I was reading The Bulverism of Same-Sex Marriage Supporters by Leroy Huizenga. It begins well, with a C.S. Lewis quote (can’t beat Lewis for clear prose), but soon descends into an opaque thicket of un-argued metaphysical statements:
Many find it inconceivable that opposition to gay marriage could be rational because they’re operating not only with a faith-reason split but also with a truncated view of reason. They see it rooted not in respect for nature but rather in the desire to conquer nature in service of human will. It’s a view of reason which can say little more than “the right to swing my fist ends when it meets another’s nose,” but until then anything goes so long as done among consenting adults.
The problem with making consent the sole criterion of the Good is that it’s merely a social convention. “Consent” is an idea forged in the wake of the widespread death of metaphysics and it thus lacks any ultimate grounding. It will disappear once a majority of the strong decides it’s no longer useful to their interests.
I’m posting this not to respond to Huizenga (if you’re interested in reading a civil debate about natural law, check out the comments to this post on “Unequally Yoked”), but to comment on the “fist and nose” aphorism. “The right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins” is nowadays seen as a individualistic statement, and I’ve often heard libertarians bring it up to argue for minimal government. But that’s not what it originally meant.
John B Finch was an orator and prohibitionist, who traveled the country arguing for anti-liquor laws. According to the website Quote Investigator, Finch’s speeches are the earliest known version of the “the right to swing my fist” argument, although Finch’s version was not so concise. Here’s a bit of a speech Finch gave in 1882:
I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:
“Is not this a free country?”
“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”
“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”
Here civil government comes in to prevent bloodshed, adjust rights, and settle disputes.
Finch’s point was that individual liberty didn’t include the right to drink liquor (the arm) if drinking liquor caused harm to the larger community (the nose).
Other prohibitionists took up Finch’s argument, and through repetition it became short and polished. By 1887, prohibitionists were saying stuff like this:
The only leading argument urged by the anti-prohibitionists in this campaign for keeping open the bar-rooms, is personal liberty. A great man has said, “your personal liberty to swing your arm ends where my nose begins”. A man’s personal liberty to drink whisky and support barrooms ends where the rights of the family and the community begin.
This argument is, interestingly enough, similar to the argument made today by many people who oppose marriage equality. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone today saying that “a gay couple’s personal liberty to get married ends where the rights of the family and the community begin.”
(Of course, the prohibitionists had an understandable, reality-based account of how drinking harmed the family and the community. SSM opponents, in contrast, seemingly have only metaphysics.)
In the end, prohibitionists were wrong both because they undervalued individual liberty, and because they didn’t understand (or perhaps didn’t care about) the harm their laws would cause.
But still. I enjoy thinking about John Finch, dead for 125 years, except for a tiny scrap of his oratory, which still lives on, animated by millions of water-cooler arguments and blog posts. Would Finch be pleased at this tiny bit of immortality? Or irritated that it’s so often used to mean the opposite of what he intended?