You'll recall, perhaps, a post I made early on in my blogging about how my Christian faith shapes my political views.
Well, one of my best friends in the whole world read it, we had a dialogue, and the following blog entry is his response. With his permission, I am reprinting it here, without comment from me:
As you called for on your blog several weeks ago, there is a need for "righteousness" in American government. It is, in fact, a virtue toward which individuals and institutions are morally obligated to strive. Despite the claims in recent years by some in the political arena, the pursuit of justice has always been (to varying degrees) a part of the American experiment. This is evident in the three great documents of the American form of government - the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. These documents wit-ness to certain principles, ideals and virtues that the state must recognize and strive to secure or, at the very least, recognize above all others:
· All citizens will have liberty
· All citizens will be equal
· All citizens will be justly governed - i.e., justice
Whereas liberty and equality are oriented toward the individual, justice (as the highest of the three) is always geared toward the common good.(1) Because "good" is a moral term, the common good is understood as a political science about what is best and right for the whole. This is how and why justice will "run into" or at times "run over" liberty and equality. Of course, the devil is in the details, and our task as citizens of a representative republic is to seek the proper definition of the common good and then to create an atmosphere in order for people to achieve it.
This naturally leads to a discussion of rights, which should be understood as natural rights recognized (though not created nor established) by our democracy. Tocqueville wrote that it is by reference to natural rights that "men have always defined the nature of license and tyranny." In other words, no nation can be called great without having respect for natural rights. It seems to me that it could be persuasively argued that without this there can be no real civil society at all (unless one considers types of tyrannical societies "civil").
Even a rudimentary inspection of American history will show that liberty and equality have always quarreled with each other in our democracy. And they will do so in any democracy. This is what Alexander Hamilton and James Madison feared the most when considering the future of democracy in America. In fact, this is the explanation for John Adams' fear of the eventual failure of the American experiment, writing (in a private letter after his presidency) that "all democracies eventually self-destruct."
As Mortimer J. Adler wrote in The Time of Our Lives (1970) the conflict in our society between liberty and equality occurs only when neither is limited by justice. The application of this principle is extraordinary: from affirmative action to abortion. Only justice has the natural ability to resolve the inevitable tension and conflict between liberty and equality that will arise in any type of democracy. Justice must be the controlling principle among these three since it alone has the ability to determine the scope of the other two without sacrificing either. Left unchecked, liberty will run roughshod over equality and vice-versa. Justice, when properly conceived in coordination with "the common good" and "natural rights" must be recognized as the ultimate discriminating virtue in government.
Below are some detailed definitions of several key terms I have outlined above.
There are several ways to define natural rights. One way is through the observing that natural rights are to be identified by our natural needs. This is to say that human beings possess no natural right that does not correspond to a natural need. Justice and natural rights are inherently linked together because our ability to determine right and wrong in both private and social contexts is based on what is really and objectively good.
A just government must recognize and secure the natural rights of men and women in order that they may be able to make good lives. This is what the Declaration of Independence is speaking of when it mentions our natural right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." No government has the power to grant a good life. The good life entails meeting our natural needs through the possession of real goods, as well as the possession of those goods or wants that we have that do not interfere with our natural needs (or those of others).
All of this is possible, of course, because all human beings possess the same essential nature. If this were not so, society would be impossible. This last point has been famously rejected by many political, biological, sociological and, sadly, even religious thinkers of the past century. Thankfully, not all have fallen into this serious philosophical error.
To understand liberty properly (which is synonymous with freedom) we need to under-stand the four kinds of liberty. Circumstantial liberty is the ability and right of self-realization. Moral liberty is the freedom to perfect oneself - that is, to be perfected by means of a virtuous character. Natural liberty is the ability and right we possess for self-determination. The final kind, political liberty, can be considered as a type or aspect of circumstantial freedom - that is, a person possesses political liberty or freedom only when they are living in economic, social, and political conditions that foster it. The essence of this last type of liberty is the ability of an individual or a society to be governed by their consent and to have a voice in that government.
Like liberty, there are several types of equality. For the purposes of the present discussion, political equality is based on circumstances, but is entitled to all human beings by virtue of being human. In other words, these are conditions that should be experienced by everyone - specifically, the political conditions of status, treatment and opportunity.
The issue of slavery is a good, if not obvious, example to use to explore these conditions. In terms of status, the reason why slavery is wrong is because no person is more or less human than another. This means that every member of society deserves the same general treatment since no one naturally deserves more dignity than anyone else. As for opportunity, every human being naturally deserves the same opportunity afforded to others for the same reason - their shared human nature. If and when these conditions are not distributed equally, it is the duty of a just state to override liberty and do what is necessary to correct the situation (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education). Every person is by nature equal to all other persons and is naturally entitled to an equality of political, social and economic conditions. Our greatest President and statesman, the honorable Abraham Lincoln, recognized this as one of the core principles of democracy, even though it was not evident in American society at the time. This is why he called the ideals in the Declaration of Independence as a promise to the future rather than a statement of fact.
Aristotle (4th century B.C.) distinguished between two types of justice - universal and particular justice. Particular justice deals with such things as fairness in exchange, the distribution of goods and taking corrective steps to ensure equality (like in the example given in the immediately preceding paragraph). John Rawls, the late Harvard professor, was mistaken when he argued that justice was limited to fairness in how we deal with others. When it comes to universal justice Aristotle asked the question, what is lawful? By which he meant, what is right and good? Understood in this way, justice is recognized as one of the four cardinal virtues (along with courage, temperance and prudence). This idea can be traced back to his teacher Plato who had the insight to observe that justice consisted in virtuous acts toward others. It is universal justice that we speak of when discussing political justice.
Aristotle also recognized that, while all other animals are social to various degrees, only man is a political animal. When seeking to understand the proper relation of justice to the state we must ask whether the principle of justice is prior to the political state (including its constitution, laws, etc.) or if justice is relative to the political state. If it is relative then we are forced to into two positions. First, that justice is completely dependent on the power of state. Second, that justice is the result of the states laws rather than the basis of them. This is tantamount to saying that saying that justice is merely political. However, if we say that justice is antecedent to the political state, then we are claiming that political justice is deter-mined by natural justice. Hence, justice is understood as natural and rational rather than conventional. In other words, justice is not man-made. If it were then justice would change with the coming and going of different political regimes. Instead, because justice is natural it is, therefore, universally binding on all people in all places and at all times.
It was this definition of justice that led Lincoln to conclude that the obligations of a just government were to do for its people what they, individually, cannot do for themselves. The preamble of the U. S. Constitution summarizes these obligations well - "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
(1) Admittedly, these terms are not oriented wholly to the individual. They are corporate terms that also possess specific personal and/or individual application.
- David Alan Reed