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Friday, February 17, 2023


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If the Christian God does not exist, them murder determines who is on top. But let us not live in that world, let us instead believe that "We are all brothers and sisters, and we are all created by the same God." — DJT, 9-3-2016, Detroit Michigan. You can hear this at 8:30 and following, at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfZDKWo2LxE

And now you see why all the devils in hell are after that man.

Please don't post this if you think it is too political.

Bill, I think your point - that without the premise, as explicitly given by the Founding Fathers, that the basis of equality under natural law is due to, and only to, man's brotherhood as children of an infinite God - is of critical importance.

Without it, the most important pillar of the political theory of the American Founding rests (despite the efforts of writers such as Thomas West and Michael Anton) on nothing, really, at all.

The Founders were well aware of this danger, and warned us of it at every opportunity.

“The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty...
Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System" (John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson).

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever...” (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII).

“Here is my Creed. I believe in one God, the Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That He ought to be worshipped.
That the most acceptable service we render to him is in doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, is the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see” (Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Ezra Stiles, 1790).

One unavoidable question is whether the political equality of persons can be maintained without a theological foundation. Suppose there is no Judeo-Christian God. What could possibly support the manifestly anti-empirical belief in equality?

I think a liberal might try to justify the political equality of persons sans theological foundation as follows: freedom (or ‘personal autonomy’ using modern liberal parlance) is the first principle of liberalism, meaning in its most general sense that man ought to be free to pursue his own vision of the good without the government, or society, or other individuals or institutions imposing their own conception of the good upon the individual.

Liberalism’s second principle of equality follows from the first: because freedom does not refer to any standard outside itself – to do so would be to presuppose a conception of the good that is not consented to and thus would violate liberalism’s first principle – it has no way of judging one man’s conception of the good superior to another’s. Therefore, different conceptions of the good must be regarded as each equally valid for an individual to pursue. Political equality is then a concrete application of this more general conception of equality.

The other direction one might take from the rejection of the transcendent as having any publicly authoritative role (as liberalism does by prescinding from questions of the good) is represented by the major anti-liberal modernist ideologies, e.g., fascism, Communism, Nazism: obviously people prefer their own preferences to those of others, but it is impossible for a single individual to make his arbitrary individual will a principle of social order. Fascism, Nazism, Communism attempt to resolve this by identifying the good with the collective will of the people or race or party or state, which in turn is identified with the will of the Fuhrer or leader.

Since any transcendent standard has been ruled out of bounds from the get-go, I don’t think there is any way rationally to adjudicate between these two approaches (so I suppose that's my ultimate answer to the question posed). In practice, liberalism has proved the more resilient and adaptive of the two: liberalism comes to be seen as maximizing equal preference satisfaction of all individuals, which is appealing for obvious reasons, while anti-liberal modernism comes to be seen as arbitrary and irrational regarding which groups it includes and excludes from the collective will, given that it cannot appeal to any standard that transcends the group for justifying such exclusion.

Very good comments, Ian.

I agree that the autonomy of the individual is a key ingredient of classical liberalism, whether or not it is the first principle. But does respect for the autonomy of persons logically require that there be NO substantive conception of the good to which persons morally must conform? I agree that there are SOME substantive conceptions of the good that are incompatible with personal autonomy. Consider a leftist regime which, invoking the common good, outlaws civilian ownership of firearms. That would be an unacceptable violation of the individual's right to self-defence which follows from the individual's right to life. Or consider a Catholic theocracy that requires every citizen, for the good of their immortal souls, to be a practicing Catholic, say nothing against the RCC, etc. Protestants would rightly protest. That's what Protestants do. And atheists too. It is not unreasonable to be an atheist, as far as any of can tell. No one KNOWS whether God exists. It is a matter of reasoned faith.

What I don't agree with is the notion that respect for personal autonomy entails that there be NO substantive conception of the good. Without a minimal substantive conception of the good, one to which the majority consents, there would be no civil order.

As I see it, a tenable classical liberalism not only allows but requires what we might call a THIN substantive conception of the good for man that individuals would have to respect on pain of punishment if they don't. For example, rape would not be allowed, and rapists would be apprehended, tried, and convicted if guilty.

Hi BV,

First, thanks for the response.

I would agree that classical liberalism, at least as originally conceived, allowed and indeed required a thin substantive conception of the good. For example, Locke, arguably the founder of classical liberalism, required a belief in God as a foundation. And this foundation put certain limits on man's freedom.

But for the nonce, I think we can bracket that, since the original question explicitly asked whether equality can be given a justification absent a theological one. And I think as a historical matter, as liberalism developed, it did indeed gradually de-emphasize and eventually remove this theological justification (and I think we can leave to the side whether or not this development was due to classical liberalism’s own implicit logic or a due to a distortion of classical liberalism).

But does respect for the autonomy of persons logically require that there be NO substantive conception of the good to which persons morally must conform?

No, but it depends exactly on how we spell out personal autonomy. On the modern liberal view, I would say it does require that there be no substantive conception of the good. Or rather, perhaps I should qualify this by saying that this is modern liberalism’s self-conception. (I don’t think it is ultimately coherent for a political ideology to be truly absent of any conception of the good or the nature of man: liberals will end up smuggling in some implicit conception of the good on which to base personal autonomy.)

But on another view, for example, that personal autonomy entails that one’s inner freedom must never be violated owing to his nature as a rational animal, e.g., one cannot be justly tortured into assenting to a proposition, personal autonomy is indeed grounded in a substantive conception of the good, which includes a substantive conception of man’s nature.

So I think what I would say is that for an appeal to personal autonomy to be justified, the conception of personal autonomy appealed to must itself be grounded in a substantive conception of the good, rather than being an independent principle in its own right (perhaps existing along side a substantive view of the good). But making it an independent principle is precisely what modern liberalism aims to do: thus when the principle of autonomy comes in conflict with society's substantive conception of the good, there is no higher principle to adjudicate between the two: in which case either the principle of autonomy will be subordinated to and informed by society's conception of the good, or the opposite will happen, and the principle of autonomy becomes society's ruling principle and gradually hollows out and destroys society's conception of the good. Which is the situation I believe we find ourselves in today.

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