Against Choice as the Supreme Good
by James Kalb
Arguments based on rights seem irresistible today. Unlike arguments based on natural law, let alone those based on revealed religion, everyone seems to understand them without further explanation. So if someone wants to say abortion is bad he says it violates the right to life, and if he wants to oppose the current deconstruction of marriage, family, and sexuality, he’s likely to say it’s at odds with children’s right to a stable home with a mother and father.
The arguments make sense. Bad conduct normally trespasses on particular people’s interests that ought to be protected, so it violates their rights, and pointing to the violation is an effective way of dramatizing important aspects of what’s wrong with the conduct in question. People may still reject the argument, but at least they understand what’s being said.
There is, however, a strategic problem with using the arguments too much. Rights don’t say what’s good substantively. Instead, they focus on the ability of the person holding the right to exercise it or not as he chooses. So talking about rights is talking about choice, and treating them as the basic issue is treating choice that way.
That’s a problem, because today choice has become the supreme moral standard. That tendency ties into liberation as the goal of progressivism, giving people what they want as the basis of democratic politics, and maximum preference satisfaction as the justification for consumer capitalism. It’s also given us our regime of “gay marriage“ and limitless abortion.
Although everything in our public life seems to support it, putting choice first doesn’t make sense. As a right to act willfully, choice can be pleasing as a kind of playfulness, but it would be crazy to make that kind of arbitrary playfulness the thing that gives life and society their overall direction. What makes choice important is that there are choices worth having that exclude each other, and judgment is needed to put together the best combination of possibilities. So evaluation, and thus rankings and relationships among goods, is what makes choice a serious matter. It follows that it is not a primary good but something that’s good through the goodness of other things, and that means those other goods come first.
The problem becomes apparent when choices conflict. In that case choice can’t really be the highest standard, since it can’t tell us what to do, but the impulse that wants to make it so refuses to look at substantive goods. The result is that the highest standard becomes not choice itself but the principle of making choice the highest standard. In other words, the highest standard becomes the triumph of ideological liberalism, the outlook that claims to put choice first. We are free, but our freedom consists in the right to support and live by the official view of things.
Suppose, for example, that Bob and Bill want to get married under state law and ask Joan, a baker, to bake them a wedding cake. Joan doesn’t want to bake the cake—which is, after all, an expressive object—and thereby support and participate in the event, so she says “no.“ We thus have choices that conflict. Whose takes precedence? Joan might argue that she’s entirely replaceable, and the burden of going to a different baker is minimal, while forcing her to bake the cake means involuntary servitude,forced speech, and a violation of her right to opt out of actions that violate her conscience.
For those who buy into current public thought, it is nonetheless obvious that she loses.
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