The remarkable Thomas Reid, the Scot philosopher who graced the end of the 18th Century, noted that philosophers will often find “great difficulties about a thing which, to the rest of mankind, seems perfectly clear.”
David Hume may have found something inscrutable about the meaning of “causation,” but the ordinary man knows his own powers to cause his own acts to happen. As Reid had it, that was part of the common sense that precedes all theories. And some of us find the ground of Natural Law precisely in those axioms of common sense.
But we find maxims in our public life that are treated often as though they were sage principles that may truly settle the moral questions in our lives, and yet any serious reflection would reveal them as quite empty.
It would be hard to exaggerate the effect on our public life of that sentiment, waxed in many forms, but set down by John Stuart Mill, in his over-cited little book, On Liberty: that the law should not impose restrictions on liberty “when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no person besides himself.” That line became the hallmark of the libertarians, from the censoring of books and pornography to the tolerance, and then the celebration, of the homosexual life.
Surely, it can be found in Justice Kennedy’s glorifying of “autonomy” – that grand insulation from the adverse judgments of others, as same-sex couples pursue, without reproach, their sexual lives and their claim to consummate marriages.
Any parent will know teenagers drawn to jolting new habits and passions, and the fact that the son is pleased enough with his mode of conduct is not taken as the proof of its rightness.
But even when it comes to grownups, common sense will break through. The laws came to bar dueling, even as that pastime enjoyed the consent of the two parties. And the Supreme Court, in 1911, refused to uphold the freedom of people to contract themselves into a state of peonage or slavery.
If there was something wrong in principle with ruling other men as a species of property, that wrongness would not be effaced by the fact that a man assented. We still have the term, while the deeper meaning has faded: “unalienable rights” – rights so necessary and true that we were not free to “alienate” or forego them.
Libertarians were content to soar with Mill’s lines, but they usually didn’t notice how quickly the urbane Mill could modify and take them back. And so he asked, “How . . . can any part of the conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other members? No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often beyond them.”
But for me, the most arresting critique of this liberal slogan, masquerading as a principle, came from that gentle and steely soul, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger (1926-2007). He was the French Jewish child, hidden during World War II, who entered the Church and rose to become the Archbishop of Paris.
Fr. Richard Neuhaus invited him to New York in 1996 to join one of our seminars under the auspices of the Institute of Religion and Public Life and to give our Erasmus Lecture. His subject was “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” with the terms seen in a strikingly different way when viewed with the Christian understanding of “the human person.”
When he dealt with liberty, he recalled that venerable line, sprung from Mill, that our freedom found its limits only as soon as we began to affect other people in an adverse or injurious way. Lustiger then asked a question I’d never heard: Did that line refer to the way we might affect “all other” people? Even people we don’t know? People who may be, for all we know, men of doubtful character, who don’t deserve any heartfelt concern on our part? Hmm.
Might we be tempted to rephrase the maxim in this way: that my freedom ends where I began to affect in harmful ways – wink, wink – those who count. When Bill Clinton vetoed the federal bill on partial-birth abortion, he expressed concern for the “health” of the woman who was denied that surgery. But for the child whose head was being punctured, with the contents drawn out, he expressed no interest. That child simply didn’t count in the ingredients that made up the case for him.
With the Christian perspective, that child was never out of sight, for the simple reason expressed by Lincoln: that “nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted,” and regarded as of no account at all.
Mill’s line has fed for years the surety of the “college-educated” that there are no moral truths. And yet, the irony, as the Cardinal showed, was that Mill’s familiar maxim made little sense unless it backed into that deep moral truth that underlay the American regime: “all men are created equal.”
That people keep backing into that proposition, while seeking to deny it, may remind us that it really does have the properties of a “self-evident” or necessary truth. The Cardinal’s point, from twenty-four years ago, would still bring news to the liberals, and perhaps even comfort, if they ever come to hear it.