Mark D. White
In his New York Times column today, David Brooks hails the movement for same-sex marriage as an admirable step away from personal freedom and autonomy:
...last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.
Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.
Consistent with his views of individualism (which I've critiqued here and here), Mr. Brooks seems to have an overly simplistic view of freedom and autonomy, such as when he writes that "far from being baffled by this attempt to use state power to restrict individual choice, most Americans seem to be applauding it." Certainly, by marrying, people do give up some basic liberties to each other, but this is a choice freely made—and it is a choice to which gays and lesbians want access just as straights have long enjoyed. In other words, gays and lesbians want the higher-level freedom to restrict their own lower-level freedom (recalling Harry Frankfurt's conception of freedom of the will in which persons constrain their first-order desires based on their second-order ones). Marriage doesn't represent a diminuition of freedom: it is a higher level of it.
He goes on to say, "Americans may no longer have a vocabulary to explain why freedom should sometimes be constricted, but they like it when they see people trying to do it." Perhaps if Mr. Brooks expanded his conception of individual freedom to encompass the choice to constrain yourself, he'd see that Americans understand it extremely well—when that choice is ours. We choose to marry (or form long-lasting relationships), take jobs, enter into contracts, enroll in college, and make all types of commitments to family, friends, and community, all of which restrict our personal freedom. But they are choices that we freely make for any number of reasons, some out of self-interest and others out of a broader morality, and we welcome the opportunity to make these choices—a choice, in the case of marriage, that not all Americans currently enjoy.
The conclusion of Mr. Brooks' column conflates individual choices to make commitments with social pressure to do so:
And, who knows, maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice. Maybe there will be sumptuary codes that will make lavish spending and C.E.O. salaries unseemly. Maybe there will be social codes so that people understand that the act of creating a child includes a lifetime commitment to give him or her an organized home. Maybe voters will restrain their appetite for their grandchildren’s money. Maybe more straight people will marry.
The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.
My idea of the good life derives from Immanuel Kant's kingdom of ends, a world in which each of us embraces obligations to each other while we pursue our own interests, narrowing our choices as each of us chooses, not as society "induces" us. Mr. Brooks' alternate vision reflects his limited view of individualism as base self-interest in which moral imperatives must be imposed by outside, not necessarily by government but through societal pressure. The question, of course, remains why individuals should trust the wisdom of the crowd for their moral guidance.