The Question Behind Our Political Divisions

The political regime of the United States of America is one founded on three core philosophical ideas:  natural rights, consent of the governed, and the rule of law. The American Founders put in place a structure – a federal constitutional government of divided powers consisting of states with their own republican governments – in order to ensure that these core philosophical ideas stood the best chance of surviving the tumult of human depravity. Thus, the Founders’ government was a limited government, but it was not a libertine one. It offered what some call a regime of ordered liberty. That is, one in which the preservation and development of certain institutions and ways of life – already present in civil society – could be allowed to flourish for the sake of the common good.

The Declaration of Independence provides a philosophical snapshot of the grounds by which the infrastructure of this government was fashioned:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That is, human beings are rights bearers by nature, and these rights are given to them by God. And because the human being, in the words of Justice McLean, “bears the impress of his Maker,” we are in fact creatures of equal dignity and immeasurable worth (even when our government does not live up to this truth).

Nevertheless, for well over a century the Founders’ vision has been called into question by a variety of critics. Some have expressed doubts as to whether the Founders’ framework – a divided government of checks and balances intended to protect fundamental liberties such as the right to property, due process, religious freedom – is based on a correct understanding of the progress of history and the different needs that citizens may have in an age of ever-changing circumstances and challenges, unanticipated at the American Founding. 

Others have raised questions about whether there is really such a thing as natural rights, while others who say they embrace natural rights reject the Founders’ belief that such rights require a divine source. The consent of the governed, too, has been the target of critique, especially on questions of great moral controversy, such as abortion, the distribution of pornography, and same-sex marriage. In these three cases, courts have struck down laws passed by legislative and popular majorities on the grounds that these laws violated some deeper constitutional principles not apparent from the text of the Constitution itself.

            Justice John McLean by Matthew Brady (1849)

Behind these developments and the political disputes that arise from them are philosophical beliefs about the nature of humanity, morality, law, and the common good. Hence, they are not, per se, political disputes, since they, and not the political positions that arise from them, are the underlying reasons for our political disagreements.

Take, for example, the issue of abortion, perhaps the issue over which Americans are the most deeply divided. Although there is, in the academic world, a wide spectrum of views on the morality of abortion, in the world of politics there are roughly two major positions: prolife and prochoice. Those who embrace the latter position generally believe that the right to abortion is a fundamental right. Those who oppose abortion generally believe that abortion in every case is unjustified homicide because the unborn child is a full-fledged member of the human community and thus requires the protections of our laws.

Thus, the abortion controversy hinges on a question of philosophical anthropology, whether one believes that the unborn child is or is not one of us. If it is not, then it is entitled to no greater protections than we afford an appendix or a kidney. But if he or she is one of us, then it possesses an intrinsic dignity that all human beings have by nature, that just governments ought to recognize.

What is true of abortion is also true of other issues over which Americans disagree including the nature of marriage and family, the licitness of physician-assisted suicide, the scope and size of the welfare state, and whether the laws may be employed to support a particular moral vision of the good life.

Consequently, no matter what one thinks about the wisdom of the American Founders or where one stands on the great moral issues of our time, the position one embraces will ultimately depend on what one believes is true about philosophical anthropology. Or, as the old textbooks would put it, how one answers the question, “What is man?”

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).