Saturday, July 15, 2006

Memento Virtus (Remember, Virtue)

The esteemed potentate and royal sovereign of this corner of the Blogisphere, Brian C. Bilderback, is currently unable to post on his blog. Hopefully, that will change within the next two weeks. Until then, the venerable Monarch has duly appointed me as his Chancellor. He has requested that my first official act be to re-post something that I had written for him about two years ago regarding my thoughts on key political virtues of our (or any) democracy. Other than allowing me to post it, Brian is not to be held responsible for the following. Sincerely, Prof. Reed.


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, above all others, the state must recognize and strive to secure:
• All citizens will have liberty
• All citizens will have equality
• All citizens will be justly governed – justice

Whereas liberty and equality are oriented toward the individual, justice (as the highest of the three) is always geared toward the common good [*]. Because “good” is a moral term, the common good should be 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 twofold: 1) to seek the proper definition of the common good and then 2) to create an atmosphere in order for people to achieve it. I am, of course, assuming that the common good exists as an objective standard by which our form of government should be measured.
[*] I recognize that these terms are not oriented wholly to the individual. They are corporate terms that possess specific personal and/or individual application.

This naturally leads to a discussion of rights (i.e., 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.” No nation can be called great without having respect for natural rights. It seems to me that a persuasive argument could be made maintaining that without this there can be no real civil society at all (unless one considers tyrannical societies to be “civil”).

Even a rudimentary survey of the history of democracy in America will show that liberty and equality have always quarreled with each other. And they will do so in any democracy. This is what Alexander Hamilton and James Madison feared the most when they considered the political future of America. In fact, this is the explanation for John Adams’ agonizing anticipation 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 scope of potential 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. 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. Hence, when properly conceived in coordination with the common good and natural rights, justice must be recognized as the ultimate discriminating virtue in government.


Below are some detailed definitions of several key terms I have outlined above.

Natural Rights
There are several ways to define natural rights. I argue that natural rights should be identified by our natural needs. by implication, 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 construct 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 the meeting of our natural needs through the possession of real goods, and 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 distinguish between four kinds of liberty. Circumstantial liberty is the ability and right of self-realization. Moral liberty is the freedom to perfect oneself (that is, perfection by means of 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 or nature of this type of liberty is evidenced when an individual or society gives consent to be governed and has a voice in that government.

Like liberty, there are several types of equality. Political equality is based on circumstances, but is entitled to all human beings by virtue of their humanity (i.e., their common human nature). These conditions should be experienced by everyone. Specifically, these political conditions are normally identified by the following terms: status, treatment and opportunity.

The issue of slavery is a good, if not obvious, example to explore these conditions in more detail. In terms of status, slavery is wrong because no person is more or less human than another. From this it follows 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, therefore, naturally entitled to an equality of political, social and economic conditions. America's 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 current fact.

Aristotle (4th century B.C.) distinguished between two types of justice – universal and particular. 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). It is clear to me that John Rawls, the late Harvard professor, was mistaken when he argued that justice should be limited to the idea of fairness in how we deal with others. When it comes to universal justice Aristotle asked the question, "what is lawful?" By this he meant to ask, what is right and good? This is why justice is recognized as one of the four cardinal virtues (along with courage, temperance and prudence). This idea can be traced back to Plato who had the insight to observe that justice involved virtuous acts toward others. It is universal justice of which we speak when discussing political justice.

Aristotle also recognized that, of all the species of animals that exist on our planet, only humanity 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, we must admit that justice is completely dependent on the power of the state, and second, that justice is the result of the state’s laws rather than the basis for them. This is tantamount to saying that justice is merely political. If we say, however, that justice is antecedent to the political state, then political justice is determined by natural justice. Understood this way, justice is natural and rational rather than conventional or man-made. If it were not, then justice would change with the coming and going of different political regimes. Therefore, because justice is natural it is universally binding on all people in all places and at all times. Any democracy in which the majority rules unchecked is ruling according to power not law (i.e., justice). This is a rule of might, not right; a rule of will, not reason. The American founding fathers made the wise decision not to allow a simple majority to determine most political decisions. This was, of course, based on the assumption that those elected to office would be virtuous enough to make their decisions on moral criteria and not merely political ones.

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.”