marxist, and utopian feminism abound. Sexuality and sexual identity have become highly charged arenas of political redefinition. Some feminists see women as universal victims, some as a transhistorical sex class, others as oppressed "nature." A minority want separation from "maledominated" society. Others want full integration into that society, hence its transformation toward liberal equality. Others insist that the feminist agenda will not be completed until "women's virtues," correctly understood, triumph. Feminism, too, is an essentially contested concept.

Divisions among feminists over such volatile matters as AIDS, IVF, surrogate embryo transfer, surrogate motherhood, sex selection—the entire menu of real or potential techniques for manipulating, controlling, and altering human reproduction—are strikingly manifest. One broad general tendency in feminist theory might be called noninterventionist. Noninterventionists see reproductive technologies as a strengthening of arrogant human control over nature and thus over women as part of the "nature" that is to be controlled. Alternatively, the prointerventionist stance foresees technological elimination of males and females themselves. Prointerventionists celebrate developments that promise control over nature.

The prointerventionists, who welcome and applaud any and all techniques that further sever biological reproduction from the social identity of maternity, are heavily indebted to a stance best called ultraliberalism. This theory is driven by a vision of the self that exists apart from any social order. This view of the self, in turn, is tied to one version of rights theory that considers human beings as self-sufficient, promoting a view of society that sees itself organized around contractual agreements between individuals.

THE SOCIAL-CONTRACT MODEL. The contract model has its historical roots in seventeenth-century social-contract theory, and it incorporates a view of society constituted by individuals for the fulfillment of individual ends, with social goods as aggregates of private goods. Critics claim that this vision of self and society ignores aspects of community life, such as reciprocal obligation and mutual interdependence, thereby eroding the bases of authority in family and polity alike.

The pervasiveness of the individualist position is further evident in the prointerventionist stance on bioethical innovations in the area of reproduction. In this view, new reproductive technologies present no problem as long as they can be wrested from male control (Donchin). Women, having been oppressed by "nature," can overthrow those shackles by seizing the "freedom" offered by technologies that promise deliverance from biological "tyranny." Strong prointerventionists go so far as to envisage forms of biological engineering that would make possible the following: "One woman could inseminate another, so that men and nonparturitive women could lactate and so that fertilized ova could be transplanted into women's or even into men's bodies" (Jaggar, p. 132). The standard of evaluation concerning these technologies is self-sufficiency and control, paving the way for invasive techniques that break women's links to biology, birth, and nurturance, the vestiges of our animal origins and patriarchal control.

The prointerventionist position owes a great deal to Simone de Beauvoir's feminist classic, The Second Sex. Beauvoir argues that the woman's body does not "make sense" because women are "the victim of the species." The female, simply by being born female, suffers an alienation grounded in her biological capacity to bear a child. Women are invaded by the fetus, which Beauvoir describes as a "tenant" and a parasite upon the mother. Men, by contrast, are imbued with a sense of virile domination that extends to reproductive life. The life of the male is "transcended" in the sperm. Beauvoir's negative appraisal of the female body extends even to the claim that a woman's breasts are "mammary glands" that "play no role in woman's individual economy: they can be excised at any time of life" (p. 24). If to this general repudiation of female embodiment one adds strong individualism, the prointerventionist stand becomes clearer.

Opposed to the radical prointerventionist stance is the noninterventionist voice associated with feminism in a less individualist, more communitarian frame. The noninterventionists ponder the nature of the many choices the new reproductive technology offers. They wonder whether amniocentesis is really a free choice or merely a coercive procedure with only one "correct" outcome: to abort if the fetus is defective. They speculate whether new reproductive technologies are an imposition upon women who see themselves as failures if they cannot become pregnant. Furthermore, noninterventionists reassess the values identified with mothering and encourage the growth and triumph of values they consider to be strongly, if not exclusively, female. They insist that technological progress is never neutral, stressing that "progress" requiring the invasion and manipulation of women's bodies must always be scrutinized critically and may need to be rejected.

Strong noninterventionists claim that women want nothing to do with new reproductive technologies. In the words of one, "The so-called new technology does not bring us and our children any kind of qualitative or quantitative improvement in our lives, it solves none of our basic problems, it will advance even more the exploitation and humiliation of women; therefore we do not need it" (Mies, p. 559). As with the prointerventionist posture, there are noninterventionists who maintain a critical stance but do not condemn all reproductive technologies outright. Moderate prointerventionists support some but not all of the technological possibilities presented by contemporary reproductive science.

These differences played themselves out in the quandaries confronted by feminists with the Baby M surrogacy-motherhood case, a situation in which biological motherhood and social parenting were severed—as feminists, especially strong individualist feminists, had long claimed they could or should be (Baby M, In re, 1988). It was also a case in which everyone presumably freely agreed to a contract. Baby M was born to Mary Beth Whitehead, who had contracted with a couple, the Sterns, to be artificially inseminated with Mr. Stern's sperm. She was to relinquish the baby on birth for $10,000. Ultimately, she could not give the baby up and refused the money. The Sterns sued on breach of contract grounds.

Although liberal feminism emphasizes contractarian imperatives, many liberal feminists, including such popular leaders of the women's movement as the liberal Betty Friedan, saw in the initial denial of any claim by Mary Beth Whitehead, the natural mother, to her child, "an utter denial of the personhood of women—the complete dehumanization of women. It is an important human rights case. To put it at the level of contract law is to dehumanize women and the human bond between mother and child" (Barron). Friedan implies an ethical limitation to freedom of choice and contract.

Clearly, feminist debates concerning reproductive technology and surrogacy inexorably lead feminists back into discussions of men, women, children, families, and the wider community. Once again we see that bioethical capabilities and possibilities cannot be severed from wider cultural and social surroundings, including our understanding of the human person and his or her private and public needs, identities, and commitments. One broad frame, the social contract, has been noted; it either assumes or promotes the image of the self-sufficient self and goods as the properties of individuals.

THE SOCIAL-COMPACT MODEL. A second model of social theory, that of the social compact, or social covenant, offers a more rooted and historical picture of human beings than that of the social contract. Compact, or covenant, theory does not recognize primacy of rights and individual choice as the self-evident starting point. The compact self is a historical being who acknowledges that he or she has a "variety of debts, inheritance, rightful expectations, and obligations" and that these "constitute the given of my life, the moral starting point" (MacIntyre). Modern uprootedness is construed as a problem in the social compact. To be cut off from a wider community as well as from the past, as required by strong individualist modes, is to deform present relationships. The argument here is not that the compact self is totally defined by particular ties and identities, but that without a beginning that recognizes our essential sociality, there is no beginning at all.

The world endorsed in the social-compact model is in tension with the dominant individualist mindset. For this reason, individualists sometimes claim that communitarians, who endorse a social-compact idea, express little more than nostalgia for a simpler past. But the compact defenders argue, in turn, that the past presents itself as the living embodiment of vital traditional conflicts. The social compact makes room for rebellion against one's particular place as one way to forge an identity with reference to that place. But there is little space in the compact frame for social revolt to take a form that excises all social ties and relations if the individual "freely chooses" to do so, a possibility the contractarian must admit. It follows that the familial base of the social compact is opaque to the standpoint of contract theory, given its individualist foundation. This difference about the family, the social institution that first introduces the child into the world, is the focus of political theory debates that bear important implications for bioethics.

The Family as a Theoretical Battleground

Given their individualist starting point, contractarians tend to devalue women's traditional roles and identities as mothers and familial beings. Proponents of the social-compact model, by contrast, understand women's contributions as wives, mothers, and social benefactors as vital to the creation and sustenance of life itself and, beyond that, of any possibility for a "good life." The compact theorist argues that community requires that an important segment or significant number of its members be devoted to the task of caring for the young, the vulnerable, and the elderly. Historically, the work of care has been seen by ethicists, political theorists, and political leaders, including many prominent women, as the mission of women. They worry that in a world of individualism, an ethic of care will be repudiated or replaced by modes of intervention less tied to concrete knowledge and concern of those being cared for (Ruddick; Tronto). They also advocate a reevaluation of families that gives conceptual weight to the "private realm" by showing that this sphere is central to social and political life. They insist that our understanding of justice must include a notion of what it means to be a caring society and to honor the work of care.

The compact theorist regrets the lack of a descriptive vocabulary that aptly and richly conveys what we mean when we talk about families and what makes caring commitments different from contractual agreements. The intergenerational family, for example, necessarily constitutes human beings in a particular web of relationships in a given time and place. Stanley Hauerwas, for example, claims that, "Set out in the world with no family, without a story of and for the self, we will simply be captured by the reigning ideologies of the day." We do not choose our relatives—they are given—and as a result, Hauerwas continues, we know what it means to have a history. Yet we continue to require a language to "help us articulate the experience of the family and the loyalty it represents.… Such a language must clearly denote our character as historical beings and how our moral lives are based in particular loyalties and relations. If we are to learn to care for others, we must first learn to care for those we find ourselves joined to by accident of birth."

Political theorists have grappled with the issue of the family's relationship to the larger society from the beginning: Where does the family fit in relation to the polity? In his work Republic, Plato eliminates the family for his ideal city. The ruler-philosophers he calls Guardians must take "the dispositions of human beings as though they were a tablet … which, in the first place, they would wipe clean." Women must be held "in common." A powerful, allencompassing bond between individuals and the state must be achieved such that all social and political conflict disappears, and the state comes to resemble a "single person," a fused, organic entity. All private loyalties and purposes must be eliminated.

Plato constructs a meritocracy that requires that all considerations of sex, race, age, class, family ties, tradition, and history be stripped away in order to fit people into their appropriate social slots, performing only that function to which each is suited. Children below the ruler class can be shunted upward or downward at the will of the Guardians, for they are so much raw material to be turned into instruments of social "good." A system of eugenics is devised for the Guardians. Children are removed from mothers at birth and placed in a child ghetto, tended to by those best suited for the job. No private loyalties of any kind are allowed to emerge: Homes and sexual attachments, devotion to friends, and dedication to individual or group aims militate against single-minded devotion to the city. Particular ties are a great evil. Only those that bind the individual to the state are good.

No doubt the modern reader finds this rather extreme. Many contemporary theorists contend that Plato constructed his utopia in an ironic mode. Whether Plato meant it or not, his vision is instructive, for it helps us to think about the relation of the family to wider civic loyalties and obligations. Plato aspired to "rational self-sufficiency." He would make the lives of human beings immune to the fragility of messy existence. The idea of self-sufficiency was one of mastery in which the male citizen was imbued with a "mythology of autochthony that persistently, and paradoxically, suppressed the biological role of the female and therefore the family in the continuity of the city" (Nussbaum).

Moral conflicts, for Plato, suggest irrationalism. If one cannot be loyal both to families and to the city, loyalty to one must be made to conform to the other. For Plato, then, "Our ordinary humanity is a source of confusion rather than of insight … [and] the philosopher alone judges the right criterion or from the appropriate standpoint" (Nussbaum). Hence the plan of Republic, which aims to purify and to control human relations and emotions. Later strong rationalists and individualists take a similar tack: They hold that all relationships that are not totally voluntary, rationalistic, and contractual are irrational and suspect. Because the family is the ultimate example of embedded particularity, ideal justice and order will be attained only when "the slate has been wiped clean" and human beings are no longer limited by familial obligations.

Yet a genuinely pluralist civic order would seem to require diversity on the level of families as well as other institutions which, in turn, promote and give rise to many stories and visions of virtue. This suggests the following questions for social and political theory: In what ways is the family issue also a civic issue with weighty public consequences? What is the relationship between democratic theory and practice and intergenerational family ties and commitments? Do we have a stake in sustaining some models of adults in relation to children compared to others? What do families, composed of parents and children, do that no other social institution can? How does current political rhetoric support family obligations and relations?

Equality among citizens was assumed from the beginning by liberals and democrats; indeed, the citizen was, by definition, equal to any other citizen. Not everyone, of course, could be a citizen. At different times and to different ends and purposes, women, slaves, and the propertyless were excluded. But these exclusions were slowly dropped. Whether the purview of some or all adults in a given society, liberal and democratic citizenship required the creation of persons with qualities of mind and spirit necessary for civic participation. This creation of citizens was seen as neither simple nor automatic by early liberal theorists, leading many to insist upon a structure of education in "the sentiments." This education should usher into a moral autonomy that stresses self-chosen obligations, thereby casting further suspicion upon all relations, practices, and loyalties deemed unchosen, involuntary, or natural.

Within such accounts of civic authority, the family emerged as a problem. For one does not enter a family through free consent; one is born into the world unwilled and unchosen by oneself, beginning life as a helpless and dependent infant. Before reaching "the age of consent," one is a child, not a citizen. This vexed liberal and democratic theorists, some of whom believed, at least abstractly, that the completion of the democratic ideal required bringing all of social life under the sway of a single democratic authority principle.

COMMUNITARIAN VERSUS INDIVIDUALIST VIEWS OF FAMILY: MILL AND TOCQUEVILLE. In his tract The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill argued that his contemporaries, male and female alike, were tainted by the atavisms of family life with its illegitimate, or unchosen, male authority, and its illegitimate, or manipulative and irrational, female quests for private power (1970). He believed that the family can become a school in the virtues of freedom only when parents live together without power on one side and obedience on the other. Power, for Mill, is repugnant: True liberty must reign in all spheres. But what about the children? Mill's children emerge as blank slates on which parents must encode the lessons of obedience and the responsibilities of freedom. Stripped of undemocratic authority and privilege, the parental union serves as a model of democratic probity (Krouse).

Mill's paean to liberal individualism is an interesting contrast to Alexis de Tocqueville's observations of family life in nineteenth-century America, a society already showing the effects of the extension of democratic norms and the breakdown of patriarchal and Puritan norms and practices. Fathers in Tocqueville's America were at once stern and forgiving, strong and flexible. They listened to their children and humored them. They educated as well as demanded obedience, promulgating a new ethic of child rearing. Like the new democratic father, the American political leader did not demand that citizens bow or stand transfixed in awe. The leader was owed respect and, if he urged a course of action upon his fellow citizens following proper consultation and procedural requirements, they had a patriotic duty to follow.

Tocqueville's discerning eye perceived changing public and private relationships in a liberal, democratic society. Although great care was taken "to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes," women, in their domestic sphere, "nowhere occupied a loftier position of honor and importance," Tocqueville claimed. The mother's familial role was enhanced in her civic vocation as the chief inculcator of democratic values in her offspring. Commenting in a civic-republican vein, Tocqueville notes, "No free communities ever existed without morals and, as I observed …, morals are the work of women."

Clearly, Tocqueville rests in the social-covenant or communitarian camp; Mill, in the social-contract or individualist domain. In contrast to Mill, Tocqueville insisted that the father's authority in a liberal society was neither absolute nor arbitrary. In contrast to the patriarchal authoritarian family where the parent not only has a "natural right" but acquires a "political right" to command his children, in a democratic family the right and authority of parents is a natural right alone. This natural authority presents no problem for democratic practices as Tocqueville construed democracy, in contrast to Mill. Indeed, the fact that the "right to command" is natural, not political, signifies its special and temporary nature: Once the child is self-governing, the right dissolves. In this way, natural, legitimate paternal authority and maternal moral education reinforce a political order that values flexibility, freedom, and the absence of absolute rule, but requires order and stability as well.

Popular columnists and "child experts" in Tocqueville's America emphasized kindness and love as the preferred technique of child nurture. Obedience was still seen as necessary—to parents, elders, God, government, and the conscience. But the child was no longer construed as a depraved, sin-ridden, stiff-necked creature who needed harsh, unyielding instruction and reproof. A more benign view of the child's nature emerged as notions of infant depravity faded. The problem of discipline grew more, rather than less, complex. Parents were enjoined to get obedience without corporal punishment and rigid methods, using affection, issuing their commands in gentle but firm voices, insisting quietly on their authority lest contempt and chaos reign in the domestic sphere (Elshtain, 1990).

FAMILY AUTHORITY AND THE STATE. In Tocqueville's image of the democratic family, children were seen both as ends and as means to a well-ordered family and polity. A widespread moral consensus reigned in the America of that era, a kind of Protestant civic religion. When this consensus began to erode under the force of rapid social change (and there are analogues to the American story in all modern democracies), certainties surrounding familial life and authority as a secure locus for the creation of democratic citizens were shaken as well. Tocqueville suggested that familial authority, though apparently at odds with the governing presumptions of democratic authority, is nonetheless part of the constitutive background required for the survival and flourishing of democracy.

Family relations, so this politico-ethical argument goes, could not exist without family authority. These relations and responsibilities, in turn, remain the best way to create human beings with a developed capacity to give ethical allegiance to the principles of democratic society. Because democratic citizenship relies on the self-limiting freedom of responsible adults, a mode of child rearing that builds on basic trust, loyalty, and a sense of commitment is necessary. Family authority structures the relationship between adult providers, nurturers, educators, and disciplinarians, and dependent children, who slowly acquire capacities for independence. Modern parental authority is shared by mother and father.

What makes family authority distinctive is its sense of stewardship: the recognition that parents undertake continuing obligations and responsibilities. Certainly in the modern West, given the long period of childhood and adolescence we honor and recognize, parenting is an ongoing task. The authority of the parent is special, limited, and particular. Parental authority, like any form of authority, may be abused, but unless it exists, the activity of parenting itself is impossible. The authority of parents is implicated in moral education required for the creation of a democratic political morality. The intense loyalties, obligations, and moral imperatives nurtured in families may clash with the requirements of public authority, for example, when young men refuse to serve in a war they claim is unjust because war runs counter to the religious beliefs of their families. This, too, is vital for democracy. Keeping alive a potential locus for revolt, for particularity, for difference, sustains democracy in the long run. It is no coincidence, this argument concludes, that all twentieth-century totalitarian orders aimed to destroy the family as a locus of identity and meaning apart from the state. Totalitarian politics strives to require that individuals identify only with the state rather than with specific others, including family and friends.

Family authority within a democratic, pluralistic order, however, does not exist in a direct homologous relation to the principles of civil society. To establish an identity between public and private lives and purposes would weaken, not strengthen, democratic life overall. For children need particular, intense relations with specific adult others in order to learn to make choices as adults. The child confronted prematurely with the "right to choose" is likely to be less capable of choosing later on. To become a being capable of posing alternatives, one requires a sure and certain place from which to start. In Mary Midgley's words: "Children … have to live now in a particular culture; they must take some attitude to the nearest things right away." The social form best suited to provide children with a trusting, determinate sense of place and ultimately a "self" is a family in which parents provide ongoing care, protection, and concern.

The stance of the democratic political and social theorist toward family authority resists easy characterization. It involves a rejection of any ideal of political and familial life that absorbs all social relations under a single authority principle. Families are not democratic polities. The family helps to hold intact the respective goods and ends of exclusive relations and arrangements. Any further erosion of that ethical life embodied in the family bodes ill for democracy. For this reason, theorists representing the communitarian or social-covenant perspective are often among the most severe critics of contemporary consumerism, violence in streets and the media, the decline of public education, the rise in numbers of children being raised without fathers, and so on. They insist, against their critics, that a defense of the family—by which they mean a normative ideal of mothers and fathers in relation to children and to a wider community— can help to sustain a variety of ethical and social commitments, including providing a strong example of adults working together to create a home. Because democracy itself turns on a generalized notion of the fraternal bond between citizens (male and female), it is vital for children to have early experiences of trust and mutuality. The child who emerges from such a family is more likely to be capable of acting in the world as a complex moral being, one part of, yet somewhat detached from, the immediacy of his or her own concerns and desires.

Toward an Ethical Polity

All political and social theorists, whatever their particular philosophic frameworks and normative commitments, agree that social and political theories always embody some ideal of a preferred way of life. Although a handful of postmodern or deconstructive contemporary theorists disdain all normative standards, most social and political thinkers insist that no way of life can persist without a widely shared cluster of basic notions. Those who locate ethical concerns at the heart of their theories hope for a world in which private and public lives bearing their own intrinsic purpose are allowed to flourish. A richly complex private sphere requires freedom from some all-encompassing public imperative for survival. But in order for the private sphere to flourish, the public world itself must nurture and sustain a set of ethical imperatives, including a commitment to preserve, protect, and defend human beings in their capacities as private persons, and to allow men and women alike to partake in the good of the public sphere with participatory equality (Elshtain, 1981). Such an ideal seeks to keep alive rather than to eliminate tension between diverse spheres and competing ideals and purposes. There is always a danger that a too strong and overweening polity will overwhelm the individual, as well as a peril that life in a polity confronted with a continuing crisis of legitimacy may decivilize both those who oppose it and those who would defend it.

The prevailing image of the person in an ethical polity is that of a human being with a capacity for self-reflection. Such persons can tolerate the tension between public and private imperatives. They can distinguish between those conditions, events, or states of affairs that are part of a shared human condition—grief, loss through death, natural disasters, and decay of the flesh—and those humanly made injustices that can be remedied. Above all, human beings within the ethical polity never presume that ambivalence and conflict will one day end, for they have come to understand that ambivalence and conflict are the wellspring of a life lived reflectively. A clear notion of what ideals and obligations are required to animate an authentic public life, an ethical polity, must be adumbrated: authority, freedom, public law, civic virtue, the ideal of the citizen, all those beliefs, habits, and qualities that are integral to a political order.

Much of the richest theorizing of democratic civil society since 1980 has come from citizens of countries who were subjected for forty years or more to authoritarian, even totalitarian regimes. They pose alternatives both to collectivism and to individualism by urging that the associations of civil society be recognized as subjects in their own right. They call for a genuinely pluralist law to recognize and sustain this associative principle as a way to overcome excessive privatization, on the one hand, and overweening state control, on the other. Solidarity theorist Adam Michnik insists that democracy

entails a vision of tolerance, and understanding of the importance of cultural traditions, and the realization that cherished human values can conflict with each other.… The essence of democracy as I understand it is freedom—the freedom which belongs to citizens endowed with a conscience. So understood, freedom implies pluralism, which is essential because conflict is a constant factor within a democratic social order. (p. 198)

Michnik insists that the genuine democrat always struggles with his or her own tradition, eschewing the hopelessly heroic and individualist notion of going it alone. Michnik positions himself against contemporary tendencies to see any defense of tradition as necessarily "conservative"; indeed, he criticizes all rigidly ideological thinking that severs every political and ethical concern between right and left, proclaiming that "a world devoid of tradition would be nonsensical and anarchic. The human world should be constructed from a permanent conflict between conservatism and contestation; if either is absent from a society, pluralism is destroyed" (p. 199).

A second vital political-ethical voice is that of Vaclav Havel, a playwright, dissident, political theorist, and, in the years following the "tender revolution" of 1989, the president of a then-united Czechoslovakia. In his essay, "Politics and Conscience," he writes:

We must trust the voice of our conscience more than that of all abstract speculations and not invent other responsibilities than the one to which the voice calls us. We must not be ashamed that we are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy and tolerance, but just the opposite: we must see these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their "private" exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community. (pp. 153–154)

To this end, he favors what he calls "anti-political politics," defined not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the useful, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. "I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative" (p. 155). This is the voice of an ethical polity. Were this voice to prevail, the way in which our ethical dilemmas are adjudicated, including those emerging from bioethics, would be rich and complex enough to enable us to see the public and civic consequences of our private choices, even as it would guard against severe intrusion into intimate life from the outside.

Ethical dilemmas are inescapably political and political questions are unavoidably ethical. Bioethical matters can never be insulated from politics, nor should they be. But the way in which such matters are addressed will very much turn on the social or political theories to which the ethicist, the medical practitioner, the patient or consumer, and the wider, interested community are indebted.

jean bethke elshtain (1995)

bibliography revised

SEE ALSO: Coercion; Consensus, Role and Authority of; Communitarianism and Bioethics; Contractarianism and Bioethics; Human Rights; Justice; Medicine, Sociology of; Natural Law;Paternalism; and other Ethics subentries


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Ethics: IV. Social and Political theories

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