The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Liberty and the Claims of Truth II”: Professor Hadley Arkes in The Catholic Thing

by James Wilson Institute on February 26, 2020
Courts, Politics

In his latest column for The Catholic Thing, JWI Founder and Director Hadley Arkes addresses what he sees as a modern misunderstanding of the meaning of liberty in our law and civil society. Arkes claims that failing to use our ability to reason about the correct and incorrect uses of our liberty leads us into total moral relativism. Laying blame at the feet of both liberals and some conservatives, Arkes cites the defense by some conservatives of a Black Mass at Harvard as a key example of the willingness of relativists to grant legitimacy to any organization that claims religion, out of their fealty to religious liberty in name only, while ignoring the moral tests for the religious celebration. This tendency, Arkes says, leads to an erosion of morality in public life, as moral distinctions between right and wrong become eroded for the sake of a completely neutral liberty.

Some quotations follow below:

“And yet, none of this makes any sense if we find ourselves backing into the kind of soft moral relativism that is getting absorbed more and more easily within our political class, on the side of conservatives as well as liberals. If there are no moral truths undergirding our judgments, then our liberties are as boundless as they are empty of any moral ground for their rightness.”

“[Liberal politicians] are content to invoke a ‘liberty’ that is nicely closed off from the vexing question of just what interest of theirs could justify the kind of killing that marks the end, or purpose, of that liberty.”

“In other instances we find even serious Catholics who are reluctant to bar the Black Mass for Satanists at Harvard, because they are reluctant to bar any non-violent things that may be done under the banner of ‘religious liberty.’  They are convinced, that is, that religious ‘liberty’ can best be protected by receding from any moral judgments that may call into question the rightness or legitimacy of what is done in the name of religion. They seek to protect religious “liberty” by removing precisely the moral tests that must attach to any other serious claims of liberty.”

You can read the full article here.

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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