I ran across this fantastic article regarding classical liberalism (the notion that people should be “free”, embraced both by progressive liberals and conservatives in America today).  The article provides a thoughtful analysis, including the following:

“An idea of liberty is an essential part of the answer to that crucial unasked question [whether humans are prepared to live free]. But it is not the libertarian freedom generally voiced by today’s left and right. Surely liberation from coercion alone does not prepare us for the practice of liberal freedom. To liberate us purely to pursue our wants and wishes is to liberate our appetites and passions. But a person in the grip of appetite or passion can’t be our model of the free human being. Such a person is not someone we would trust with the exercise of great political and economic freedom.

The liberty we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others but also from the tyranny of his unrestrained desire.


This liberty arises when we want to do more or less what we ought to do, so that the moral law, the civil law, and our own will are largely in alignment, and choice and obligation point in the same direction. To be capable of freedom, and capable of being liberal citizens, we need to be capable of that challenging combination. And to become ­capable of it, we need more than the liberation of the individual from coercion. We need a certain sort of moral formation.”

The author’s suggestion is not that the government begin preparation of souls for freedom; rather, it is that the citizens should on their own begin recognizing the soul-forming functions of family, work, and religious organizations, and “sustain[] the space for them, and put[] them within the reach of as many of our fellow citizens as possible.”  Without attending to our souls through family, work, and spiritual relationships, democracy gets ugly.  What is the use of an election when the electorate is a mass of radically self-interested individuals?

Diogenes of Synope

Diogenes of Synope was a funny Greek philosopher who used to wander the streets with a lantern in the daylight “in search of an honest man.”  He was something of a hippie, as he spurned riches, reputation, and even hygiene.  He also questioned patriotism and preferred to call himself a citizen of the world.

As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more like Diogenes, at least insofar as I believe I could carry on a similar search for an honest man and never find one.  Honesty is more than telling the truth.  Honesty is the willingness to call a spade a spade, even when the full truth makes one look weak.

Lawyers might have a problem with this because they are paid to put the client’s “best case” before the court.  They are paid to keep some bad information secret through the attorney-client privilege, to ignore inconvenient facts, and to make the other side’s “best case” look preposterous, even if it is the more likely truth.  No doubt Diogenes would have a field day with lawyers.

Of course, lawyers do not necessarily handle the truth in such ways when clients, judges, and juries are not around.  We lawyers have also usually been exposed at one point or another to the limitations of our knowledge.  As young lawyers researching a legal question, we learn that even though we might discover a law on the books that apparently resolves our legal question, there might be another law out there stating that the just-discovered statute does not apply in certain situations.  Since it is practically impossible to read every law out there to prove a negative (especially on the client’s dime), the lawyer must act with some degree of faith in his/her mentors, practice guide books, and even gut instinct.  That degree of uncertainty should keep the lawyer’s attitude in check.

When dealing with coworkers and clients, however, lawyers must appear confident in spite of the fact that they might be wrong (even embarrassingly so).  I can’t help but wonder if this bravado comes from society or if lawyers helped to contribute this approach to society, but it seems that virtually everyone in public life wants to focus on his or her argument, ignore or suppress all information counter to that argument, discredit all those who might question that argument, and reframe any opponent’s argument in a weaker way so that it is easier to overcome.  This is probably not the best way for a curious listener to arrive at the truth—listening to multiple myopic, self-serving viewpoints and trying to sort between them.

The thesis/antithesis model of reasoning, where one honestly and readily admits the most powerful arguments opposing one’s argument during discourse, is far superior for everyone’s sake if one is to hope that the truth triumphs even to one’s own detriment.  Sadly, we are usually not honest enough to hope that the truth prevails even though it crushes us.  We could join Diogenes’ search, knowing full well that no one is brave enough or righteous enough to always admit the truth and expose his own frailty.

Classic Tolerance

June 23, 2013

An article by Greg Koukl provides some insight into the idea of “tolerance”:

“Egalitarian” was a new word for them. “Think equal,” I said. “Treat others as having equal standing in value or worth.” They knew what an elitist was, though, someone who thought he or she was better than others. “Right,” I said. “When you are elitist regarding ideas, you are acknowledging that some ideas are better than others; and they are. We don’t treat all ideas as if they have the same merit, lest we run into contradiction. Some ideas are good. Some are bad. Some are true. Some are false. Some are brilliant. Others are just plain foolish.”

The first principle, what might be called “civility,” is at the heart of the classical view of tolerance. It can be loosely equated with the word “respect.” Tolerance applies to how we treat people we disagree with, not how we treat ideas we think are false. We respect those who hold different beliefs from our own by treating such people courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse. We may strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the public square, but we still show respect to their persons despite our differences. Classic tolerance requires that every person be treated courteously with the freedom to express his or her ideas without fear of reprisal no matter what the view, not that all views have equal worth, merit, or truth.

. . . The view that one person’s ideas are no better or truer than another’s is simply absurd and inescapably self-contradictory. To argue that some views are false, immoral, or just plain silly does not violate any meaningful definition or standard of tolerance.

In other words, to paraphrase philosopher Peter Kreeft, we should be egalitarian with respect to people and elitist with respect to ideas, but never vice-versa.

I was at the grocery store and found that a popular charcoal company has introduced a new line of “100% all natural competition briquettes”.  This raises a question for me.  Why would this charcoal, as opposed to the regular charcoal from the same company, be considered “natural”?  (As an aside, ordinary charcoal briquettes have chemical fillers in them that hold them together, in addition to charcoal made from carbonizing wood.)  Even the chemical fillers in the regular charcoal are “natural” in the sense that they exist in nature (they are not “supernatural”).  Why do consumers find the adjective “natural” so impressive in commercial products?

People seem to harbor the idea that “natural” means “before we humans messed with it,” as though humans tend to mess things up.  Honey is considered “natural” even though bees make it, so I don’t think “natural” as the word is used here simply means “something that was not made through the activity of some other organism.”  Humans are the targeted organism.  Things that humans make are not considered “natural” even if they are made from natural elements (as in the elements on the periodic table in chemistry class) with implements made from natural elements.  What is different about human production of food products as opposed to the honey production of a bee?

Could it be that we all know, at some intuitive level, that humans deliberate and make free choices, and those choices are subject to flaws?  Perhaps we also know that human choices in particular are more prone to error than the instinctual activity of a honey-making bee because humans have a tainted will, and they make choices they know are wrong for personal gain?

To believe that, of course, one must believe in free will, if not also a fallen nature and the concept of “wrong” or “selfish” choices, right?  Can one avoid the implied presence of some supernatural quality in humans?  Can atheists have any philosophical justification for using the term “natural” on charcoal bags and the like?

In the comments to another post, the question arose whether the pro-life position is inconsistent with a failure to prevent as many naturally-occurring deaths in the womb as possible.  I found the discussion worth a separate post, and I hope that the gentleman with whom I was conversing will take no offense at the separate post written in response to his comments: Read the rest of this entry »

C.S. Lewis drafted an interesting essay in 1944 that proves to be useful today.  Lewis argues that democracy is warranted not because we all deserve to be our own autonomous rulers, but because none of us do: Read the rest of this entry »

Apparently there has been an attempt to distribute lesson plans to accompany President Obama’s planned speech to our nation’s youth in schools next week:

The guide for pre-K through grade 6 suggests questions [to] students [to] think about during the speech, such as “What is the President trying to tell me? What is the President asking me to do?”

The plan for grades 7-12 includes a “guided discussion,” with suggested topics: “What resonated with you from President Obama‘s speech? What is President Obama inspiring you to do?”

The most imporant thing for Americans to learn is not that they must serve their government or ask themselves what they can do for the government leaders.  To the contrary, we must remind the government leaders that they serve us

Yes, we should ask ourselves what we can do for our country, but serving our nation and our neighbors is a wholly different thing than serving our government.  Those in political power in a democratic position must be reminded that their position exists to serve the people, not vice versa.  Lets teach our children that truth, rather than allow our kids to be taught that they should figure out the best way to serve the president.

The Meaning of “Rights”

August 27, 2009

We hear a lot about “rights” in American discourse.  Just watching Sportscenter, I heard the term “animal rights” (in reference to Michael Vick), which got me thinking.  What is a right?

Civil rights.  Animal rights.  Equal rights.  So-called “reproductive rights.”  “Gay rights.”  The right of privacy.  We hear lately that everyone has a “right to healthcare”. 

From America’s founding document: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

I did a Wikipedia search on the subject just to see what was there, and the summary was brief and, in my opinion, incomplete, but it still mentioned a couple of the concepts I will discuss below. 

Read the rest of this entry »

With a blog called “The Natural Lawyer,” I suppose it’s about time I explain what I mean by the concept of “Natural Law.”

Professor J. Budziszewski at Texas University is one of the prominent scholars on the subject.  I will briefly borrow from an interview he did for the Acton Institute; it’s useful here because it’s in Q&A format:

What is the natural law?

Budziszewski: Our subject is called natural law because it has the qualities of all law. Law has rightly been defined as an ordinance of reason, for the common good, made by the one who has care of the community, and promulgated. Consider the natural law against murder. It is not an arbitrary whim, but a rule that the mind can grasp as right. It serves not some special interest, but the universal good. Its author has care of the universe, for he (God) created it. And it is not a secret rule, for God has so arranged his creation that every rational being knows about it.

Our subject is called natural law because it is built into the design of human nature and woven into the fabric of the normal human mind. Another reason for calling it natural is that we rightly take it to be about what really is—a rule like the prohibition of murder reflects not a mere illusion or projection, but genuine knowledge. It expresses the actual moral character of a certain kind of act.

R&L: Why is the natural law something that “we can’t not know?”

Budziszewski: Mainly because we have been endowed by God with conscience. I am referring to “deep conscience,” which used to be called synderesis—the interior witness to the foundational principles of morality. We must distinguish it from “surface conscience,” which used to be called conscientia—what we derive from the foundational principles, whether correctly or incorrectly, whether by means honest or dishonest. Deep conscience can be suppressed and denied, but it can never be erased. Surface conscience, unfortunately, can be erased and distorted in numerous ways—one of several reasons why moral education and discipline remain necessary.

In fact there are at least four ways in which we know the natural law. Deep conscience, the First Witness, is the one primarily responsible for “what we can’t not know.” The others concern “what we can’t help learning.” The Second Witness is our recognition of the designedness of things in general, which not only draws our attention to the Designer, but also assures us that the other witnesses are not meaning ful. The Third Witness is the particulars of our own design—for example, the interdependence and complementarity of the sexes. The Fourth Witness is the natural consequences of our behavior. All four work together.

There is obviously a lot more to Natural Law Theory; this summary just provides the starting points.  Professor Budziszewski has also written a fascinating article on the consequences of denying conscience, both societally and individually.

I also wrote another entry describing the basics of Natural Law Theory here.

About a month ago, I read this, and have been ruminating about it ever since:

 If you are a Christian, you cannot rationally believe in equality, except in the belief that all are fallen short of the glory of God. If you are a rational materialist, you cannot believe in equality except for that of the grave. If you are, on the other hand, an irrational materialist like most self-proclaimed rational materialists are, you probably believe very firmly in equality despite the fact that there is almost infinitely more evidence for God and the immaterial than for the idea that two human beings are, or could ever be, equal in any way.

Now, I think these assertions go way too far, but they do challenge me to back up my heretofore assumed and undefended notions of “equality”.  I think human beings are of equal value and worth to God, though Christians of various theological traditions might disagree with that. 

I also think humans are deserving of “equal rights”, not in the positive rights sense (“I deserve to be given X”), but in the negative rights sense (“the government ought not interfere with my freedom to X”).  But are all people equally deserving of such negative rights?  A felon has forfeited his right to freedom of movement, and thus we as a society, through our government, deprive him of that freedom by throwing him in jail.  Because he forfeited that right, he is no longer deserving of it.  Since there will always be criminals, there will never be complete equality in the right to be free.  On the other hand, even for prisoners, I might argue we all have a right not to be wantonly abused or treated inhumanely, and that right applies to all persons “equally”.  Still, I find it a provocative notion that equality might not exist, since America was founded on the notion that all men are “created equal”. 

I will add that those who pursue equality of results (as in, economic equality through redistribution of wealth) are playing a fool’s game.  Such equality cannot and will not ever exist, and I have yet to see any person, even the most liberal, try to determine the average amount of wealth per person (whether worldwide or nationwide) and donate everything they have beyond that amount to the poorest among us.