Questions concerning the relationship between morality and law were reignited when, during the Republican primary campaign, Donald Trump commented on the matter of abortion and (implicitly) women’s rights. When pressed by a journalist, Trump stated that, yes, women should be “punished” if their behavior is illegal or contrary to prevailing community standards. Though abortion is currently legal in the United States, there is no public consensus on this highly contentious issue. While the general trend of public opinion has favored the pro-life position from 1995 to 2009, polls indicate that support for either camp has been highly volatile since then. Understandably, elite opinion is rattled by any talk that could lead to a reappraisal of the status quo. This “settled question of law” may turn out to be somewhat less settled than some might wish to believe, and Trump’s rhetoric—whether or not it is sincere (a reasonable question on its own)—only fuels leftist fear of reaction against its decades-long hegemony over social policy.
Rather than evidencing any “misogynist” attitude on his part, Trump’s response in fact illustrated a commitment to a logical process of arguing from the axiom that any breach of accepted norms should naturally attract some form of societal reprisal. His response was nevertheless described as the campaign’s first serious p.r. blunder by opinion-shapers of both the leftist press and sections of the “Dissident Right.” The former, for his persistent breaking of liberal taboos and challenging the “progressive” narrative on one of the most embittered Culture War controversies; the latter, for showing the first signs of weakness when a clarification (i.e., retraction) was issued the following day. Whatever one may think about Trump’s style of politics, if the notion that illegal activity ought to attract legal sanction is “controversial,” that says a great deal more about the inherent absurdities of contemporary liberal “thought” than it does about Trump’s views on women. Why, then, should advocating an eminently reasonable if not trite position be a cause for condemnation?
While the reaction to the apparently panic-inducing comments was predictably shrill, an important point omitted from the ensuing discussions was that both men and women have always been “punished” for breaching law, custom, or convention. But contemporary society is premised on very different attitudes toward moral obligations vis-à-vis the sexes. Judging from the responses to Trump’s comments, it is safe to say that we inhabit a culture where holding women up to any standards of conduct is now considered “problematic” (in the parlance of today’s so-called Social Justice Warriors). Contemporary champions of “women’s choice” will lambaste public figures for merely stating the obvious, and those who condescendingly reflect on an era when women had the legal status of children or chattel property now express shock when their client-class is reminded that actions ought to have consequences: that perhaps they ought not act like children or treat themselves like chattel property. This, we are led to believe, is “progress.”
Contrary to fashionable beliefs, modern Western civilization is arguably the most gynocentric culture known to history, with white women in particular being the most privileged and pampered demographic in the world. Their issues are at the heart of public policy across the political spectrum. Economically buttressed by statist make-work programs, the social consequences of their “choices” are nevertheless bankrolled by taxes paid overwhelmingly by men. No better evidence of this is the manner in which all gendered programs and laws are drafted in reference to women’s collective and individual interests. It is women, not men, who are uniquely valued and courted as a voting class by the parties of both the left and the nominal right. This is the context in which Trump’s comments have aroused such outrage: a social environment based on inherited chivalric virtues that were once the defining qualities of Christendom, but which have since been betrayed by political opportunists and cultural vandals whose utopian meddling has perverted and therefore poisoned the relationship between the sexes in the modern era.
The historical markers of Western gallantry—circumstantially contingent expressions of male paternalism, deference to and acknowledgment of female privilege—have traditionally shaped the cultural dynamic between men and women, as well as public attitudes toward dealings with the “fairer sex.” By extension, the very idea of subjecting a woman to less than dignified treatment has naturally been perceived as at least disgraceful in the eyes of Christian patriarchy. However, the dominance of secularized and individualistic ideologies in the modern era have reduced this to little more than a relic of a passé traditionalist moral order—one that progressive ideologues have systematically and successfully undermined. Coupled with the rise of identity politics, today this culture of misguided chivalry has been reduced to a simplistic belief that any demands on, or expectations from, women are somehow “sexist”—notwithstanding the liberal democratic doctrines of “gender equality” and female “empowerment.”
Yet those who cringe at the idea of penalizing a women for an act of abortion (or the transgression of social mores generally) should consider two points. The first is that a law whose breach carries no consequence is no law at all. The second—more essential to this debate—is that female transgressions of behavioral norms have more commonly been “punished” through social stigma. Women are particularly judgmental among and between themselves. This is perhaps a cultural trait passed on from times when social standing and prestige were measured against moral codes defined by Christian theology and tradition, with external pressure applied only through the authority of a father or husband. The letter of the written law, as such, merely reinforced male domestic authority in the tradition of the paterfamilias. Social stigma as a mechanism for enforcing right conduct was largely a function of self-policing among women themselves. However, the revolutionary nature of modern feminist ideology has in fact encouraged and rewarded the breaking of social taboos, mostly among young girls, while pathologizing the resulting changes in the conduct of men, as well as abolishing the remnants of their paternal authority. With the rise of mass liberal democracy, it could be argued that the old lines of social and domestic hierarchy have either been wholly erased or effectively inverted.
Custom and convention was once written in the hearts of both men and women, but as can be seen from the exponents of contemporary popular culture, the only thing in the public conscience today is the primacy of individual will coupled with the ideological maxims of militant liberalism, in both its leftist and pseudorightist manifestations. While there may be a place for everything, nothing today is in its place. Notably, women are shielded from the consequences of their exercise of “freedom,” which is dogmatically defended without regard to its impact on interests outside their own. The once corrective forces of social stigma now operate in reverse, amplifying cultural decay. Thus, we see the culture of “women and children first” degenerate into the culture of the “Feminine Imperative.” A culture once premised on the expectations of the fulfilment of duty between the sexes has degenerated into the nonjudgmental and indiscriminate public idolatry of the Female Ego. Hence outrage at the declarations of a public figure that women should be directly held accountable for their actions.
The extent of our civilizational decline is demonstrated by the fact that the debate about moral taboo, female conduct, and civil rights should focus so much on prospects of reversing contemporary legal precedent—Roe v. Wade—and not on why sex relations have been allowed to decay to the present point. The prevalence of abortion is the consequence of a deeper spiritual trauma, not just the function of black-letter jurisprudential machinations. Generations of fruitful living are required for cultural norms to take root in the conscience of Civilized Man, but these can be torn out and forgotten in less than half a century, as has been witnessed across Western societies in the postwar era. This is a decline that no mere act of parliament or presidential edict is competent to reverse. Trump was therefore doomed from the outset when attempting to meet his detractor’s provocative questioning from a legalistic political mindset. His subsequent “clarification” only underscores the trap of arguing against liberal concepts from within a nominalist, democratic rhetorical framework, where boundaries of acceptable discourse are themselves ultimately defined by liberal norms.
Stepping outside of this framework, the question behind “should women be punished for breaking the law or offending social mores?” is this: “What do you propose to do, as a politician, to ensure that women’s social conduct is not destructive to the body politic?” Rephrased this way, the answer is at once self-evident and hardly controversial: ensure that the community itself holds them accountable. In other words, a return to social stigma as that mechanism for enforcing right conduct. But how is this to be achieved in a society where the moral imagination on which the social stigma relied for effectiveness has been abolished?
The solution does not require punitive judicial responses to moral recidivism, nor even that an aspirant to political office do anything; rather, a better tactic would be to allow natural law to regain supremacy over the interpersonal relations between individuals and within communities. While the prospects of abortion may have been horrifying before its legalization and clinical treatment by the present medical bureaucracy, the burden of that horror is arguably preferable to the contemporary sexual free-for-all (and the social pathologies that follow it) that society now has to suffer as a result. In other words, what is required is an end to government paternalism and state support for laws, programs, and policies that engender moral anarchy, which itself paves the way for behavior that legislatures find themselves forced to criminalize.
This, of course, seems unlikely to be appealing to a hedonistic society. While a spiritually healthy society does not accept the mass culling of its unborn at whim, there is no escaping the fact that it is impossible to enforce virtue by legislative fiat, even if morality ultimately informs the legal order. The cycle of anarchotyranny can only be broken when the anarchy is no longer fostered from above, and the bureaucratic source of the tyranny is halted at its source. As is the case with almost all modern social controversies, at its core this is a cultural, not a political, issue. It will therefore not be solved by the political or judicial class acting alone (or even at all) but by a return to an old paradigm whereby the law that is written in the hearts of men is allowed to express itself unmolested by utopian programs of social “reform.” This way, women will end up punishing themselves, whether by suffering the consequences of self-destructive conduct or through social ostracism if they continue to act in a way that offends the community interest at large. But this, of course, will first require men to take a more demanding and authoritative position with respect to the societies over which they have traditionally been stewards. Ultimate responsibility rests there.