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Philosophical approaches to liberty, the same-sex marriage debate

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John Stuart Mill and Lord John Acton were contemporaries in 19th century British politics. Both men served in Parliament. Both men tended to vote similarly. But each man represented very different theories of liberty. Mill, ever the utilitarian, believed that liberty is the right to do what one desires, with certain restrictions. Acton, ever the conservative, believed that liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.

Nearly all modern arguments about personal liberty and rights reach back in time to embrace the views of Mill or Acton and their respective historical predecessors. When we hear libertarians (joined by many modern liberals) and conservatives debate today, both camps are posing theories of liberty developed in bygone eras.

Utah political culture is so divided as well. Freedom-loving people of all stripes invoke one or the other theories of liberty. Many of the current contentions between the Utah Republican Party and the Utah tea party are a result of mingling these theories. On some issues, such as economics, they lean heavily toward Mill. On other issues, such as morality, they lean heavily toward Acton. Contentions arise when activists apply these theories arbitrarily and interchangeably.

But where we are seeing these two camps increasingly come into conflict is over the issue of homosexuality. On the one hand, most Utahns understand and accept the need for individuals to "work out their own salvation" including the struggles and trials of personal human identity and the purpose of sexual behavior. We remain kind and tolerant to a very patient degree because most of us see these struggles and decisions no differently than any other with which all mortals are faced. There but for the grace of God, go I.

On the other hand, most reasonable Utahns also understand and accept that our personal decisions and struggles alone — the "right" to do whatever we desire — aren't always proper justification for public debate or rise to the level of rights. During a debate at the University of Utah several years ago on the subject of "gay rights," I expressed the point this way, "We know how you personally benefit from gaining all of the privileges you seek. What we want to know is how society benefits?" In other words, selfishness isn't a right in a free society, though it is how we often behave personally.

Clearly Utahns, by and large, have a difficult time coping with these important distinctions. We know we do because Utah culture is so extremely passive-aggressive. Compound that passive-aggressiveness with anecdotal stories of "injustices" and "indignities" experienced by struggling souls, especially anecdotes about children and youths, and pretty soon a political movement begins to seriously take shape even in Utah. So much so these days that even seriously conservative families begin to believe in the Mill theory of liberty when they are inherently and have been traditionally firmly in the Acton camp.

In these dysfunctional circumstances, facts matter little. What matters to severely passive aggressive people are the stories. The only influence that seems to matter for some Utahns is that a grieving parent in tears testifies that they know their child was "born gay." The fact that there is no replicable scientific or medical evidence that proves that point is irrelevant in the mind of that grieving parent. The fact that that testimony, if from an otherwise conservative Utahn, contradicts ideals of moral agency or religious teaching, is of little influence. As Mill and his predecessors and followers believe reason is the slave to passion and, in politics today, emotions seem to trump reason.

The American founders were students of liberty. They saw firsthand what France was experiencing simultaneously. France chose a different kind of liberty, the liberty eventually expressed by Mill. America's founders chose an integrated liberty — knowing order must precede liberty — eventually best expressed by Lord Acton that rights are inherited not organic. How Utahns will lean, especially over this issue of "gay rights," remains to be seen.

Paul T. Mero is president of Sutherland Institute.