The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“When Politics Reshapes the Culture” — Professor Hadley Arkes in The Catholic Thing

In a piece for The Catholic Thing titled “When Politics Reshapes the Culture,” Professor Hadley Arkes claims that it is in fact politics that reshapes culture, as seen in numerous Supreme Court decisions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and sexual orientation, rather than culture reshaping politics. It is not the culture we must aim to change, but rather politics itself, given the progressive way in which the Supreme Court has decided upon “culture war issues” in recent times and molded our moral understandings as a result. In his reasoning, Prof. Arkes looks to Aristotle and explains the nature of the relationship between the logic of morals and the logic of law, warning against the the moral implications found in a community governed by “law.”

Some excerpts from the piece:

“With the sense of losing in the ‘culture wars,’ some conservatives have professed to turn away from politics and the courts, with the new, summoning line that ‘politics is downstream from culture.’ According to this argument, we’ve lost in the courts because we have lost in the culture, and so the object is to change the culture.  But that line of argument misses at once what has been plainly before us:  the Supreme Court, pronouncing with the authority of law on the things rightful and wrongful, has been the main Engine in the coarsening and corruption of our culture.”

“As Aristotle recognized, a community governed by ‘law’ springs directly from the nature of that creature quite given to reasoning and argument over matters of right and wrong.  If we come to the judgment that it is wrong for a parent to torture a child, for whom is it wrong?  The matter put forth as a moral question brings an answer in a moral voice: that it would be wrong, for anyone for everyone. And therefore, as reasoning went, we would be justified in forbidding that torture for anyone with the force of law.”

“Law cannot help teaching moral lessons.”


Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790