Our right to religious freedom is best grounded in the universal duty to seek ultimate truth, says Joshua Schulz, and not in human autonomy.
Here we come to the fundamental paradox of modern liberalism. On the one hand, liberalism in all its stages has always treated human freedom as sacred. On the other hand, modern liberals also believe that in order to guarantee their freedom, they can in practice use the state’s coercive power to compel others to do what they believe is wrong.
This is the logical consequence of liberalism’s autonomy view of rights. Since the state is supposed to be “value-neutral” about what each party desires, in cases where human autonomy is at stake it really has no principled way to decide between competing claims. The result, more often than not, is not a fair contract between the two parties but an arbitrary exercise of political power, justified by the myth that we have a right to technological progress and convenience.
The natural law tradition avoids these problems by insisting that rights protect obligations rather than autonomy. Rights are tied to those goods objectively required by human nature for flourishing, such as life, truth, and virtue. Since we would suffer harm by neglecting to seek such goods, we have obligations to seek them.