Until a half-century ago or so, there was a moral consensus, however fraying, that informed and shaped the exercise of freedom in the Western world. The self-determination of human beings, of citizens in self-governing political orders, presupposed a civilized inheritance that allowed free men and women to distinguish, without angst or arduous effort, between liberty and license, good and evil, honorable lives and dissolute and disgraceful ones. Few would have suggested that liberty and human dignity could long flourish without a sense of moral obligation and civic spirit on the part of proud, rights-bearing individuals.
Since this moral consensus could be readily presupposed, Americans (and other free peoples) could—and did—abridge the language of politics to give priority to rights over duties, choice over the content of what was chosen, and the pursuit of happiness over the pursuit of truth and virtue. But this was precisely an abridgement because the other half of the equation was always more or less presupposed.
The American Founders, for example, were in no way moral relativists, let alone moral nihilists. Rejecting religious sectarianism and the forceable political imposition of religious truth, they nonetheless appealed to honor, civic virtue, and the “honorable determination” of a free people to govern themselves. Facile relativism or easygoing nihilism, where all “values” are created equal, would have appalled them.
The idea that moral judgments are utterly arbitrary, that distinctions between right and wrong, and better and worse ways of life, are wholly subjective, was completely alien to the founding generation. Almost all of them spoke of a human “moral sense” without which freedom degenerates into moral anarchy and despotic self-assertion.
Unlike the French Revolutionaries, America’s Founders did not repudiate Christianity or begin the world anew with some ideological “Year Zero” (neither 1776 nor 1787 became the first year in some new revolutionary calendar). The vast majority of the Founding generation remained religious believers and combined a belief in natural rights with deference to the natural moral law. For them, rights without duties were unthinkable, freedom without self-limitation unlivable. Such was the American consensus.
All the prominent Founders were fundamentally anti-utopian (even Tom Paine), and had, as Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, an acute sense of human sinfulness and imperfection. They were not the Puritans or Calvinists of old, but neither did they endorse the materialism and reductionism of the radical Enlightenment or its misplaced belief in an ideology of Progress. They still believed that human beings had souls and were much more than matter in motion. They had no trouble rejecting both the theocratic temptation in politics and a relativism that severed the essential connections between truth and liberty, freedom and the pursuit of the good life. Moral subjectivism (“Who’s to say what is right and wrong?”) was wholly alien to their hearts and minds, precisely because they were civilized men and women.
We now live in a different moral universe, and by no means a better one.
Of course, inspired by Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and the early civil rights movement, we have made considerable progress in overcoming racial injustice, and the legacy of the great injustice that was chattel slavery. That is all to the good. But an emphasis on inclusiveness, however necessary and legitimate, does not define or exhaust the moral foundations of democracy.
Today, even religious believers habitually speak of morality in terms of “values,” a term derived from economics that suggests something is good because we value or choose it (its modern use was made famous by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber). Whether people who use that language know that they have succumbed to what C. S. Lewis derided as “the poison of subjectivism” is largely beside the point. As Allan Bloom argued in The Closing of the American Mind over 30 years ago, the language of values, and the language of right and wrong, are by no means the same thing; they ultimately point in different directions. The latter partakes of confidence in the reality of moral facts, the former of thoroughgoing relativism and subjectivism.
Language matters, and the language of “values” is, whether we like it or not, the language of moral relativism, even moral subversion. Of course, some thinkers of note use the language of “values” and “disvalues” while dissociating those terms from a framework of moral relativism. But there is peril in that path.
It is not just a question of nomenclature. There is a deep ambiguity inherent in the modern categories of self-determination and popular sovereignty themselves. I don’t believe that the architects of our political order believed in human self-sovereignty in the strict sense. They did not endorse the truly radical and subversive idea that human beings should repudiate a “Higher Power,” a “superintending principle” of Justice or Goodness as Hamilton called it, above themselves. They were not political atheists and did not believe that men should aspire to be gods.
This is the great divide that separates the Founders as “prudent revolutionaries,” in Ralph Lerner’s phrase, from the proto-totalitarianism already apparent in the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution (1792-1794). The Declaration of Independence invokes not only “Nature’s God” but also God as Creator, Providence, and Supreme Judge. It thus readily accommodates, and draws together, deists, theists, and believers in the biblical God, while fully tolerating skepticism or atheism as a private belief. The “new order of the ages” that our currency appeals to took for granted civilizational and moral continuity. America’s prudent revolutionaries were in that important sense conservative revolutionaries, too.
Let us return to the ambiguity to which I referred. Political emancipation, even the self-determination of a free people, quite logically gives rise to more radical claims about human beings governing themselves without any natural, metaphysical, or moral restraints getting in their way. Today, many people—thinkers, theorists, and ordinary citizens alike—speak breathlessly about human “autonomy” or even “self-ownership”—of rights without duties, of freedom without any deference to the moral law or a natural order of things.
Of course, Tocqueville already noted at the beginning of the second volume of Democracy in America that democratic men and women readily succumb to inertia, to vertigo or moral panic, when they are obliged to choose but have no star and compass to guide them but the imperative of choice itself. The result is either a debilitating passivity or a creeping conformity where distraught men and women take their bearings from the predictable uniformity of the crowd. Promethean declarations of independence, of radical self-sufficiency, give way to immersion in “petty and paltry pleasures” and a small-minded democratic conformity. But as the bitter experience of the 20th century suggests, autonomy understood as the rejection of “Nature and Nature’s God” can also give rise to an inhuman totalitarianism, where political atheism wars with the natural order of things. That is the path of tyranny and terror.
There is, of course, a more noble and constrained view of autonomy and self-determination. Kant, the great moral philosopher of modernity, heralded obedience to the moral law, to the categorical imperative to treat every human being as an “end,” not as a “means” to our own purposes, as a defining trait of the morally serious person who governs himself. And if one reads his Metaphysics of Morals(1797), it is apparent from page one that Kant adhered to a demanding morality that required a good deal of self-command.
But Kant, for all his philosophical profundity, fatally separated morality from any ground in nature. And so latter-day Kantians—academic philosophers and law professors mainly—think respect for the dignity of human beings requires that we not only tolerate but esteem every life-style choice no matter how base, self-absorbed, self-destructive, vulgar, or ignoble. Autonomy has been divorced from self-command and self-respect. The new moral dispensation refuses to tolerate only those who still live up to the humanizing and civilizing requirements of the moral law. This convoluted use and abuse of “autonomy” is a powerful impetus behind political correctness and the soft totalitarianism that inspires the cancel culture. We are now authorized to cancel those who still believe in God and the moral law, who still believe in moral self-command. The old restraints, the old absolutes, are now seen as the enemy of human freedom.
Today, we still appeal to human rights, ever more expansive, ever more indiscriminate, ever more bereft of prudence—while the old idiom of natural rights, which largely presupposed natural law or the natural moral sense, can barely be heard. How else could we arrive at the conclusion that biological nature can be dismissed at will and that human beings inhabit 73, or is it 153, different genders? This is the reductio ad absurdum, the farcical concluding stage, of the view that human beings create themselves and are beholden to no standards above, or outside, the human will. This is a recipe, as we see all around us, for both moral anarchy and political self-enslavement.
Self-government and autonomy, so understood, will remain forever incompatible.
But there is a complication that we defenders of the American Founding are obliged to acknowledge. The “ambiguity” of which I have spoken has been retrospectively read back into the Founding documents themselves. The Founders were torn between the idiom of “the state of nature,” bequeathed by political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and their own richer subordination to “superintending principles” of goodness and justice that transcend the will of men, or the founding of civil society.
We all agree today that no man should be governed without his consent. But as Orestes Brownson had already pointed out in The American Republic, published in 1865, some locate this prohibition against despotic rule in the absolute “autonomy” of the individual, rather than in light of a more traditional understanding of what Tocqueville eloquently called “liberty under God and the law.” This is the ultimate root of the culture wars: whether liberty demands permissive egalitarianism, a life without law, or whether self-government is inseparable from rationally ascertainable moral and civic virtues. That is the great divide within the heart of liberalism, and liberal democracy more broadly.
We need to make explicit a moral-political-philosophical premise presupposed but not emphasized by our great forebears: “Man is not God, independent, self-existing, and self-sufficing,” as Brownson strikingly put it. In an age where toxic relativism and toxic moralism coexist and merge, we need to theorize, to emphasize, to stress, what our forebears could still largely take for granted. In contrast to their situation, the moral capital of Western civilization can no longer be taken for granted since it is depleting by the hour.
Against the poison of subjectivism—and its ugly twin, unthinking moralistic and egalitarian rage—we must renew the Great Tradition with its reasonable confidence in self-rule and self-command. Our civic and civilizational renewal must be informed by moral facts and truths inherent in our nature and ultimately bequeathed to us by the divine source of our rights and obligations. Such is the great unspoken presupposition that gives life to the American civic tradition.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs’s 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind.