The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Moral Relativism is our True Constitutional Enemy” – Professor Hadley Arkes in The American Mind

In an article for The American Mind titled “Moral Relativism is our True Constitutional Enemy,” JWI Founder & Director Hadley Arkes uses the debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. to illustrate the drift into moral relativism in our jurisprudence. Prof. Arkes traces the roots of this relativism in our jurisprudence to the pivotal case of Cohen v. California, in which Justice Harlan famously argued “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” Prof. Arkes argues that too many lawyers today use relativist arguments in the fight for religious liberty, appealing to “viewpoint neutrality,” rather than arguing on the truth or reasonableness of religious claims. In conclusion, Prof. Arkes reminds conservatives on both sides of this debate that the only way to secure lasting victory under the law is by engaging the moral substance of the arguments at the heart of our cultural divide. 

Some excerpts from the piece:

… some of our friends have sought to protect religious liberty by retreating to moral relativism. They are willing enough to credit religious sentiments as religious if they are “sincerely held.” They attach this importance to sincerity precisely because they don’t wish to reach any moral judgments on the legitimacy of what any religious group purports to teach.

“French professes his reverence for the Declaration and the American Founding, but moral relativism could never be reconciled with a document that relied on the understanding of “self-evident” or necessary moral truths.”

“In short, many of our friends have followed the drift even of conservative jurists into moral relativism, and they have now absorbed those premises as their own. After all, these arguments often work in getting the result we want in these cases, don’t they? The question arising now, I take it, in the argument between Ahmari and French, is whether we are willing to break out of this trance of positivism and relativism and engage the substance of the moral arguments at the center of the culture war.”

“We are no less able today than we were in Jefferson’s time to make moral judgments on the teachings that are offered us in the name of religion.”

Read the whole essay here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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