Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky examines the possibilities in his Townhall.com column.
During a conference I attended last year, I got into some conversation with young libertarians about the nature of moral duties. In at least two instances, I asserted that positive moral duties exist.
In these conversations, initially I was accused of not being a libertarian because I affirmed positive rights. This accusation was apparently meant to give me pause, but I simply shrugged, “So be it. If being a libertarian means denying positive moral duties, then I’m not a libertarian!” I then pointed out that I never said that government must be the agent of respecting or meeting those duties, to which the accusatory tone of my dialog partners subsided.
I gave the biblical example of the case of the Good Samaritan, who recognized the love imperative to stop and assist a victim of violent crime. I think it is an established element of Christian theological ethics that both negative and positive rights exist as a basic reality. That’s why we can commit both sins of commission and sins of omission, and the Book of Common Prayer includes confession to God that “we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
This, for instance, is in part why the Westminster Larger Catechism, in its exposition of the Decalogue, describes both the positive and negative elements that are obliged in each commandment. So in the case of the commandment against murder, the Catechism outlines both “duties required” and “sins forbidden,” the former of which include “comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent,” and the latter of which include avoiding anything that “tends to the destruction of the life of any” (Q&A 134-136).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic text, Life Together, that
The other person is a burden to the Christian, in fact for the Christian most of all. The other person never becomes a burden at all for the pagans. They simply stay clear of every burden the other person may create for them. However, Christians must bear the burden of one another. They must suffer and endure one another. Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not just an object to be controlled. The burden of human beings was even for God so heavy that God had to go to the cross suffering under it.
The confusion of these young libertarian thinkers on the distinction between positive and negative rights as well as the knee-jerk assumption that positive rights entail government action speaks to the important difference between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a full-blown world-and-life view. The former is certainly not without its problematic elements, but is far superior to a Weltanschauung that cannot account for positive moral responsibilities to family, friend, and neighbor.
By the way, I don’t mean to equate the errors of a few representatives with the entire variegated classical liberal tradition. Arnold Kling’s articulation of a “civil societarian” perspective seems pretty well immune to the criticisms noted above.
As I noted above, the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the claims upon my time and abilities that are made by other people. Bonhoeffer writes,
We must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest–perhaps reading the Bible–pass by the man who had fallen among robbers.
Ironically, Bonhoeffer rightly observed that religious professionals face a particular danger in not respecting the concrete claims of individual moral responsibility.
It is a strange fact that, of all people, Christians and theologians often consider their work so important and urgent that they do not want to let anything interrupt it. They think they are doing God a favor, but actually they are despising God’s “crooked yet straight path” (Gottfried Arnold).
I explore the truth of this observation in my own experience in a previous Acton Commentary, “The Good Samaritan: Model of Effective Compassion.”
Lawler discusses the increasingly broad push to commodify the human body, especially in the context of organ sales. Lawler writes of “the creeping libertarianism that characterizes our society as a whole. As we understand ourselves with ever greater consistency as free individuals and nothing more, it becomes less clear why an individual’s kidneys aren’t his property to dispose of as he pleases.”
I myself have written elsewhere and on another related topic challenging the “ultimate right of an individual to his or her own life” and therefore to the body. I make the case that the right of possession over one’s body is not an ultimate or absolute right in any ontological sense, given the status of our relationship to God as creator.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some more relative, less absolute, “political” right of an individual over his or her body. It simply means that libertarian rhetoric needs to be toned down and appropriately tuned to the question of the prudence of political intervention in areas like physician-assisted suicide, kidney sales, and prostitution. This would include some rather less grandiose claims than an “ultimate right of an individual.”
Ritchie gets at this latter point very well in his analysis of the typical response to “creepy libertarianism,” that is, “creepy statism.”
“To try to make an inhuman state the tool for humanizing our world is to fail to see what the modern state is. If you believe in bodily integrity, use your own body to persuade your neighbors not to sell their kidneys. And then be prepared to listen to them as they explain why they wish to do what they plan to do,” he writes.
Anyone familiar with the history of conservative thought and politics in the United States knows that there have always been tensions among various strains of the “movement,” not least that between traditional Christians and secular libertarians. See, for example, George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.
(To simplify severely, the Acton Institute can be seen as straddling this tension, often taking up policy positions that are shared by libertarians but hewing to Christian tradition with respect to the existence of objective moral norms, etc.)
It is within this context that one might consider Andrew Sullivan’s new book, The Conservative Soul. In one sense, Sullivan’s views are simply another instance of the ongoing tension between religious conservatives and libertarians. But then Sullivan is a special case because he considers himself Catholic (though hardly a traditional one). He also stretches his connection to conservatism to the breaking point (or past?) by characterizing anyone who accepts the possibility of knowing any truth with certainty as “fundamentalist.”
The basis for my comment is this scathing review by Mark Gauvreau Judge.
BRYN MAWR, July 11, 2006 – One school of libertarian political thought is that of the so-called anarcho-capitalists. Here’s a good summary: “Anarcho-capitalists reject the state as an unjustified monopolist and systematic aggressor against sovereign individuals, and would replace it with cooperatives, neighborhood associations, private businesses and similar non-monopolistic organizations.”
I think this view is incompatible with biblical Christianity. Perhaps you think that this conclusion is rather uncontroversial and obvious. Even so, Christians who are broadly in favor of limited government and classical liberalism need to be careful to recognize the various types of positions and views that this larger umbrella category often covers. It’s worth looking at some of the reasons that anarchism and Christianity cannot be reconciled.
The most basic perhaps is that the government is a divinely mandated institution. The exact nature and scope of its mandate is a point of some important debate, but the divine institution of government cannot be denied on the basis of the Bible. One important feature of this mandate is the responsibility to adminster temporal justice.
As Paul writes in Romans 12, Christians are forbidden from taking personal vengeance for wrongs committed against us. He says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.'” (Romans 12:17-19 NIV)
Paul goes on to describe the means that God has instituted for the administration of retributive justice. Thus he writes in the next chapter that the civil ruler “is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 NIV)
Again, this gets at the role of the State, but it also assumes the validity and necessity of the existence of civil government. In this latter regard, Paul also writes, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2 NIV) This section is a good summary of what the Bible says on these topics, and is consistent with the traditional interpretation of many other parts of the Scriptures, including the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20:12 NIV) This commandment is understood to refer not only to our actual parents but to all temporal authorities that God has instituted.
One specific feature of anarcho-capitalist theory is that all taxation by government is necessarily invalid and by definition theft. This is because any state action, but particularly one like taxation, violates the basic principle of non-agression because it is inherently coercive. As we have seen, Paul clearly legitimizes a role for the State’s use of coercive force, i.e. “the sword”. But he also specifically addresses the question of taxation (as Jesus had also done previously with regard to the Roman tax). Thus Paul writes, “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:6-7 NIV) Here we can see that Paul implicitly regards governing as a valid and sacred calling or vocation, as it is participation in a divinely instituted ordinance and is a “full time” job.
With this basic framework in mind, we can understand how anarchism has always been viewed by the Christian tradition as a fundamentally problematic and heretical doctrine. One might say that it dishonors God because it denies the validity of a divinely mandated institution. In this context, the magisterial Protestant reformers were consistently suspicious of what they perceived in some Anabaptist and other so-called “radical” groups. In this way, the Belgic Confession, penned by Guido De Bres and a confessional symbol of Reformed Christianity, included in its original form in the context of the discussion of civil authorities the following denouncement: “And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”
Having established the basic validity of the existence of the State for Christianity and the incompatibility of anarchism with the biblical faith, we will examine in more detail tomorrow the scope and nature of government authority. We already see an initial element in our discussion above, that is, the administration of civil justice.
BRYN MAWR, July 10, 2006 – Things are progressing smoothly for me here at the Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar. Our daily schedule includes four major lectures from seminar faculty, each with built in small group discussion time as well as Q&As with the presenting faculty.
One of our first activities was to try and self-identify in terms of our view of the role of government (if any). I identified with the endorsement of a limited government, whose main role is to provide for the defense of the nation and the administration of domestic justice. In addition, however, I do not dismiss out of hand any role for the State beyond these two activities. Indeed, in agreement with the political conclusions of the Chicago School and Hayek, I do find there to be a legitimate role for the State with regard to certain kinds of public good.
I would articulate this as being in broad accord with a sort of sphere sovereignty envisioned by Abraham Kuyper and those who followed him, specifically with respect to the divine authority invested in various social institutions. This perspective is not unique to Kuyper, however, and I think finds expression and support from a wider and more diverse range of sources. These include writers like Lord Acton (see yesterday’s post for a representative quote), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the reformer Wolfgang Musculus.
The government is a social institution with its own specific and unique mandate, and therefore has an important albeit limited role. My current sense is that the government is responsible for having some concern for the public welfare in cases of extreme and urgent need. The proper relation between the government and the other spheres of life, however, is characterized best I think in terms of the government as the institution of last and temporary resort. The principle of subsidiarity is helpful in articulating just how these relations might work.
A final reflection: it is important to understand the role of a Christian political philosophy and how it relates more broadly to a Christian world-and-life view. Take Lord Acton, as an example. He writes,
Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.
Broadly speaking, we might say then that for Acton the purpose of government is to promote and protect liberty, as man’s highest political end. But this end is itself penultimate, and is to be used in service of other, presumably even higher, human ends (e.g. those of civil society and private life). This points to the necessary relationsip between liberty as a political end and what we might call virtue as a higher human end. That is, freedom is not simply an ultimate end in itself, but must be used in the pursuit of virtue, which finds its authoritative and greatest manifestation in the Christian religion.
This quote from Acton also sets the stage for a topic for tomorrow, Christian theology and anarchy. But my thought for today is that classical liberalism is not itself a complete and adequate world-and-life view (for Christians especially, but really for anyone else either), but rather can in certain forms be consistent as an applied political philosophy with Christianity, and which does not even begin to make claims about the highest human ends.
BRYN MAWR, July 9, 2006 – I arrived safely at Bryn Mawr College yesterday for the beginning of the Institute for Humane Studies Advanced Studies in Freedom Conference. Someone will have to explain to me the economic efficiency of flying from Detroit to Philadelphia by way of Atlanta. The accomodations are excellent, and the campus is quite beautiful.
The program began last night, and continued today with two morning lectures. The schedule is well suited to a good amount of discussion and dialogue, both with the faculty and the seminar participants. In the hopes of creating a truly open environment for dialogue and learning, the entire seminar proceedings are off the record. Therefore, these updates will represent my own reflections and questions on the issues raised in the course of the seminar.
In the spirit of advancing the study and appreciation of liberty, let me pass along this quote from Lord Acton (who has had rather good representation here so far, if I may say):
By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation–religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.
More in the coming days about my perspective on the role of the State, as well as difficulties in finding fundamental agreement between certain forms of classical liberal thought and Christianity.
I’m leaving tomorrow to attend the Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and hosted at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The conference runs from July 8-14, and will “take a deeper look at topics such as spontaneous order, social development, and public choice, considering them in both a historical context and in light of issues today.”
Seminar faculty include Randy Barnett of Boston University (Law), Stephen Davies of Manchester Metropolitan University (History), Sandy Ikeda of SUNY-Purchase (Economics), David Schmidtz of the University of Arizona (Philosophy), and Jeremy Shearmur of the Australian National University (Philosophy).
I’ve been doing some prepatory reading over the last few weeks, as much as I could from the suggested readings for the seminar. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my experiences from the conference with the PowerBlog audience. Look for postings on a regular basis next week. I hope to have daily summaries for you.