Read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.
In the previous installments of this series, I have given a critique of some of the main liberal thinkers throughout the history of that ideology. While the coverage has not been exhaustive, I have discussed the thinkers that I see as representative of the main strains of liberalism. By engaging in a critique of liberal theory I hope to have clearly demonstrated that rights as professed in liberalism are not natural, nor the product of neutral reasoning. Moreover, by negating the liberal justifications for rights, the arbitrary nature of liberalism has come into focus.
However, as I have pointed out throughout this series, there is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to world views. This includes my own thinking, so in the spirit of being constructive beyond mere criticism of the work of others, I would like to briefly give an account of an alternative ethical foundation for thinking about rights. This ethical standpoint is ultimately founded in our Christian values and is a superior alternative to liberal ideology. As such I would like to begin this explication with the definition of freedom given by Jesus when preaching to the Jews:
They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:33-36)
In this short section we find a very clear explanation of the Christian understanding of freedom. Moreover, it is valuable to us because the passage itself contrasts the Christian understanding of freedom with an understanding of freedom that is fairly similar to what liberalism professes.
To further elaborate on our own Christian conception of freedom it is useful to look at an argument Socrates provides to prove that all men by nature seek out the good. Socrates argues that every person seeks the good in everything they do. This may seem fairly obvious when we look at people doing good deeds, but what about when people do bad deeds?
Socrates would argue that even murderers and thieves are seeking the good when they commit their crimes. When someone steals, he argues, they are not doing it because stealing is bad: they are seeking some good from their action. Maybe they want money, food, or pleasure; but whatever their motivation, it is the pursuit of some perceived good.
Of course, thieves are wrong to steal, but this is because they do not truly understand and know the good. In seeking to improve their lives through stealing they are wrong about what the good is. Even if we consider someone who harms themselves by doing drugs or committing suicide, they are doing it to escape or end some pain or evil that afflicts them.
No one is ever directly motivated by seeking out evil for its own sake. People only end up seeking and finding evil when their search for the good becomes misdirected. This is not to say there are not bad people, or even that we can help every single person, but simply that at the most basic level human nature, every person desires what they perceive to be the good. As a result, Socrates argues that a society is just when it guides people towards the good and puts them on the path to finding it.
In our own Christian understanding, we know that the ultimate good is God and we seek Him by following His teachings. These teachings are reflected in our Christian values, which are manifestations of God’s teachings. Thus it is these Christian values which must be the ethical basis for any concept of law and rights.
On this point I should like to respond to a common criticism given by liberals to the Christian view. When arguing for this position I have often found that a liberal will respond with some version of “God gave us free will, and this includes the right to sin; no man has the right to take away another man’s free will”. This argument is based on a conflation of the metaphysical concept of free will with the liberal concept of freedom. Free will is very specifically the faculty by which a person can choose between various options that are available to them.
The fact that we possess free will says nothing about what range of choices ought to be available to us. For example, the fact that a man cannot sprout gills and become a fish on a whim does not take away from the fact that he can choose between the given set of options that are available to him. For example, this man is still fully free to choose whether to go for a walk or go for a swim.
A man living on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean still has free will; for example he can choose on what corner of the island to sit, or whether he will focus on the hopelessness or serenity of his lot. Unless someone is able to take over your mind and control you like a robot, you will always have free will. In our regular lives we are limited in many ways by various factors. But limits make us who we are. Moral limits shape us into good people. On a more basic level, physical limits make us who we are; the fact that I am myself, with my body and my face, is a necessary part of who I am.
Indeed, any particular characteristic you have is a limit because it precludes other options. If you are tall, you are not short; if you are a human, you are not a dog; if you are made of atoms, you are not empty space; etc. If one were to lose all of one’s defining characteristics there would be nothing left: one would cease to exist for lack of definition. It is liberal doctrine which brings in the concept that the full range of choice to do or be anything ought to be available to any given person at any given time.
Moreover it is not enough for a liberal to argue “classical liberalism comes from Christian values”. The point of Jesus’ definition of freedom and Socrates’ argument is to show that real freedom isn’t a society in which no one is responsible for anyone else and everyone just does whatever they want. There is real good and evil, and there is a real human nature. Real freedom means that people are fulfilled by living good lives.
On this point it is once again useful to go to Socrates and to look at his argument from function. Socrates argues that all things have a function. The function of a thing is to do what only it can do, or what it can do best. So if we consider a shovel, the function of the shovel is to dig. We could use a shovel as a bookmark, but because a shovel’s function is not to be a bookmark, it wouldn’t make a very good one.
Moreover, things have vices and virtues in terms of their function. A good mirror clearly lets you see your own reflection in it and thus its clarity is a virtue. A dirty mirror that gives a muddled reflection is a bad one and thus it has vice. So an ordered world is one in which each thing fulfills its function well.
"Indeed, it is part of Christian teaching that people, just like the rest of creation, have been designed with a specific purpose, and that all people will be judged by God on whether or not they have fulfilled their purposes in life."
Jesus presents an understanding of ethics grounded in function as well: “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:17-18). Part of the function of a fruit tree is to bear fruit, from a functional view a tree which fulfills this role by producing good fruit is good indeed. And necessarily, a tree which does not fulfill its function is a bad tree.
God extends this idea of function to people. Most Christians will have been taught throughout their lives that God has a purpose and plan for every person. Of course, one of the synonyms of ‘purpose’ is ‘function’. Indeed, it is part of Christian teaching that people, just like the rest of creation, have been designed with a specific purpose, and that all people will be judged by God on whether or not they have fulfilled their purposes in life. “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48).
Socrates also argues that people have functions. Since man is the only rational animal, his overall function is to live rationally. Since Socrates considers justice to be the most rational way to organize a society, as well as one’s own life, virtue for all people means reasoning justly. But Socrates understands that not all people are the same, so on top of the universal requirement for all people to reason justly, different people are suited to fulfill different social roles.
An important part of Plato’s Republic deals with Socrates trying to work out what the ideal ordering of society is. Some people are best suited to be soldiers and policemen, some are best suited to be intellectuals and philosophers, and some are best suited to produce goods in the economy by learning a trade. But whether one is a farmer, craftsman or philosopher, it is one’s duty to live a just life, and the state must ensure that all its people can live a good life.
Of course, in Christianity, we have a more holistic conception of people. Our function is not just to reason because ultimately our lives are grounded in our personal connection with God and our fellow man. As a result we would give more importance to a person’s spiritual life as well as more the more practical aspects of living well.
We would agree with Aristotle’s critique of Plato and Socrates when he argues in the Nicomachean Ethics that living a virtuous and just life is more about practical experience than abstract reasoning. We learn how to be good more from our everyday social interaction and constant work to improve ourselves in small ways than we do by reasoning in very abstract terms about the meaning of virtue. That being said, our Christian conception of freedom is ultimately much more in line with organizing the lives of individuals and the state to pursue virtue and happiness than it is about arbitrary abstract liberal ideas.
The central purpose of the political right ought to be to fight for the social good. This takes precedence over following a set of norms that was arbitrarily established by one liberal philosopher or another. A movement concerned with the welfare of the nation must fight not for abstract ideas, but for the people of the country first and last.
The last point I would like to make is that the laws and constitutions of men do not establish universal ethics. The rights and duties that are established in a state are a manifestation of the ethical standpoint of the men who established them. Like a mirror in which we see our own reflection, a nation’s laws reflect its political and ethical foundations.
In the case of Canada, our struggle is quite clear. The liberal elite who dominate our country do not pretend to be neutral or objective. To understand their attitude we need look no further than the first lines of the constitution they created in 1982:
“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law...The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Firstly we see their bald-faced hypocrisy: can anyone seriously maintain that the governing class of this country–the politicians, media, corporations, and academia–act as if this country is founded on Christian principles? Secondly, we see their open willingness to use their power to enforce their will. What are considered to be reasonable limits to the rights and freedoms of citizens? Who defines these limits? The answer is that those limits are whatever the government and courts say they are.Moreover, this is not just a theoretical concern: numerous liberal governments, supported by the courts, media, and academia, have shown their willingness to use their extensive powers in the name of their ideologies.
Consider, for example, the steady growth of firearm restrictions imposed by liberal governments. Judicial elites promoting liberal social causes, laws against hate speech that have their roots in academic thought and are enforced in litigation by courts and in public shaming in the media. In so doing the elites in this country have tacitly admitted that they have a vision for the future shape of Canadian society. Therefore, in practice if not in theory, they will not hold themselves to the classical-liberal idea that the state must remain neutral.
Of course, once one recognizes that the state and society cannot be neutral on questions of right and wrong, a neutral approach to politics does not make sense. At this juncture, the crucial point the right must grasp is that to seriously engage with politics one cannot be neutral. Retreating into a form of tactical libertarianism where the approach to every issue is to let every individual do whatever they want is not justified philosophically or practically.
The next time you hear someone claiming that everything, from university education, to internet access, to government-funded abortion, is a human right, or that the state should have no hand in guiding the morality of the people, think carefully about what you are being told. Although they may not be understood fully by the speaker, these comments have significant meaning.
The side one takes on any of the central issues of our time will be determined by the worldview they hold. Having recognized the profound failure of the liberal worldview we must move beyond it. But mere negation is not enough, the right must have an alternate vision that is not grounded in the same liberal worldview. Ultimately the most coherent approach to questions of rights is the christian view of freedom. Man is not free when he is a slave to his vices or the vices of his society. Building a free country means building a good country.