Heidi is quite scandalized by Shimen’s community, especially its deference to rabbis and its ineffectiveness at dealing with public policy issues. She prefers for the state to play some of the roles traditionally played by communities.
To be sure, Heidi doesn’t want the state to play all of the roles played by communities in the past. She wants the state to legislate and enforce policies that promote public welfare and equality. She supports, among other things, state-enforced redistribution of income, environmental regulation, safety regulation, minimum wage laws, rent control and anti-discrimination laws. On the other hand, she strongly opposes any state involvement in the enforcement of flavors of morality other than fairness, the ones involving restraint and loyalty. She wishes, for example, to liberalize abortion laws and euthanasia laws and to eliminate any residual legal barriers to recognized homosexual unions. She wants state-funded schools to refrain from inculcating nationalistic or traditional values or encouraging qualities of character generally associated with virtue.
There are several grounds for Heidi’s preferences. First, as we have seen, the kind of morality that is important to Heidi is, to a large extent, subsumed by public welfare and equality. But, if pressed to justify her support for state involvement in welfare but not in the flavors of morality specifically associated with religion, Heidi would appeal to the “veil of ignorance” argument of the late political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls’s thought experiment asks us to imagine that we are a group of people wishing to agree upon certain principles according to which we will organize our society. So far this is the usual “social contract” idea. The wrinkle is that, like everyone else in the game, you know nothing about yourself: neither your age nor your sex, neither your skills nor your income potential, not your religion, your beliefs and commitments, or your social, business or other affiliations. Gornisht.
Assuming we are rational actors, what principles would we agree on? Rawls argues that we’d all agree that each person should have the maximum degree of liberty consistent with others having the same degree. In particular, since we don’t know anything about our prior moral affiliations and commitments, we’d all agree that the state should not impose any particular community’s definition of what constitutes morality. In fact, “comprehensive doctrines” – Rawls’s fancy way of referring to religion – are to be banned from public discourse as grounds for promoting policy.
The second principle that we’d all agree on is that, given some set of possible distributions of goods, we should choose the one in which the poorest member would be the best off (which you’d agree to because that poorest member might be you). That, in very broad strokes, is the argument for the state’s proper purview to include some version of equality and, more broadly, public welfare.
In short, then, welfare and equality are public business but other flavors of morality and the cultivation of virtue are private business. This is a conclusion that Heidi accepts wholeheartedly. Shimen, on the other hand, is of the view that both welfare and virtue should be handled, to a large extent, by communities.
But there’s a weird anomaly in Heidi’s position. Since Heidi wants the state out of the business of promoting virtue, we might expect her to enthusiastically approve of voluntary moral communities like Shimen’s. After all, Rawls ostensibly wants the state out of the morality business precisely so that religious communities like Shimen’s can flourish without state interference. Yet, Heidi disapproves of Shimen’s community, and others of the same type, for oppressing individuals and undercutting the state. What’s up with that?
Teasing out the assumptions that underlie Rawls’s thought experiment gives away the game. How would I wish to organize society after I peeled away my affiliations, loyalties and beliefs and everything else that makes me me? The question scarcely seems coherent since, at that stage, who exactly is left with interests to negotiate. Rawls and Heidi simply assume that there is some “unencumbered self”, as Michael Sandel puts it, independent of and prior to the affiliations that constitute my identity, and that we can somehow imagine all these unencumbered selves organizing themselves politically.
Rawls’s thought experiment resonates more with Heidi than it does with Shimen; it seems that in real life Shimen and Heidi are not equally encumbered. Shimen’s life is defined by his identification with a specific people committed to the perpetuation and development of a specific culture. Shimen knows what it feels like to have nothing, so he doesn’t underestimate the importance of material goods, but these goods don’t have symbolic value for him; what he really wants is the meaning and purpose that he gets from participating in the ongoing project of the Jews. What would Shimen want if he were not a Jew? Not a meaningful question.
On the other hand, banning “comprehensive doctrines” from public discourse doesn’t cost Heidi a thing. While Shimen wants freedom to participate in a specific communal project that connects the past with the future and that gives his life meaning and purpose, Heidi wants freedom from such projects. Heidi’s aspiration for freedom for herself and for others is understandable and worthy, but the struggle for freedom from, that isn’t primarily a struggle for freedom to, generates a lot of negative energy.
Instead of giving moral communities space to flourish, as the Rawlsian model would seem to suggest, Heidi does subtle combat with them. In the name of liberty, she seeks to clip the wings of moral communities so that the flavors of morality that are less meaningful to her are devolved down to individuals. In the name of public welfare, she seeks to crowd out moral communities by having the state take over the roles traditionally played by communities. Heidi’s battle against moral communities gets to march under the high-minded banners of liberty and public welfare, but is thin gruel to build a life around. In the end, a culture of resentment can arouse, but it can’t fulfill.
Moreover, we will see in the next few posts that, high-minded banners aside, one thing that the extension of state power at the expense of communities rarely achieves is the advancement of liberty and public welfare.