Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Elshtain: "Sovereignty: God, State, and Self": a critique of libertarian notions of personal autonomy


Author: Jean Bethke Elshtain.
Title: Sovereignty: God, State and Self.
Publication: New York: Basic Books, 2008. 334 pages, hardcover. ISBN 978-0-465-63759-9.

I preface this review with a brief anecdote in my own past. In 1969, when I was stationed at Fort Eustis in a safe Army “desk job” and sheltered away from Vietnam despite the draft, I was required to requalify on the rifle range. Unless the sheltered and well-structured experience in Basic, the event had been carelessly handled, with a lot more noise. I remember going a dinner off post that evening and hearing my right ear ring with every bite. As an previously aspiring musician and classical music aficionado, I resented one of my most important senses being permanently damaged for no good utilitarian reason than “shared sacrifice.” Now, I precede to the book.

Dr. Elshtain is a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago. (Off hand, I’m surprised that the book doesn’t come from the University of Chicago Press.) The title suggests the progress of the arguments in the book. It starts out as if it were to be a supplementary text for a college undergraduate philosophy course, but gradually transforms into a tastefully (if with a little bit of overstatement) worded argument about the ethical and moral problems – from a secular as well as religious perspective – of how we shoot for our marks in promoting individual liberty.

The word “sovereign” in the dictionary imparts two major concepts. One is “power” to rule over others. The second, which is much more relevant to self-sovereignty, is independence of others. And the latter is what has become so double-edged, right under our noses in such a way that politicians don’t know how to discuss it. In her book, the two basic meanings tend to morph together.

She does trace the history of the concept, starting with religion and then in the nation state (even mentioning the 1648 Westphalia Treaty that helped establish the concept of national "Westphalian sovereignty" -- territorial integrity [like that of a mockingbird, perhaps] and the exclusion of external parties from internal domestic affairs). The development of the modern system of “sovereign states” from consolidations of various feudal holdings was seen as a progressive development in the middle of the last millennium; all undergraduate students of European history learn that (although in other cultures around the world the process is even more complicated and uncertain, and ancient history mixes the concept of “empire” and small nation-state or city-state). We’ve all heard about the supposed “divine right of kings” and the progressive or protestant challenges from Luther, Calvin, and many others. The author discusses in detail the contributions to the concepts of sovereignty, from religious, political to personal, from all major European and American philosophers through several centuries, and pays particular attention to interpreting and contrasting the American and French revolutions.

It’s when she gets to personal sovereignty, though, that her book really gets interesting. I really do hope that history and philosophy professors, and even high school AP history teachers assign this book and get students to write about the issues she takes up. I present some thoughts here with some personal perspective, and I expect other students would be able to add theirs.

She distinguishes between two kinds of self-sovereignty, “hard” (which is the kind that libertarians, classical liberals, CATO forums, GLIL (Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty), and the like talk about, and “soft” which is a mixture of New Age and leftist to liberal communal values which tries to extend individualism into the communal sphere without demanding the emotional commitments of conventional family life. But the “hard” kind of self-sovereignty (or what we often call “individual sovereignty” or “personal autonomy”) tends to pull away from the usual political arguments that pit interest groups (social classes, races, religious or national groups, labor unions, occupational guilds, etc) against one another (and tempt politicians to lean on special interest, to the disdain particularly of libertarian-style conservatives) and tend to try to separate “sovereign” adults from having to take care of the “less sovereign” or less competitive or capable individuals. She notes a certain end-point contradiction in the way we go about securing individual rights, especially for women: we want to support choice and reproductive freedom, but often to avoid bringing children into the world who will have lifelong extra needs; at the same time, in somewhat quixotic fashion, we cover this up with aggressive and usually well-intended public policy to provide opportunities for the disabled. (She goes into a lot of detail over the debates on cloning and stem cells, as well as abortion.) On one level, this seems fair enough to the progressive; many previously disabled people become independent and “sovereign” themselves with the help provided by policies like the ADA. But, as she points out, some people can never become “sovereign.”

My take on all this is that sharing “burdens” or risks used to be part of our moral thinking, and in decades past, the methods of risk-sharing were related to gender roles and eventually to marriage. I grew up in a world that was willing to conscript men and expect them to lay down their lives for women and children. As an “outlier” myself, I was more interested in developing my own skills and expressions (music, writings, etc) and then seeking out personal relationships very specialized to what I “needed”. Furthermore, since I was not “competitive” as a potential male “protector” in the conventional social sense, I tended to look up to young men who were (sometimes with various visual cues). Psychologists call this process “upward affiliation.” The morality of such a life setup was controversial but it became more acceptable, particularly in the past twenty or so years, as libertarian thinking (centered on “harmlessness” and self-sovereignty) took hold (it tended to start during the Reagan years, which sounds like a bit of a paradox, but makes sense now). The author points out that wild animals don’t meet our notion of sovereignty, but nevertheless we develop particular affection to certain well evolved animals (like dolphins or big cats) that seem to demonstrate our own fantasy of freedom. We don’t always share the same affection for human beings who demonstrate long-standing needs that require sacrifice from others (from the “more sovereign) in order to live at all.

The author does point out in some carefully written passages the possible end result of this kind of freedom. The events in Germany in the 1930s (as well as the Holocaust that they led to) can prove that point—although some of “dreamer” Hitler’s ideas (“folkishness”) really were collective in nature. One is taken back to the moral thinking in the 50s and early 60s, where it seemed important that everyone learn to do his or her part in sharing burdens. That justified the draft in the past, and underscores calls for national service today. You could call such a philosophy “pay your dues.” That sort of ethical system calculates everything in terms of personal “karma” as if it were a mathematical personal account. It’s important that responsibility for others goes beyond the obvious obligations that come from having a child, which is supposed to be a behavioral choice. We are born into obligations because parents raise us. She mentions the religious way of looking at this: “original sin.” She also observes that rigid moralistic beliefs sometimes arise out of "free thought" as people try to rationalize misfortune and avoid emotion.

And it’s the religious concept that sort of exposes the tender ankle, the Achilles heel of self-sovereignty even when evaluated by “karma.” She comes up with a “kinder, gentler” idea of sovereignty, one that intrinsically accepts the need for socialization, especially through the family unit and the community around it. She makes a distinction (p. 229) between persons (which are social) and individuals. Persons do not expect to get their own way even as adults in determining the courses of their lives. They accept the fact that whatever they accomplish has limits that sometimes transcend their span of control (or “personal responsibility”) and may be modified by the needs of others (sometimes even the permanently “less sovereign”) around them, even beyond the obvious requirement to provide for their own children (she makes that point earlier by referring to the book and film “Children of Men” which imagines a world with no more children). "Real people" have to surrender sovereignty all the time, it seems, to meet the needs of others as they arise beyond their own scope of choice.

Her book could be taken as an attack on, or at least constructive criticism of, introversion (mine) – which, as I’ve discussed in other book reviews here (Paul Rosenfels in April 2006 and even George Gilder’s “Men and Marriage” (1986) on the same archive). That is, someone like me, very determined to defined and follow his own purposes before committing to personal relationships like marriage (straight or gay) should become more receptive to and empathetic with other people in a community (last review, of Kielburger’s book) , even on terms other than my own. And, yes, “sacrifice” (as in the beginning of the review where I mention the hearing loss from the rifle range) happens in a real world. A “person” (rather than “individual”) more “connected” to others (whether kin or community) may not perceive this as a “sacrifice.” My own father used to say, “to obey is better than to sacrifice.” Indeed, the fracturing not so much of the existence of family ties as the willingness of modern culture to maintain their meaning does create a world in which some kinds of people don't do well (and someone like me may, if left alone, be OK). I think these sorts of moral arguments track to what commentators like Maggie Gallagher and Jennifer Roback Morse have be trying to make to counter proposals for gay marriage, but few people seem to get this. (The book author never specifically mentions gay issues, but it is all to easy to imagine how the existential discussion would go.) Perhaps, they say, some emphasis on social personhood is necessary to prevent some of the tragedies of history from ambushing us.

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