Abraham Lincoln found some telling lessons in the account of those black slaves who refused to follow John Brown in his reckless attack on Harper’s Ferry. The project, he said, was “so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed.”
These were not book-learned men, and yet they had native wit. They could see that the schemes of this crazed white man were not going to conduce to their own well-being. Even as unlearned as they were, they were still what we could call “moral agents”: they had wit enough to reason about the conditions of their own well-being, and the well-being of others. They did not deserve to be annexed to the purposes of other men without their consent.
Leo XIII took matters to the root here in the style of Aristotle when he offered his Encyclical On the Nature of Human Liberty (Libertas, 1888). “[O]ther animate creatures follow their senses, seeking good and avoiding evil only by instinct, [but] man has reason to guide him in each and every act of his life.”
We don’t impute “liberty” to horses and cows, for they have no capacity to reflect on the rightful uses of their liberty. We do not attribute rights of property to animals or come under an obligation to give them reasons as we clear them from the land, for animals cannot impart any moral purpose to inanimate matter.
And so Leo XIII made the foundational point that liberty, by nature, flows only to a creature of reason. It can be taken seriously then only for a creature who understands, as a matter even of common sense, that any claim of his liberty must point outward to the ends for which he is exercising that liberty. And that, in turn, must carry the question of whether those ends are good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.
I mention all of this now because I recalled, in my last column, our late, beloved friend Michael Novak in his essays on liberty and moral truth. The natural right to liberty may be claimed only by those beings, in nature, who can reason about the rightful and wrongful uses of their freedom; and it is only on that basis, as Leo XIII observed, that “man is rightly regarded as responsible for his actions.”
And yet, none of this makes any sense if we find ourselves backing into the kind of soft moral relativism that is getting absorbed more and more easily within our political class, on the side of conservatives as well as liberals. If there are no moral truths undergirding our judgments, then our liberties are as boundless as they are empty of any moral ground for their rightness.
The notable shift in understanding may slip by unnoticed in the tendency, now widespread, merely to assert certain “rights” while avoiding any serious inquiry into the harms inflicted by those rights – and why those harms may be “justified.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg is probably no better or worse than politicians more advanced in years and mature reflection, and he was probably rather typical of his class when he was asked why the law should not bar the killing of babies who survived abortions.
He evidently thought he had said enough to finesse the question when he remarked that decisions on abortion must rest solely with “the woman” – in this case, the woman who had ordered an abortion and unintentionally given birth. Clearly, nothing in his makeup induced him to wonder how he would separate that case from the right of the same woman to rid herself of any other of her children whom she regretted having borne.
But we know that liberal politicians have long stopped raising any faintly demanding questions of this kind about the principled ground of their own position on abortion. They are content to invoke a “liberty’ that is nicely closed off from the vexing question of just what interest of theirs could justify the kind of killing that marks the end, or purpose, of that liberty.
In other instances we find even serious Catholics who are reluctant to bar the Black Mass for Satanists at Harvard, because they are reluctant to bar any non-violent things that may be done under the banner of “religious liberty.” They are convinced, that is, that religious “liberty” can best be protected by receding from any moral judgments that may call into question the rightness or legitimacy of what is done in the name of religion. They seek to protect religious “liberty” by removing precisely the moral tests that must attach to any other serious claims of liberty.
But when we reject moral relativism, we must fall back on an understanding of moral truths that endure over time. They will not decompose with time because there is nothing material about them. The late Daniel Robinson used to invoke the Greek understanding of epistemonikon, the capacity to grasp universal truths not bounded by space or time. And he began to wonder aloud whether the soul that grasps those kinds of truths may itself be imperishable.
When we grasp that point, as Leo XIII saw – “that man’s soul is immortal and endowed with reason and not bound up with things material, the foundation of natural liberty is at once most firmly laid.”
*Image: John Brown by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1872 [National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.]