May 16, 2012


American Cartesianism and the Emerging Right to Same-Sex Marriage (Peter Lawler, May 16, 2012, Big Think)

For today, I'm thinking about how the right to same-sex marriage might emerge from a Constitution understood in a consistently Lockean/Cartesian way.  I'm not taking a stand on any issue for today. 

And I'm not saying that this understanding of our Constitution is complete or accurate.  I am saying that there's a certain individualistic or personal logic that can explain recent Court decisions. 

Alexis de Tocqueville, in the best book on America and the best book on modern liberal (or individualistic, Lockean/Cartesian) democracy, observes that the Americans are Cartesians who've never read a word of Descartes.  The Cartesian method--the radical doubt that produces the conclusion that the only certainty is the self-conscious "I"--is also the democratic method.  The democrats achieves intellectual liberty by methodically or habitually doubting the word--the authority--of other persons.  If I trust what you say, then I'm ruled by you, and I surrender my self-sovereignty. 

 Democratic Cartesianism is full of words like "deconstruct" (good) and "privilege" (bad).  The democratic theorist deconstructs any theory that privileges one person's word over another. So the democratic theorist--say, Whitman or Emerson--preaches nonconformity, or personal resistance to being absorbed into a personal whole greater than oneself.  So to be a democratic "I" is to be liberated from the authority of priests, poets, philosophers, preachers, politicians, (theoretical) physicists, parents, and the personal, judgmental God.  It's also to be liberate from personal claims about what is according to nature. As, say, Whitman explained, American personal freedom is the unlimited, indefinite movement away from nature.

This Cartesianism, for some Americans, is clearest in the Constitution.  Our Constitution treats human as free or wholly detached or self-sufficient persons.  The "I" is not subsumed into some class or category--as a part of religion or race or class or even gender or even country.  The Constitution, of course, can't help but recognize the distinction between citizen and non-citizen, but even that distinction is treated as artificially constructed or not some deep statement about who anyone is.

The Constitution of 1787 is maybe most striking in its silence on God, in its decision not to employ theology politically.  But not only are persons freed from "civil theology"--from the degrading and destructively seductive illusion of being part of a political whole, they are in a way free from biological nature. The Constitution does not recognize the natural division of members of our species into men and women. Americans are understood to be free to consent to be governed by God and even nature, and the idea of consent, of course, dissolves the authority claimed on behalf of God and nature by the word of the philosophers and theologians of the past.

The founding American limit to this democratic Cartesianism or Lockean individualism was federalism.  

Best not to confuse what any 5 justices say at any given moment for the constitutional order of the Founding.  They reflect only the necessarily limited views--on either side of issues--of quite tiny Ivy League elites.  The Founders never intended for them to be even the arbiters of constitutional questions, never mind social ones.

In establishing a democratic republic the Founders created an anti-individualist and anti-federalist order.  When the Court overturns laws and imposes the views of a temporary majority of its members it is acting in a manner antithetical to the republican liberty at the heart of the Founding, which requires only that every citizen be bound equally by the laws that we pass.  The democratic "I" of the Court opinions discussed here has nothing to do with the republican "I" of the Constitution. Indeed, the founding American limit to Cartesian individualism is the Constitutional Republic.

Posted by at May 16, 2012 3:03 PM

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