We Hold These Truths

Whenever the topic of personal liberty is debated, it is unfortunate that the liberty to do evil is often what is at stake. On one side there are libertines, or those who are at best morally indifferent, arguing that morally offensive behavior ought to be legal and even socially acceptable; on the other side there are those who advocate that what is immoral ought to be illegal as well. There are reactionaries and progressives both who turn their noses up at the idea of personal freedom as nothing but a recipe for chaos and an invitation to anti-social, selfish, and even cruel behavior à la Lord of The Flies.

I have had the good fortune to see this tendency challenged by my generation, the “Ron Paul” generation if you will. For the first time in a long while, the idea that we ought to maximize personal liberty so that we may freely choose to do what is good is beginning to catch on. The contraception mandate has awakened many Catholics from a statist slumber, a dream-like state in which government as such was seen as the guarantor of the public peace and common good. But there is much more that needs to be seen, many more areas of life besides religious practice or our weekly paychecks that governments across the nation are intruding upon in the name of safety and order.

Producers and sellers of raw milk are being targeted for raids across the country; even the Amish aren’t safe. You won’t fare better if you attempt raise pigs or chickens in a manner that displeases local or state governments and the agribusiness interests who successfully lobby them. It was only after a wave of protest and indignation that the Obama administration rescinded a law that would have barred children from working on their family farms.

Speaking of children, if you believe that yours would be better off without vaccinations, you may see a S.W.A.T. team at your front door when you refuse to relinquish your child to Child Protective Services. And if you send your child to a public school, make sure you instruct her not to burp in class or write on her desk, or even blink or breathe in a way that could be interpreted as “disruptive“, lest they be arrested, put in handcuffs, and hauled off to jail.

These are only a few examples of the sort of things that were once part of normal, everyday life for millions of Americans becoming criminalized or at least attracting police involvement in an unprecedented way. One could also look to the sexually-invasive security methods of the Transportation Security Administration, which may spread well beyond airports and into shopping malls, sporting events, and other places that Americans casually frequent on a daily basis. It is also a guarantee that they will be accompanied by mechanical drones in the near future, the same sort of technology used to keep track of people assumed to be violent threats to national security.

What is at stake in these examples, and there are thousands more like them, is not only liberty but human dignity. It is a violation of human dignity to force a 95-year old woman to remove her adult diaper, or to expect a reasonable person to feel as if a serious security risk is being addressed by such measures. It is a crime against decency to terrorize a four-year old girl as a potential terrorist suspect for hugging her grandmother, or this child, or that child, for whatever reasons. In these cases we are to believe that we must be degraded and humiliated in order to “keep us safe” from the terrorists.

There are more than a few Americans who agree with this sentiment. And yet one hopes that we have reached a point at which we say to ourselves: what exactly are we keeping safe? What happened to the nation that was inspired by Patrick Henry, who cried “give me liberty, or give me death”? If the majority of Americans eventually decide that life is worth living without liberty, they will soon find themselves living without dignity either, for the two are inseparably linked.

This is confirmed in the teaching of the Church. Pope Leo XIII begins his encyclical Libertas by stating as much: “Liberty, the highest of natural endowments, being the portion only of intellectual or rational natures, confers on man this dignity – that he is “in the hand of his counsel”(1) and has power over his actions.” To be endowed with liberty is to be endowed with dignity, not to mention moral responsibility and accountability; to be denied liberty in an arbitrary fashion is to be denied dignity as well. Thus it will not do to speak of human dignity while forgetting human liberty.

The battle for liberty and dignity is inseparably tied up with philosophy and theology as well. This becomes clear if one watches some of the “God debates” between Christian and atheist philosophers, such as this one between atheist Sam Harris and William Lane Craig. As Craig repeatedly points out (to no satisfactory response), in Harris’ view of the world, human beings lack free will, and therefore lack moral accountability as well. To broaden the point a bit, mere animals that lack freedom can have neither morality nor dignity. To assign them dignity is arbitrary and subjective; on such a foundation, human dignity cannot stand.

We can only insist upon our dignity if our liberty is something more than a chimerical illusion, if it is really a property, a defining characteristic, of the human being. Not only that, but it must be understood that liberty is not the product of a random, meaningless series of historical events, but instilled in man for a specific reason, by a specific being. There may well be atheists who strenuously object to the sort of gross violations of human dignity and liberty I provided examples of above, and this is on balance a good thing. What will ultimately become of such objections, however, if they lack a solid foundation in reality? The approach of the secular Leviathan is at least consistent with the view that man is nothing more than an atypically complicated animal with no special meaning or purpose for existing. Pleasure and pain, as Bentham wrote, are his sovereign masters; the preservation of his life, as Hobbes insisted, is his sole concern. If he lives without liberty or dignity, it is enough that he merely lives.

Maximizing our liberty and dignity does mean accepting some restraints. But the Church has not proclaimed dogmas and morals so that man can be weighed down with unnecessary burdens. On the contrary, it is only through knowledge and acceptance of the truths revealed to us by our Creator – the very being responsible for the creation of our inherently free souls – that we can exercise our liberty in accordance with our nature and with an eye to our ultimate and eternal destiny. To cherish liberty is always to invite some risk. We may choose sin and damnation; we may choose to harm ourselves and others and disrupt the common good.

But the idea that evil can be eliminated in this life by the rational planning of man is far more dangerous. Scientific progress can create the impression that such a fantasy may one day become a reality; the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century were infatuated with the possibilities of total social management. And yet, as F.A. Hayek argued in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, such dreams are based upon a “pretense of knowledge”, an unfounded assumption that the methods that have produced such marvelous results in the hard physical sciences can be applied or mimicked in the social science. But one would only assume that such methods could be easily transferred if they already tended to view human beings as atoms or cells, without free wills, pushed about entirely by external forces.

When I look at our intrusive state – put whatever adjective in front of it you will, be it “police”, “nanny”, “managerial”, etc. – I can’t help but see the pretense of knowledge in full swing. There is no need to make rash comparisons to Hitler or Stalin, because our own intrusive state is not the product of one man’s will imposed upon a nation; it is a product of attitudes, assumptions, and policies that have gradually been adopted by the social and political elites of the country. Who can resist them? Only those who have the full and complete understanding of who and what man is; and this is found only in the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church.

  • Vishal Mehra

     This is poorly expressed. “liberty to do evil” “maximization of personal liberty so that we may do good”.
    Are you opposed to the Church’s injunction  to the Civil Authorities that they should act to restrict porn.

    One can rightly say that  personal liberties have been unnaturally limited in some spheres while being disordered
    in certain other spheres but a simplistic “Maximize” does not work. 

    I think you are working from a mistaken idea of man as a political element.. A person does not actually lose any rights when he enters  a civic community. Man has rights insofar as he belongs to a political community. The “I” only makes sense within a “We”.  

    • Paul

      Vishal, you are almost right. You are appealing to the ideal, but the reaility is Rousseau won. Our belonging to a political community has devoled into obedience to the “will” of the people via the all discerning mind of the State. Look no further than the HHS mandate, gay “rights” etc.  Again, Rousseau won.

    • Robert Yates

      Are you opposed to the Church’s injunction  to the Civil Authorities that they should act to restrict porn.”

      No. I’m a supporter of state’s rights. I also believe, along with Pope Leo XIII and the mainstream of Catholic social thought throughout the ages, that certain evils can be tolerated by the state for the sake of some greater good, or because we lack the power to prevent them. 

       a simplistic “Maximize” does not work.  ”

      I explained what I meant by that at the end. Maximizing liberty means accepting some restraints, because without restraints, we rush headlong into the slavery of sin. 

      A person does not actually lose any rights when he enters  a civic community.”
      He loses certain liberties. Whether or not he loses any “rights” as well is semantics. 

       Man has rights insofar as he belongs to a political community.”False. Read Rerumn Novarum. Man has certain natural rights that precede the formation of any political community, and which the political community exists to protect. 

      • Vishal Mehra

        Does the City aka the political community exist solely to protect man’s natural rights?
        This is just Locke and Hobbes, not ancient and medieval thought.
        “He loses certain liberties”–I think you equivocate on this word “liberty” a lot.
        It certainly can not be lost by men living together in a city. In fact, liberty blossoms in the city for the city is where the fullest extent of the exercise of virtues is found.

        Liberty, as ancients define it, is the capacity to do good.

        • RY

          Solely? No. But it is one of its primary purposes. 

          I don’t think Locke and Hobbes should be lumped in together.

          In a hypothetical state of nature, men would have the liberty to act as their own judge, jury and executioner. This liberty is ceded to the political community so that more fundamental rights and liberties can be secured. 

          I agree that liberty flourishes in political communities. But I also believe that as beings with free will, virtually everything we do is the result of our natural, in-born liberty. Thus we are “at liberty” to do many things; some things we concede that we cannot or must not do so that higher and greater goods can be achieved. 

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        A person suffers no diminution of his liberties by entering into a civic community.  On the contrary, in a free state, the laws are the consummated result of the citizens’ own organized wishes.  By a sort of reciprocal action, the laws are internalised, pervading their natures and expressing themselves in their actions.

        Think of the Spartans and the laws of Lycurgus.   As their epitaph declared, it was free men who died in obedience to the laws, in the pass of Thermopolae.

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  • illuminarch

    Excellent essay. I am tired of hearing and reading apologias for this monstrous creature, the State, from supposedly good Catholics. Nearly every week at Mass, prayers are offered for the safety of “our troops, defending our freedom overseas” but never for those they are killing and maiming. Disgracefully, such prayers are uttered far more often over the past few years than any prayers for peace and justice in the world. And the bitter schadenfreude of hearing the sermons exhorting parishioners to stand up against the contraceptive/abortifacient mandate after two years of hosannas from the pulpit for Obamacare and ever expanding government programs and budgets! 

    This time last year, masses were littered with ‘hymns’ exalting the greatness not of God, but of the United States, songs that had as much of a place in the hymnal as the bronze eagle idol scandalously placed in front of the altar on the 4th of July. Hopefully the changes to the liturgy will have brought an end to these idolatrous displays.

    • Alecto

      It is not idolatry to display a flag in the church, nor to acknowledge that the very reason we are able to attend mass, celebrate our faith stems from the liberty enshrined in a Constitution created not by Catholics, not by any pope, but by men I believe were truly inspired by God to recognize what is so obvious now:  that we are, each of us, endowed us with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   One of my chief issues with the Catholic church is its natural tendency to choose tyranny over liberty, government oppression and mandates over free will. 

      • illuminarch

        Which is it? Are we naturally endowed with our rights and liberties, or are they bestowed upon us by the State? If you believe that the Constitution is the “very reason we are able to attend mass”, then you have taken your side against the notion of f inherent and inalienable rights. And by the way, Alecto, the Constitution isn’t exactly functioning today. The US government regularly tramples on the rights, not to mention the lives, of millions of people everyday, Catholics and non-Catholics. Without moral men who trust in a guidance higher than themselves, the Constitution is just a piece of paper, offering no real resistance to their crimes.

        National flags and other monuments to sinful, secular power have no place in the Church, least of all as objects of veneration. And singing the praises of “our form of government” and the politicians, bureaucrats, and their button men in the military and law enforcement while they spend their days reveling in acts of Mortal Sin (including murder) instead of praying for their repentance is an abomination.

        • Alecto

          It is not incongruous to state that we are endowed by God with inalienable rights, and the Constitution enshrines those rights.  I appreciate and agree with your views on the Constitution, and it is our duty as citizens to assert our rights against the government.  It is up to us to ensure that we are moral men, and we elect moral men.  This is more than any government in the history of the world a “Do It Yourself” government.  If you don’t like the “politicians, bureaucrats, and their button men in the military and law enforcement”, well, then, friend, what are you doing about it?

          How many Catholics do you think have chosen the path of serfdom in
          exchange for a check from the gubmint?  How many have voted for pro-abortion Democrats?  That is incongruous and an abomination!  We constantly hear from how many bishops extolling
          the virtues of the state’s beneficence and the “morality” of government entitlement programs, evidenced most recently in the idiotic letter from Georgetown faculty about Paul Ryan’s budget proposition, instead of extolling personal
          responsibility and allegiance to God?  That is an abomination!

          I did not write that we should venerate the flag, and did not intend that, but we should respect the flag, the republican form of government we have, and recognize that we, as citizens have duties and responsibilities in this society just as we have duties and responsibilities to God.   Placing a flag in a church does NOT make it an object of veneration, but it is insulting to anyone who has fought for your rights to worship freely, speak freely, live freely or died for those rights, to deny them the respect they’re owed or on this Memorial Day Weekend, a few prayers. 

          One of the beauties of this country is the ability to disagree.  Where you see “spending their days reveling in acts of Mortal Sin (including murder)”, I see young kids sent off to die by corrupt politicians and the power hungry.  I also see brave men and women, including many cops who risk life and limb daily.  You can’t have it both ways and you can’t expect to achieve anything if you throw out the baby with the bath water.  Either you believe that this country, this Constitution is worth protecting and defending, or at the very least articulating and debating, and that we are each responsible for the government we have, or you believe it is an evil, secular power unworthy of defense.  We live on Earth, in time and space looking towards eternity.  Maybe it’s just me, but ensuring we establish government structures which allow for freedom, prosperity and morality to flourish is an area where we must be zealous and vigilant.

  • Joseph Siemion

    This essay seems unfocused, starting out by complaining about the intrusiveness of the US government (Agreed!), then arguing that secularists cannot have any moral foundation to stand upon, then wrapping it up by writing that we just need to listen to the Church to sort this all out. 
    You should stick to one line of thought and develop it more. Just how does the Church provide all the guidance we need? If we look to the past, is this true? (Obviously not). While I agree that secularists don’t have an unshakable moral ground to stand on, it seems to me that, even though theists believe they have this unshakable ground (I wouldn’t count Muslims) in practice it makes no difference. 

    • JohnKey

      Lack of focus? It seems perfectly clear what the author is doing here. When man fails to live by God’s law the void is filled with the burden of man’s law (the state’s law). The entire project is doomed to failure and the discussion really becomes is the future going to look like Orwell’s or Huxley’s? I read this as a lament. And if the West doesn’t listen to the Church who does and did in fact provide all the guidance we need, then we are toast. There really are not too many things one needs to abide by in Church teaching to live in harmony.

  • Alecto

    Any Catholic who cites Hayek is a friend of mine.  Too bad most Catholics attending Catholic schools, let alone any student in any American school will never hear the names Hayek, Mises, or Friedman, let alone have read a word they wrote.   More’s the pity because their writings are worth reading. 

    As a proud member of the “Ron Paul generation”, I completely agree that we must maximize personal freedom so that we are able to use our minds to discern what is right as well as choose to do what is just.  I don’t know that the popular trend is necessarily towards that kind of thinking or towards more tyranny, even to the point of criminalizing thought. 

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      It would be better, if they read Hegel – “If the state is confused with civil society, and if its specific end is laid down as the security and protection of property and personal freedom, then the interest of the individuals as such becomes the ultimate end of their association, and it follows that membership of the state is something optional. But the state’s relation to the individual is quite different from this. Since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life. Unification pure and simple is the true content and aim of the individual, and the individual’s destiny is the living of a universal life. His further particular satisfaction, activity and mode of conduct have this substantive and universally valid life as their starting point and their result.”

  • Scottwil60

    Dear Mr. Yates,
    I believe that you will find no other more ardent supporters of liberty, the constitution, and the dignity of mankind than the (atheist) followers of Ayn Rand. I am all for you beliving whatever ancient superstitions you wish, but to pretend that only that atheists “don’t have a basis in reality” for defending freedom is spurious.

    • RY


      The “followers of Ayn Rand” do not believe in the dignity of mankind. They believe in abortion on demand and have total contempt for the poor, for the least among us. 

      And, I’m not “pretending.” I really believe they have no basis in reality for defending the rights that Jefferson wrote were endowed to us by our Creator. Nature itself does not create or enforce rights. 

  • This piece is one that all who believe in personal liberty and dignity should read and think about.