Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Roots of Liberty

Here is an essay I wrote during the fall on the problem of violations of human dignity and what should be the foundations for liberty, for a free society. Enjoy. Feel free to give feedback. I was limited to the number of words/pages, so some of the argument may seem sparse since it was condensed.

Dignitatis Humanae: Root Words for a Free Society

Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.[1]

Liberty has long been regarded a precious good. Some have even recognized its nobility in proclaiming liberty “the highest political end of man.”[2] Yet, liberty has had a rocky time of things: sometimes protected and fostered, other times ignored and even outright denied. The history of man is replete with examples of the struggle over the meaning and place of liberty. Implicit in these conflicts is the question: What precisely is the ground, the foundation, of liberty? In order for liberty to retain its force and survive over time, it must be grounded in something objective, something beyond the whims of man. It must be grounded in something deeper than a governmental fiat. Bastiat was right: Liberty does not exist because men have made laws. Rather, laws exist—just laws, at least—to recognize and then protect the already existing liberties of man. As J. Budziszewski points out, in summarizing Aristotle, “the proper aim of the state is ... to support a life which was there before it.”[3] What source, then, prior to a temporal state government is the root of liberty? The answer resides in human nature, in the dignity of being human. However, tragically enough, this answer is also one that has often been jettisoned, not only in other parts of the world but even in the United States.

The dignity of the human person, dignitatis humanae, is at the very core and essence of being human. Without it, all liberties are uprooted. And as liberties are taken away by a tyrannical regime, it is quite often a further vicious violence against human dignity that follows: “Where the transcendent source of human dignity is denied, the way lies open for totalitarianism and other forms of despotism, in which naked power takes over, so that the interests of a particular person or group are imposed on the rest of society.”[4] Many attempts to deny the rights of a people, even their most basic liberties, have been tied to this denial of human dignity. This typically happens in one of two ways. The first begins with a stripping of liberties and then there usually are attempts to defend such actions through a denial of the victims’ dignity as fellow human beings. This descends further into more acute violations of rights. The second way is rooted initially in an outright denial of the equality or full humanity (thus the dignity) of those in question, and once this is somewhat accepted by enough or the right people (those with power and influence) what follows here is violence upon those belittled persons as there is increasing abrogation of liberties and of legal protections (all because of a belief that these individuals are not worthy of such rights). In both scenarios, the end result is often the same: persecution and even death, sometimes on a mass, genocidal level.

Though attempts are made to justify such episodes of evil, all such sophistry comes up empty. In these situations, words have lost their true meaning. They have fallen to the arbitrary whims of men allowing evil, some of whom were usurping God’s domain. However, “[m]an simply is not God,” the dissident turned statesman Vaclav Havel warns, “and playing God has cruel consequences.”[5] These cruel consequences come about through acts that are rooted in a power which operates “outside all conscience, a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to come in contact with the truth,” or so they hope. This power attempts to make “thought, morality, and privacy a state monopoly and so dehumanizes them.”[6]

Yet, the state is not the arbiter of humanity. One either is human or not, and if so he shares in a universal humanity.[7] There are no gradations or degrees in being human. The fact of being human, of humanity itself, ensures such inviolability. Without this, we would be prone to some who think that since some humans are “more” of a person than others, the value which the lesser person possesses would also be less. From this, we would see, as we have, certain governments attempting to rid groups of people from society in an effort to cleanse the world of an “inferior race.” This is the line of thought that drove the Nazis: “Since the Jew is not a person, he does not have the rights of a person. If he does not have these rights, these liberties, we can disregard a supposed dignity and treat him as we would any other material waste infecting the body of mankind.” Thus, the importance of an objective grounding of rights and dignity, as Pope John Paul II has argued:

If there is no transcendent truth ... then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. ... Thus, the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate--no individual, group, class, nation or State.

Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. ... [I]f there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism. ... In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and people are exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden.

Sadly, this manipulation “for reasons of power” is still prevalent today, even by people of faith. Throughout the Islamic world, those who are not Muslim believers in Allah are deprived of liberties, and as a result they are assaulted in their dignity as humans (being regarded as second-class citizens) and sometimes assaulted violently in their bodies through torture, beatings, enslavement, mutilations, rape, and murder. This is clearly seen in today’s Sudan, where Arab Muslims are taking part in genocide at the expense of African Christians and tribal animists.[9] In some other places run by totalitarian Islamists, the savage custom of sawing off the heads of innocent civilian foreigners is celebrated; this all because these victims are members of the “infidels.” Even so-called “protected” ones are persecuted. The dhimmis, protected peoples in an Islamic society, are supposed to be protected under shari’a because of their status as People of the Book (the Holy Bible). However, as those in power have ignored the rational dictates of natural rights rooted in a common and inviolable human dignity, as they have redefined what it means to be a “protected” one, and as they have sought to propagate their own version of Islam, these dhimmis have been subject to some of the most cruel violations of human dignity: an inferior status, which exacts a special tax for their continued “protection” (which is no longer a protection but a call for persecution) and which also allows for institutionalized humiliation, poverty, and violent disregard for basic rights.

Islamists, Nazis, and even American defenders of slavery all understood that to get what they wanted—the denial of basic liberties—they had to deny the personhood or human dignity of the people in question.[10] They understood that if the one in question is not considered a “full” person or human, then this individual would not enjoy the full recognition and exercise of natural rights, such as a right to life and a right to individual liberty.

Where do rights come from? Not from the state, which is an instrument to serve and protect certain prior goods of the human person. The state exists for the human person, not the human person for the state. This should be key to all political considerations. As a result, the state must respect who this human person is, must respect the truths of his dignity. Who is he? The human person is a creature endowed with many powers, most notably, reason, free will, love, and self-gift.[11] To aid in the human person’s development and use of these gifts, the state enacts certain limitations on the intervention from others, including itself. It does so through “background conditions--the most important of which is simple justice.”[12] Justice provides the basic protections for each person in demanding that he is given what is due him. What is due the human person? To be able to live a life he is called to live. The human person has both free will and the use of his reason to pursue liberty. This freedom does not mean a Jacobin liberté, a “freedom from tradition, from established social institutions, from religious doctrines, from prescriptive duties.”[13] This is more aptly termed license than liberty. What the human person is called to is true freedom, true liberty: “not the power of doing what we like,” Lord Acton reminded us, “but the right of being able to do what we ought.”[14] Though he is free in the sense of freely willing his own acts, he is also called to this higher freedom. The human person is called to a freedom for excellence, an excellence which means living well in accord with the demands of his nature: in other words, virtue.[15]

Human dignity—striving towards a freedom for excellence—calls for certain restraints from other persons: some of the most basic being not to unjustly take his life, not to unjustly place him in servitude, not to unjustly violate his conscience and choice of religion, and not to unjustly take or damage his property. These are all known as rights for the person against encroachment from others. These rights are all rooted in his dignity as a human person. Thus, it is true that the foundation which serves “as a basis upon which man’s rights can flourish” is “[w]ithout doubt ... the dignity of the human person.”[16] Since the rights of the human person are rooted in his dignity, then this same dignity is the foundation for a political society, one which should be just. And any society worthy of the name “just” must be one that gives the human person his due, the freedom from illicit restraints by others in order to pursue the deeper freedom for excellence in living well. This society of freedom—this free society—is not only that but with the recognition of true human dignity and the ensuing partnership that manifests,[17] this society edges ever more closely toward being a free and virtuous society, as more of its citizens freely choose the good in line with their dignity.

To view the individual human in such a manner as “not a human being,” as “a parasite,” “personal property,” “partially human,” “life unworthy of life,” or as an “infidel” is to participate in the time-old wickedry of “semantic gymnastics.”[18] It is to call the truth a lie and a lie the truth. It is to enter into a world of subjectivity and thus a world of insecurity and greater danger just as Humpty Dumpty alluded to in his conversation with Alice in Wonderland:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is, “ said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Which is to be master? Subjectivity? Each individual? A good prince? An evil tyrant? Or an objective reality independent of and greater than each of us, yet knowable by all? Dignitatis humanae. A human dignity rooted in man’s inviolable nature and expressed through his most basic liberties. Dignitatis humanae. It is the root and foundation for a free society. This reality, this fact, existed before any human governments were established and laws were enacted. In truth, Bastiat was right, “it was the fact that [such rights as] life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” They did so to protect those precious goods. Any system that denies such weakens itself and endangers its weaker citizens. It puts them at the risk of modern-day sophists. When these charlatans invert the moral universe, they also unleash hell upon their victims. They usually do so through manipulations of language, and any endeavor to partake in semantic gymnastics is an attempt to be master, to redefine the meanings of things that one did not create. It is to deplete words of their value and force. And, as Confucius so wisely said, “When words lose their meaning, peoples lose their liberty.” I might add, as we recall the Holocaust, slavery, abortion, and the ongoing genocide in Sudan, that peoples also lose their lives.

[1] Frederic Bastiat, The Law [New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1974 (1850)], 6.
[2] John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty, Vol. I (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1985), 22. In so far as we speak of man as “citizen,” his end is political, namely liberty; speaking of man as man, the entire being with consideration of all his faculties and his deepest or highest callings, we can say political liberty is not his ultimate end for he has a spiritual one: contemplation of and union with God.
[3] J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 17. Emphasis added.
[4] Avery Dulles, S.J., Truth as the Ground of Freedom (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 1995), 13.
[5] Vaclav Havel, “Politics and Conscience,” Open Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991), 255.
[6] Havel, 260.
[7] If space allowed, it would be worthwhile to discuss Yves Simon’s argument on how St. Thomas Aquinas’s solution to the problem of the one and the many provides a solidly rational foundation for universal human rights, having demonstrated that human nature can exist in the modes of universality and individuality. Cf. Yves Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993) 197-203.
[8] John Paul II, Encyclical Centesimus annus, 44, 46 (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1991).
[9] In 1992, the following fatwa was issued by Sudanese imams: “An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate and a non-Muslim is a non-believer standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them.” Notice the lack of a further distinction for Jews and Christians from their pagan counterparts.
[10] Even James Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights, acknowledged this crime: “[I]t is admitted that if the laws were to restore the rights which have been taken away, the Negroes could no longer be refused an equal share of representation with the other inhabitants.” The Federalist Papers, No. 54. Emphasis added.
[11] Cf. Avery Dulles, S.J., op. cit, and the numerous works of Pope John Paul II. To develop the relation of truth setting us free, Christ being truth, and Christ’s revelation of man to himself (Gaudium et spes, 22) in this context would be fascinating. A much deeper anthropology could result.
[12] Budziszewski, 17.
[13] Russell Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1991), 166.
[14] Lord Acton, in The Rambler, Second New Series 2 (January 1860), 146. Quoted in Dulles, 5.
[15] Cf. Servais Pinckaers, O.P., Morality: The Catholic View (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 65-81 and Budziszewski, op. cit., 16-25.
[16] John Paul II, “Religious Freedom,” Essays on Religious Freedom (Milwaukee: Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, 1984), 31.
[17] Cf. Budziszewski, 16-17.
[18] William Brennan, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1995), 8.
[19] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1924), 124.

No comments: