Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Same-Sex Marriage & The Efficient Society: Perfection vs. Efficiency

Note: This post is a continuation from this earlier post

In chapter 2 of The Efficient Society, Joseph Heath compares two possible value systems for a society: trying to achieve perfect virtue vs. trying to be as efficient as possible.

Heath argues that throughout time most societies have viewed the pursuit of good (virtuous) living as the goal of society. Whether in the world of Islam, Europe in the middle ages, or Communism in the Soviet Union, society functioned by requiring everyone to buy into the same set of moral values. Of course this required getting agreement on what actions are virtuous and which are vices - here religion traditionally (although not always, as the Communist example shows) plays a big role in determining which actions are good (those which please God) and which are bad (those which offend God).

The (potentially) fatal flaw in this type of arrangement is pretty clear - it only works if there is near unanimous agreement about what is virtuous and what is bad. Seen from this perspective, the greatest threat to this type of society is the heretic or dissident - which helps explain why heretics and dissidents have been treated so appallingly (by modern standards) throughout history and why so many societies/religions work so hard to 'convert' people to their beliefs.

Heath argues that the combination of advancing technology (which made disagreements much more lethal) and the Reformation which split the church in Europe and caused numerous civil wars led people to reconsider whether this was a sustainable model for society. He suggests that it was the 'social contract' theorists, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke et al, who developed a new set of values for society. In this new model, the state would no longer seek to impose values on society but would only use the powers which society agreed (contracted) that it should have, most notably a monopoly over the use of force to enforce contracts and prevent disagreements over values from getting out of hand and causing more civil warfare.

Heath calls this new model 'the efficient society' because, with the state's role reduced to enforcing contracts rather than values, legitimacy is shifted to those transactions which both parties enter into voluntarily. And since both parties enter voluntarily, it is presumed that both gain something - i.e. it is a win-win transaction. But in order for both parties to gain, the transaction must be doing things more efficiently than in the past. Since nobody stands to lose anything from these win-win contracts, there is no reason for violence over clashing values, and everyone can just get along.

In this model, everybody keeps their values to themselves, since to impose them on (unwilling) others would require the use of force, and this is reserved to the state which is mandated not to intervene in matters of values (what we generally refer to as the separation of church and state).

This should become a lot clearer with an example. For a topical example (which Heath also dwells on at length) let's consider the debate on Same Sex Marriage.

In a society which depends on a shared set of values, it is necessary to assess the virtue of various activities, with sex being a major topic of interest. Pretty consistently, societies have decided that the virtue of sex (God's purpose in creating sex, if you will) was for the creation of children - which makes a fair bit of sense. From there it is an obvious next step to say that all sex which can lead to the successful upbringing of children (i.e. intercourse between a married couple) is good and pretty much everything else (gay sex, straight sex which won't lead to children, contraception, abortion, etc.) is bad.

Now consider sex in a contractual society. In this society, the state's role is simply to enforce contracts and to maintain it's monopoly on the use of force. So as long as some sex act has been agreed to by two (or more) consenting adults - that is a win-win 'efficiency' gain1 and the state has no right to interfere. Only where there is a lack of consent (rape, pedophilia) has the monopoly on force been violated and the state needs to step in and punish the offenders.

So, as Heath says, opponents of same-sex marriage may question the values which lead us to accept this act, but these are the same values our society has been built on for hundreds of years now and approval of same-sex marriage is just an artifact of these values finally being reflected in our laws after a long lag time.

We can see this clash of values: perfection vs. efficiency, very clearly in the Canadian blogosphere.

Consider this post from Curt at Northwestern Winds. He quotes an address to the UN by Chris Kempling,
"One would think that tolerance would mean that social liberals would be tolerant about our religious beliefs. In the Newspeak of today, however, tolerance means everyone is obliged to take a liberal attitude towards immoral sexual behaviour, but those who practice that immoral behaviour do not have to tolerate Christian beliefs which oppose such behaviour."

...and then concludes with,
"This trend is appalling abuse of the vaunted separation of church and state, itself ironically an American concept. Too many people think that slogan runs only one way. Get a clue: it means the churches can't set bars to the levers of government and it means that the government will not hinder the thoughts and teaching of the churches in the private sphere. What is happening, and this is why the trend is so alarming, is that the understanding of what is private is shrinking, and very rapidly too."

By suggesting that same-sex marriage supporters are being intolerant themselves and trying to deny the rights of religious people to enter into contracts (speaking engagements for example), same-sex marriage opponents can use the efficiency values of our society against same-sex supporters, and feel as though they have the upper moral hand, even on an efficiency basis.

The trouble is that there is really no significant movement of any kind to prevent churches from doing whatever they want on the issue of the treatment of gays. The catholic church still doesn't allow women(hardly a particularly downtrodden group, especially in comparison to gays) to become priests and the government isn't stepping in and forcing them to and it's not going to.

The reason statements against gay marriage by church leaders draw opposition in our society is that, while the statements are obviously made in the private sphere (where else could they be made?), their objective is to influence the public sphere. Specifically, the objective is to use the coercive power of the state (as Bishop Henry so honestly stated) to prevent gays from entering into win-win contracts (in this case marriage). That is where the opposition to church statements against gay marriage comes from - because, while accepting that society in general operates on values of efficiency, many religious people view the particular case of gay marriage as being so extremely unvirtuous that it requires state intervention to impose the values of one group on another.

Previously, I had never really understood why gay marriage opponents would put themselves through logical contortions and make exaggerated claims but I see now that a lot of it stems from trying to find a rationale for opposing same-sex marriage which doesn't conflict with our society's efficiency values.

Now, consider this post from Skippy over at The Amazing Wonderdog:
"I can understand why some people are so vehemently opposed to gay marriage, why people simply feel that something about this is, well, wrong - and it's why I feel that I'm not vilifying anyone by accusing Stephen Harper of pandering to the homophobe vote.

But there's a difference between me and the people Harper is pandering to: I recognize that this [being uncomfortable with the idea of gay sex] is my problem, and mine alone."

"We have no right to limit their rights, or their happiness, or to place obstacles in their lives purely to make ourselves comfortable.

Your right to swing your fist ends at the end of my nose, as the old saying goes."
"Tolerance is not a matter of having no qualms; if it were, we wouldn't call it "tolerance." It's a matter of putting aside your qualms and recognizing that you cannot impose them on others."

Skippy has fully internalized the efficiency values of our society. The monopoly of the state on the use of force (coercion), the true nature of tolerance and why it's important, and the fact that in an efficiency based society we have no right to deny others from entering into win-win contracts.

For a final word, see why Andrew at Bound by Gravity is such a good blogger in this recent quote from him:
"If we [the Conservative party] are ever going to unseat the Liberals then we MUST stop acting like the Christian Heritage Party, and start acting like Canada's next government. Canadians, by and large, don't give a rat's ass about issues of conscience - they care about day-to-day things like money, medicare, and infrastructure. Talk their language and you might be surprised at how so many of them are willing to listen."

I had to give Andrew the last word because he sums the whole situation up in a few short sentences. Canadians, by and large don't care about perfection of virtue (issues of conscience), what they care about is efficiency (money, medicare, infrastructure). Therefore the Conservatives have to stop speaking the language of shared virtue (acting like the Christian Heritage Party) and talk to Canadians in terms of efficiency. Well said.

Anyway, this was probably my favourite chapter in the book because, even just in the week since first reading it, it has really sharpened my understanding of both history and some current debates such as same-sex marriage.

One thing that I'd like to investigate further is a possible link between these two value systems Heath describes and the two systems of ethics described by Jane Jacobs in 'Systems of Survival'2. Jacobs argues we have two different sets of ethical rules, one for activities which are generally based on taking things (generally government/military activity - things involving the use of force) and one based on trading things (affecting commercial activity primarily).

Clearly there is some overlap here, although Jacobs argues that successful societies need to use both ethical systems simultaneously with each supporting the other, whereas Heath argues that 'efficiency values' have gradually been driving out 'Perfectionist/Common Virtue' values ever since the days of Thomas Hobbes (centuries ago). Food for thought for another time I guess.

1 keep in mind that Heath uses the word efficiency in the sense of increasing overall welfare, not in the narrow manufacturing sense of producing more widgets per worker

2 I've posted on Systems of Survival a few times, most thoroughly here in the context of the NHL lockout.

Labels: , , ,


  • Great post. I am going out to get that book.

    By Blogger Greg, at 5:44 AM  

  • Got it. Maybe we can do a book club thingee when i get back from cottage country?

    By Blogger Greg, at 8:43 AM  

  • The most interesting thing I've read all day.

    It would be interesting to take a look at what has been happening to the conservative party of late with this perspective in mind.

    The CPC has been shaped by two competing philosophies being the socially conservative and the fiscally conservative. The socially conservative element would like to impose their value system on the rest of society through government, while the fiscally conservative would like less government involvement in the affairs of business and economy.

    I have thought for a while that these two perspectives are not reconcilable and the combination of those two forces(and the emergence of the former as the primary driving force) into one party is the source to the CPC's current difficulties.

    Your post will give me some food for thought on the subject. Thanks.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:23 AM  

  • Excellent post.

    Particularly in the analysis of how same sex marriage opponents attempt to reconcile themselves with them efficiency values.

    Now I have to read the book.

    By Blogger AJSomerset, at 12:58 PM  

  • Well written Declan. Dare I say the NDP could learn from this too.

    Excellent post.

    By Blogger Mike, at 1:00 PM  

  • Very well thought through. Thanks for sharing.

    By Blogger Idealistic Pragmatist, at 2:14 PM  

  • greg - thanks, I'll look forward to your post-summer vacation book report (at least, unlike Charlie Brown, you're not being forced to read War and Peace).

    colino - Yeah, I've had some of the same thoughts with regard to the Conservatives and wonder if they won't someday regret not pushing for proportional representation (which would allow the two sides to each have their own party without destroying their electoral chances) when they had the chance. I guess we'll see.

    wonderdog / mike / idealistic pragmatist - thanks, luckily for me Heath did all the heavy intellectual lifting while I just summarized his work (and added some blog perspective).

    By Blogger Declan, at 2:21 PM  

  • An interesting post Delcan. I can't resist asking if you'll consider C.S. Lewis' "The Abolition of Man" after you finish Heath. I would enjoy commentary from you; furterhmore, it's short and I suspect you might enjoy it.

    I will see if I can pull a quote out of the book that is short enough to type up (I'm no typist) and wich drives home the point - it appears Heath overlooked it - that you can't get an ought from an is. Choosing simply MORE is a moral choice, a religious choice, as first principles must be.

    By Blogger Curt, at 2:45 PM  

  • It is also *quite ironical* that you quote Kempling and the merrily add that: "The trouble is that there is really no significant movement of any kind to prevent churches from doing whatever they want on the issue of the treatment of gays."

    I'll add the Knight of Columbus issue as well.

    By Blogger Curt, at 2:51 PM  

  • I'm not saying that *nobody* is intolerant towards people being religious, or that there won't be some issues in grey areas (such as the KoC case), just that intolerant opinion is confined to the fringes - as it always has been and always will be (in my opinion).

    Certainly, if we ever get to the point where society is (considering) using its coercive power to interfere with people's ability to practice their religion, you'll find me opposing that - on the same grounds that I support same-sex marriage.

    As for C.S. Lewis, I tried reading some of his non-fiction work and didn't get very far - but that was *many* years ago (I was probably 15 or so). I've been looking for something to read lately which would challenge my views (I had been considering 'Road to Serfdom') so I just put a hold on Abolition of Man at the library - but I'm not promising anything!

    I have to confess I'm not sure I get the point you're making in your first comment, unless it is that just because we happen to live in 'an efficient society' doesn't mean that we *should*.

    By Blogger Declan, at 3:21 PM  

  • 15 would be far too young to enjoy Lewis' books on philosophy / religion. I do think you will enjoy him if you pick him up again. It's obvious from your blog that you like to think (it's not the first time I've visited).

    RE: my first comment. First principles (axioms) are instinctive or 'tautological'. We assent to them, or not; but we *must* to assent to something or logic will not get off the ground.

    Ex. Using reason to prove reason is reasonable is circular. We trust reason in an act of faith.

    In the meantime:

    By Blogger Curt, at 4:00 PM  

  • ah, memories of the question of why we believe that the future will resemble the past (Answer: because it always has before).

    By Blogger Declan, at 4:34 PM  

  • That's an inductive conclusion. Like you, I don't assent to it. The reason is not that I dismiss induction as a method, but because the scope of the claim is so large (all of future history) that the odds against it are enormous.

    That conclusion is also an induction. In both cases we're making assumptions about the future based on a past chain. "Based on past experience, the future is hard to predict." That I would assent to. There's not a firm deductive proof here, however.

    All of which is to say, reason consists of more than just deduction; you see how much we need induction. Getting out of bed requires some belife that it won't kill you, yet no deduction for this exists. Getting up is a prime time for a heart attack.

    Heath seems to suggest that not only do we not need induction, we don't need to assent to anything at all. But he's asking us to assent to his view, about which we can ask: if it was so obvious, why has it been resisted for 6,000 years or more?

    It's pretty arrogant to say we're that much smarter than, I dunno, say Plato. The ancients didn't have modern science but they knew logical pratfalls at least as well as we. The danger is that we seem to think that because we have science we can throw the logic that gave it birth out the window.

    We can and should debate vigourously what the the beautiful and the good are. Heath appears to be suggesting that those questions are nonsense.

    The real nonsense is that Heath's conclusions are 'obvious'. He's making value judgements that are just as risky as anyone else's. Framing them as he has, he's simply trying to shut others out of the game.

    By Blogger Curt, at 6:04 PM  

  • Keep in mind that I pared an entire chapter down into a medium length blog post so obviously some of the detail of his original argument is missing.

    Heath suggests it is not that we are smarter than we used to be, but that improved technology is the reason we have moved to an 'efficient society' model. Given our improved ability to kill each other, it is no longer sustainable to subscribe to a system which leads to violent state conflict over which values are the right values.

    It is not that we shouldn't debate what the beautiful and the good are, but that that debate should be carried out between individuals with words as opposed to between states, with bullets. And that society can't be structured such that we need to reach consensus on what is beautiful and good and punish anyone who disagrees from the consensus view.


    Heath doesn't deny that the efficient society is in turn just another set of values, he just asserts that it is the best system for us to use under the current circumstances.


    It's interesting you mention Plato. His 'Republic', which sets out the ideal organization of the city-state, actually forms some of the basis for Jacobs' 'Systems of Survival'. This is because, in Plato's ideal Republic, society is broken into two classes: One which handles all the political work and (a lower) one which handles all the (menial) commerical work.


    All this stuff is like pieces of a jigsaw in my head, which I can't quite put together, but what does seem clear is that Heath is right that legitimacy in our society clearly has been moving away from a 'pursuit of perfect virtue' approach towards a live and let live 'efficiency' approach.

    You could disagree that this *is* occurring, but that seems like a losing battle (to me). You could also disagree that this *should* be happening, but as long as you don't get the state to punish me for disagreeing with you, that's fine by me as well...

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:41 PM  

  • If there is no collapsing of the distinction between 'ought' and 'is' (ie. some action being advocated is 'inevitable', then the majority of my criticsm is gone. I don't dispute that a lot of folks today think beauty is either entirely private or even non existent. I think that's a sad state of affairs, however.

    I did get a Lewis quote up (3 paragraphs! ouch...) if you haven't been by yet.

    Enjoy your long weekend Delcan!

    By Blogger Curt, at 5:53 PM  

  • I"The Efficient Society: Why Canada is as close to utopia as it gets" by Joseph Heath is one of the best books I ever read. I can't recommend it highly enough. Even if you don't agree with everything, it certainly gets you thinking about how Canada works.

    I liked it so much I bought four copies: 1 for myself, and 3 to pass out to friends with the admonition to "read it and pass it on".

    I want to spread this book like a virus. Or meme, if you feel more comfortable with that instead. :)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:47 PM  

  • curt - I saw your post, it's interesting but I'll refrain from commenting until I've had a chance to read some of the book, since I'm not sure I fully grasp the distinction he (Lewis) is making yet.

    deanna - (or should I call you Joseph :) - sounds good, I don't have the budget to buy 4 copies, but I'm doing what I can to spread the word as well.

    By Blogger Declan, at 2:41 PM  

  • In a following of links too long to retell, I recently found this discussion on "The Efficient Society", as it relates to same-sex marriage.

    In the stubborn belief that it is never too late to insert my 5 cents worth, I would like to suggest to Curt that perhaps an answer to his question, "If it is so obvious (Heath's theory), why has it been resisted for 6,000 years or more?" might be -- Navel-gazing was likely not safe for most of the past 6,000 years...there were monsters, there; religion had always been used as a way for the few to control the many until the fairly recent acceptance of the "rule of law"; and, while it could no doubt be benificial to talk about the beautiful and the good, I think it is far more important to debate the harmful.

    The religious opponents of same-sex marriage continuously harp on the theme of the *harm* to them as people of faith (theirs, of course), to the morals of children (again, theirs), and to the "Institution of Marriage" (except in Canada, again, theirs ONLY). To date, I have not seen a single, sane description of exactly what the harm is, and how its "harmfullness" happens.

    On the other hand, I have personally experienced the harm of not having my relationship, or the children resulting from my relationship, protected by law. The recent rulings by the California Supreme Court have gone a long way toward improving the situation, *in California*, but the proposed California ballot initia- tives seeking to undo *ANY* rights or protection for gay and lesbian couples and their children would be horrifically harmful if passed.

    The "contract" Americans have with each other is our Constitution. If it is not a living document that can be interpreted anew, or changed, then only those people protected in the original document, i.e. white, male, landowners are protected. Of course that would eliminate the entire "equal protection" clause, and most of the amendments added since the original signing.

    I understand that amending the Constitution can cut both ways, but unless an amendment is based on the "contract" between all Americans, and not the "values" of some, I would pray that the courts must eventually invalidate such attempts at breaking the contract.

    By Blogger Karen, at 3:05 PM  

  • Great post, i've been wanting to read this book for so long, unfortunately i haven't found it in my country, i would like to know if someone has a pdf or an epub version of this book :)

    By Blogger Unknown, at 10:53 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home