If you pay even the slightest bit of attention to the social debates of the day, you are bound, sooner or later, to hear someone declare that just about any and all behavior must be allowed and even sanctioned by the state because “you can’t impose your values on society.” Whether the subject is same-sex marriage, the contraception mandate in Obamacare, abortion or euthanasia, the argument is that nothing can be limited by the government, for fear of the imposition of “values.”
Values, you see, are presumed to be religious, specifically Christian. And the imposition on the masses of religion, especially Christianity, is said to constitute a regressive and superstitious appeal to outdated notions that conflict directly with the spirit and the energy of contemporary Western society.
Ironically, the political and moral solons of the day usually start by citing the Constitution and the Founding Fathers as evidence of their conviction that values and religion have no place in civil society. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal treatment under the law, they insist, which precludes the imposition of any moral beliefs. Likewise, the Establishment Clause forbids the imposition of religious notions upon the nation. And, of course, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of the Founders insisted that Christianity was not a motivating force in the creation of the American Republic and should not be treated as such. Or as John Adams put it – and as the anti-moralists repeatedly remind us: “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
The problems with this argument are manifold. The two most obvious are the presumption that ethics, morality, and “values” are necessarily religious notions; and the corollary presumption that removing religion from the public sphere will therefore create value-free governance. Both presumptions are patently false.
As it happens, values are inherent in any choice and are therefore an essential part of any decision – political or otherwise. Values represent mere preference calculations, which is to say that any choice between two or more alternatives denotes the creation and imposition of a value. The twentieth-century retreat from religious values was not a retreat from values altogether, but merely a conscious choice to substitute contemporary value judgments for traditional standards; that is, to abandon the longstanding moral conclusions of Western civilization for the situational ethics of the post-Enlightenment era.
This rejection of traditional, pre-modern values has created a bifurcated society, Western Civilization split in two, divided along epistemological and moral lines. On one side of the divide are the traditionalists, and on the other are what I will call the postmodernists, who believe in no moral absolutes whatsoever and no objective definitions of right or wrong. The postmodernists choose instead to define those terms on an ad hoc basis and in light of the idea that morality and “truth” are mere expressions of power and preference.
Each of these moral systems, in turn, fits into a broader conception of virtuousness. The postmodern moral code is, in its essence, utilitarian, which is to say that its notions of right and wrong spring not from universal truths, but from outcomes, from the belief that utility is a far better measure of virtue than are the artifacts of pre-modern superstition.
Utilitarianism, as any schoolboy knows, is most generally associated with the British social reformer Jeremy Bentham. Bentham, defined “the good” as that which produces the greatest pleasure (or happiness) for the greatest number. In practical terms, Bentham believed that government can’t help but favor one constituency over another; and since this is the case, the best of governments – which is to that which operates most ethically – is that which favors constituencies and policies that produce the greatest collective pleasure.
More specifically, today’s postmodernists believe that suffering, as they define it, occurs everywhere and at all times in the absence of government action. Therefore, government acts best when it alleviates that suffering to whatever degree is possible. Individual men and women are free to pursue their own interests as long as those interests don’t conflict with the greater good, again, as the postmodernists define it. In that rights are a human construct, when interests do conflict, moral government is obligated to suppress those interests that offend. In today’s parlance, then, religious liberty is perfectly fine and acceptable, unless and until it brushes up against the greater good, the greater happiness of society. In the postmodern moral scheme, then, the utilitarian ethic triumphs over individual self-regard.
The opposite of utilitarian morality is that which can most easily be described as deontological ethics, the belief that the morality of an action is dependent on the action itself, that man has a duty to do what is right, and that right and wrong are clearly defined, rule-based, and largely independent of consequences. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. And an evil act may never be considered good, even if it produces profit or pleasure.
Deontological ethics is, by any measure, the foundational moral code of Western civilization, running through both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Hellenic and Roman traditions. Nine-hundred years ago, Aquinas put it simply: “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” More than a thousand years before that – before Christ and thus before Christianity – Cicero put it similarly:
So let us regard this as settled: what is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage. The mere act of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious.
Now, it is no mere coincidence that Aquinas’s first precept of Natural Law is the above-noted summation of deontology: do and pursue good and avoid evil. Natural Law – which is to say law that is in keeping with nature and the will of the Creator – is part and parcel of the deontological ethic. The law should represent and enable that which is right and good; and that which is in keeping with Natural Law is right and good.
It is also no mere coincidence that Natural Law served as the foundation for the “certain inalienable Rights” held by all men and “endowed by their Creator” that inspired the founding of the United States. The Founding Fathers may or may not have wished for an explicitly Christian nation, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The Founders were part of the Hellenic-Judeo-Christian tradition and therefore saw the nation, its purpose, its establishment, and its principles in explicitly moral and explicitly Judeo-Christian terms. They understood their moral “duty” to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The deontological ethic and its expression in Natural Law reached its theological apotheosis in Aquinas, who merged the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. It reached its philosophical apotheosis in Locke and his construction of the social contract. And it reached its political apotheosis in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and in the republic that sprang from it.
The Founding Fathers may well have abjured official state imposition of religion and faith, as the postmodernists insist. But they were, nevertheless, guided by the same principles that form the foundation of Christian morality and, indeed, understood man, the state, and their relationship in explicitly Christian terms. All of which is to note that the same John Adams who, as the postmodernists note, rejected a United States government “founded on the Christian religion,” also wrote the following:
While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world. Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. (emphasis added)