Human Judgment and the Neutral Public Square
Did you ever stop to consider that no moral or political judgment can be made without reference to the nature, purposes and ends of the human person? There is a kind of theory, or perhaps more properly simply an “aura”, surrounding modern liberal democracies which causes us to imagine that a sound social order demands value-free judgments. But in fact it is impossible for moral and political judgments to be value-free, and it is equally impossible that the values which come into play can derive from anything other than the nature, purposes and ends of the human person.
So, for example, many might argue today that laws should be passed ensuring equal treatment and equal provision for every imaginable expression of sexuality or gender. This decision, however, would be based squarely on two unspoken principles: First, that the form of sexuality or sexual expression proper to the human person is by nature indeterminate and, second, that it is among the purposes or ends of the human person to define his preferred form of sexuality for himself. These principles, if true, would determine what policies are good and bad in this matter.
Or again, a dictator or the leader of a totalitarian state might argue that he has a right to constrain the lives of the citizens to fit the purposes which the dictator or the state may impose, but this too is based squarely on the assumption that, in the order of nature, the State is prior to the person, and that the purpose of the human person is to serve the ends of the State. Some may believe, of course, that the State is in the best position to determine what is good for the social order as a whole. But these fundamental assumptions about the nature and purposes of the human person must be in place for that belief to become operative.
A Dangerous Impossibility
The first point to keep in mind here is that moral judgments—and therefore political judgments, which are essentially moral—cannot be reached apart from a consideration of the nature and purposes of the human actors involved in and bound by these judgments. All ideologies must start with assumptions about the nature of man, including the ideology of relativism. It is a myth to suppose otherwise, and a dangerous myth to boot.
This supposition, which is rampant in our own day, is dangerous because it leads many persons of good will to remove from public discussion their own understanding of the nature and purposes of the human person, in the interest of rendering public judgments (that is, political decisions) value-free. We frequently hear that it is not right for anyone to impose his “personal values” on others, that the public square must be “naked”, and that concepts like the natural law and religious faith are off limits to politics precisely because they carry with them ideas about the nature, purposes and ends of the human person which must unfairly limit those who disagree.
But the plain fact is that even “those who disagree” make all of their political judgments based on their own understanding of the nature, purposes and ends of the human person. Therefore, to refuse to base either our personal judgments or our political decisions on our own grasp of the nature and ends of man is simply to accede to a vision of man which we regard as false. The inevitable result is that social mores and public policy will shift to put us at a severe disadvantage, a disadvantage which we are too prone to accept as a fair price for a neutral public square—when, in fact, a neutral public square is, by the very nature of human judgment, impossible.
The grave danger here is that we will work toward what we regard as a desirable social order with nine fingers tied behind our backs, in effect participating not only in the corruption of the social order but in the forging of our own chains.
We may well judge from our own observation of human nature and the philosophical tradition we have inherited that human persons come in two essential types, male and female, and that these two sexes are fixed in nature for the express purpose of ensuring the propagation of the human race, a process that is the highest natural corporate good of man. Therefore this process ought to be revered and hedged round with various protections and supports. We might also judge that this fundamental understanding of human sexuality itself must be recognized and protected against false suppositions which would ultimately erode the race’s ability to survive.
And again we may discern that we are by our very nature social beings who not only enjoy association with others but actually achieve concrete benefits through this association, benefits which go beyond what each person could accomplish for himself. We might identify several types or levels of association which appear to be especially critical: The family because of the stability and satisfaction with which it surrounds procreation, as well as its supreme actualization of human love; economic associations because of their ability to make life easier while at the same time allowing greater scope for individual gifts; and even a public order, invested with a certain authority of its own to regulate our common life and protect it from those persons and circumstances which might undermine or destroy it.
And certainly in our own persons, if nowhere else, we would discern a natural desire to pursue certain goods, such as greater knowledge or greater comfort, goods which are necessary objects of our own nature and, in fact, objects essential to human flourishing, which it is without doubt a natural purpose of the human person to seek. At the same time, we would discern in the means of obtaining these goods certain sources of potential conflict with others, which must be moderated or regulated if we are, as a community, to properly recognize these same goods as operative in the lives of others. Here the personal and the public overlap once again, as we have already seen in the goods of procreation and social engagement, and so we see here extended the potential range of both personal satisfaction and political life.
What are we to think, then, when peculiar ideas arise, such as the idea that some persons have a right to enjoy the gift of life and pursue their natural ends while others do not; or the idea that the State is the fount of human flourishing rather than a public instrument for the protection and regulation of the legitimate pursuit of human goods; or the idea that there are not two sexes but many, or at least many equally legitimate forms of sexual expression, unconnected with the a stable and ordered propagation of the human race? Are we really to believe that such peculiar ideas are value-free necessities for the betterment of an entire culture? Or are they symptoms of a very dangerous disease, perhaps spread by inflamed passions, which must inevitably weaken or destroy what is truly necessary for both our personal and our common good?
We might also observe that the human person naturally seeks to understand his life, and to find its meaning; that man is fundamentally different from other forms of life in that he is capable of seeking and expressing things that are abstract or spiritual; that he has an innate sense of right and wrong and impending judgment; and that both his instincts and his reason tend to lead him to believe there is a God, whom he would like to know and had better please. On this basis, we are likely to posit that people should be as free as possible in seeking to understand the meaning of their lives, their final destiny, the nature of God, and the duties that God imposes on them. At the same time, of course, we would yearn for some clearer knowledge, a knowledge we might reasonably expect, if He made us, from God Himself—that is, some revelation.
Beyond this point, to be sure, we would leave the capacity of nature behind, and we must inevitably depend for further enlightenment on whatever revelation God might in fact provide. Yet we would understand that seeking such a revelation, and acting upon it, is at least something natural and highly appropriate to the human person. Only at our peril could we possibly conceive of attempting to eradicate or disallow this fundamentally religious impulse which, unless it grasps its object, leaves man so obviously weak and confused.
We would, of course, recognize at once the potential conflicts which could arise from differing religious perceptions. But still more would we look with astonishment on any who might claim that the absence of a relationship with God is essential to successful social life or public culture. Rather than acclaiming such a thing as providing some value-neutral benefit, we ought surely to suspect that it would tend to destroy man’s dignity and to undermine radically his success in life by seeking to eliminate not only his highest aspirations but also his very quest to properly understand and act upon the full range of his purposes and ends.
As we proceed in quest of religious truth, the reflective person must acknowledge the mystery, both personal and cultural, of religious commitment and the gift of Faith. We who accept Jesus Christ as the very Son of God will have no trouble understanding that our commitment to Him must be voluntary, and so we will not want to impose on our fellow citizens some sort of duty to embrace the tenets of Christianity or any sort of enforced worship. We can hold out our Faith in God’s revealed plan as a gift, but not as a duty.
At the same time, however, we Christians find our natural reflections enlightened concerning the nature and purpose of man. With respect to the human experience, we find that Christian Revelation makes it significantly easier to discern the outlines of the natural law, and to identify the key elements, purposes and ends of the human person. Consequently our Christian Faith ought to do nothing but strengthen our understanding of what is good for man in both the private and public spheres, and strengthen our awareness of those fundamental assumptions which must form the basis of our judgments about what is right, what is wrong, what is to be permitted, and what is to be prohibited.
Such moral judgments form the very fabric of private, social and public life. As we have already seen, it is not only difficult but actually impossible to make such judgments in the absence of some understanding of the nature and purposes of man. The very nature of these judgments depends on a prior vision of the human person. They can never be value-free. They are always value-related to our understanding of what it means to be human. If this understanding is false, the attendant private, social and public or political judgments will weaken or destroy culture, society and individual lives. If the understanding is true, the opposite will be the case.
It is the great gift of Christianity, and of Catholicism in particular, that it honors equally both faith and reason and, so far from finding any conflict between them, it continually demonstrates their fundamental unity. This too we ought to take not just as a validation of our right to use Christianity to inform all of our judgments but as a kind of proof. For insofar as Christianity purifies and corroborates human reason, it demonstrates a unique claim to inform, purify and strengthen every aspect of our common life. Without in any way insisting that all embrace that Faith which is above all a precious gift, Christianity can and does offer significant and salutary guidance in arranging our natural affairs in a way which opens man to his full potential, so that he might become ever more fully himself.
It may be necessary to repeat what I have been saying from the first. This essay is not a brief for the imposition of a Catholic theocracy on the social order. It is simply an insistence that moral and political judgments are never made—because they cannot be made—without reference to a person’s understanding of the nature, purposes and ends of the human person. For this reason, the term “naked public square” is really a euphemism for the ascendancy of the moral and political judgments of those who understand the nature and ends of man in ways that are markedly different from the Judaeo-Christian and natural law traditions.
It may be easier, and I hope it will be easier, for those with an understanding of the nature and purposes of man derived from Christianity and the natural law to insist that their moral and political judgments may be advocated with perfect legitimacy in any social order simply because it is impossible for any person, in making such judgments, to prescind from his own understanding of the human person. To refrain from such judgments out of deference to a neutrality which is completely mythical is to cede the social order to those who will make deleterious and even dangerous policies based on a seriously deficient understanding.
Moral judgments and public policies must inevitably proceed from a vision of the human person. There is no benefit to be gained from value-free judgments for many reasons, but once again the first reason is that value-free judgments are a contradiction in terms. They simply do not, cannot exist. Catholics, at least, already know that they ought not to impose Faith or the trappings of Faith, which remain always voluntary. Thus, compared with ideologues, Catholics have been notably more prudent in forming societies based on their own understanding of the human person. But the point is that every society is shaped by some understanding of the human person.
If the Catholic understanding is under-represented because we have been taught we must withhold values from politics, then either we have been laughably stupid or we are remarkable cowards. It is the old choice between being a knave or a fool. We must, to the contrary, choose a third way, which is really the first way. We have a threefold obligation—to God, to our fellow citizens, and to ourselves—to do our best to ensure that moral and political judgments are based on a right understanding of the nature, purposes and ends of the human person. To this task we must bring to bear all that is truly human: Our minds, our hearts, and our souls.
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Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Mar. 13, 2011 8:57 AM ET USA
How can someone's fundamental understanding of person not impact their political decisions? I am not sure I agree that political judgements are moral judgements unless by moral one means the full (+) and (-) spectrum of morality: amoral and moral. The fact is that life comes from God and life needs to be ordered toward God. We tend to get in our own way forgetting about our brothers and sisters; Sin has this effect - Thank God for the Sacraments especially communion and confession.
Posted by: impossible -
Mar. 12, 2011 1:37 PM ET USA
If you haven’t done so, how about writing a piece for the enlightenment of Pax Christi-priests and those misled by them on Church Social Doctrine teachings that relate to labor unions? I can’t imagine that Rerum Novarum and following encyclicals envisioned or would support the current politicized public sector unions which upset the political balance and advance anti-Catholic support for intrinsically evil public policy.
Posted by: FredC -
Mar. 12, 2011 10:37 AM ET USA
Great article. You would be amazed to see how often the fundamental understanding of the nature of man plays into the decisions made in local politics and public schools. Catholics need a strategy for introducing, in a way palatable to the relativistic public, the true nature of man.