Hey all, we’re just going to dive straight in today because there’s a lot of ground I’m going to try to cover.
Last time we defined “liberalism” and “common life.”
“Liberalism” is a social order premised on the idea of individual autonomy, a right to self-definition that cannot be justly violated.
“Common life” meanwhile is a general term for the various ways of living that groups of people develop and share with one another. So liberalism would be what you could call a very thin theory of common life. We’re trying to develop a more robust theory in this newsletter-and I’m trying to also do the same work in a number of other projects, most notably over at Mere Orthodoxy and in my book coming out next month.
Let’s continue the work this week by defining a vital idea for Christians to recover-the idea of “peace.”
Because we have all been raised in a liberal order, we tend to define “peace” like good liberals: peace is the absence of conflict between individuals.
We define it that way because under liberalism peace is an incidental good. While conflict can sometimes assist the work of self-definition, it’s easier to do that work without conflict. (Consider the example of rights for minority sexual orientations and gender identities: Figuring out your identity as a gay or trans person is already very difficult and societal pressure makes that work more difficult. Therefore, the argument continues, one aspect of creating a just society is creating a society in which such people can address questions of identity without the fear of social stigma interfering in that work.) That being said, the mere absence of conflict doesn’t guarantee that anyone is actually safely defining themselves. So peace is good, under liberalism, but it is not ultimate.
We might think of peace as being a prefix under liberalism: it’s a necessary precondition for flourishing, but doesn’t guarantee anything. It merely sets the stage.
But this is not how we should understand “peace.”
Peace is a condition of shared health that comes from each person in a community fulfilling their role in the life of a rightly ordered community. Thomas Aquinas describes it as being distinct from “concord,” by which he means mere agreement between people, and says that peace “denotes the union of the appetites.”
So peace is the result of our desires being harmonized within our individual selves as well as between different people. It is a common good because it can only be enjoyed collectively when our own harmonized desires are united in shared work with the harmonized desires of our neighbor.
How does this foregrounding of “peace” create problems for liberalism? There are two main ways.
First, if we say that the natural state is peace, then we are at odds with a great many of the major liberal theorists who say that the natural state is conflict. Hobbes deals with that conflict via the state; Locke favors the market. But both assume that the natural state of man is basically Lord of the Flies. The only way to save us from that fate is a social mechanism of some kind that incentivizes the otherwise unnatural behavior of dealing kindly with neighbor, either because the state will hit us in the head with a brick if we fail to do so or because, via market mechanisms, we manage to turn self-interest toward socially beneficial ends. If you say that the conflict that Hobbes and Locke simply presuppose is not actually natural, then the rest of the Jenga tower has to come down.
Second, foregrounding peace as a necessary common good assumes that health is the result of people fulfilling roles that are-in some way-predefined and ordered toward the health of the community. Our desires are harmonized with one another and that is done, largely, through ordering all our desires toward our chief end-which, as the Westminster Confession tells us, is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Thus the good life is not found through self-definition, but through the disciplined practices that help us align ourselves to the end for which God made us-practices that are often defined for us and which we simply choose to take up or not.
In short, this older ideal of “peace” is only coherent if we assume a larger order to which we align ourselves, to which we harmonize our desires. To use an image that Tolkien often favored, if we are to speak of “harmonizing” our desires we must assume a primordial music, a music written by someone other than ourselves-a music written, of course, by God.
This week’s news and current events section is focused on one topic: abortion.
How does abortion relate to the liberalism debate?
The core question at stake in that debate is whether or not our choice can legitimately be overridden by facts outside our control. Can my ‘freedom’ as a man be corrected by the fact that a child exists that I helped bring into the world? Does the fact of that child’s life oblige me to certain actions I would not otherwise take?
If “central to the idea of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of meaning,” as Justice Kennedy wrote, then the abortion debate is the quintessential liberal debate or, perhaps better, it is the reductio ad absurdum for the liberalism debate: OK, you think unchosen restraints on individual behavior are wrong. What about parenthood and particularly motherhood? Does the fact of the unborn baby’s life oblige mothers and fathers and even societies toward certain courses of action?
One of the interesting things about the abortion debate is that public opinion is basically in the same place today as it was in the early 1970s-which speaks to the centrality of this issue, I think.
You can sell folks on the idea that any number of communities that curtail our freedom are wrong or, at least, non-essential to the good life and should be rejected.
Neighborhood? Eh, we’ll kill them, especially if doing so facilitates commerce.
Small farming communities? Sure, if it gives us #progress.
Religious institutions? Of course. Get rid of those backwards places!
But there is a visceral aspect to the abortion debate that amplifies what exactly is at stake.
It’s not a coincidence, in other words, that one of the most perfect distillations of the liberal creed, Justice Kennedy’s “mystery of life” passage which I quoted above, is found in a court case involving abortion rights.
It is also no surprise that as the liberal order decays we find ourselves arguing loudly and often over the question of abortion. So this week I wanted to flag a few recent pieces dealing with this debate in various ways.
First, one of my go-to pieces whenever this issue comes up is Matt’s marvelous essay for Vox.
There’s also a good collection of pro-life writing over at Plough
It’s old, but this Brandon McGinley piece does a good job of highlighting why abortion rights are such a pivotal debate in our politics today:
We have built a society whose balance depends on the institutionalized killing of the unborn. We have built a society whose progress, as that concept is popularly understood, requires the corpses of these unborn victims.
Could we achieve a new balance that would accommodate the nearly one million children who are aborted every year, that would support all mothers financially and socially? Could we advance medicine without murder? Could we redefine “progress” so that it disallows advances that capitalize on the spoils of abortion?
And it’s not about them-those selfish women, those evil abortionists, those unscrupulous researchers. In the same way that Pennsylvanians and Vermonters shared, even in an attenuated way, the sin of slavery, we all participate in a society that sanctions and benefits from abortion. To deny this is to embrace the atomized morality that opens up the conceptual space for Anthony Kennedy-style “meaning of life” libertarianism.
I wrote about Sarah C. Williams’ must-read Perfectly Human for Commonweal.
JVL’s take on the Alabama abortion bill raises good points about the problems with the bill. I’m not convinced his style of incrementalism is the right general approach for us, for a variety of reasons, but I think his concerns with the AL bill are important to consider.
If you want to think more about incrementalism as a strategy, read Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review.
“The language we use to speak of the world and its creatures, including ourselves, has gained a certain analytical power (along with a lot of expertish pomp) but has lost much of its power to designate what is being analyzed or to convey any respect or care or affection or devotion toward it. As a result we have a lot of genuinely concerned people calling upon us to ‘save’ a world which their language simultaneously reduces to an assemblage of perfectly featureless and dispirited ‘ecosystems,’ ‘organisms,’ ‘environments,’ ‘mechanisms,’ and the like. It is impossible to prefigure the salvation of the world in the same language by which the world has been dismembered and defaced.” ~ Wendell Berry