The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Civic Virtue as Moral Facts: Recovering the Other Half of Our Founding” – Professor Daniel Mahoney in RealClearPublicAffairs

In an essay for Real Clear Public Affairs, Professor Daniel Mahoney of Assumption University argues that the American Founding presupposed a belief in moral facts and the immutability of human nature. The Founding Fathers, and the American people more broadly, understood that society required a strong moral foundation. They knew that self-government required a virtuous people, cognizant of their civic duties to others and confident in their belief in natural law, to be successful. Taken to its logical conclusion, moral relativism can only lead to “moral anarchy and despotic self-assertion.” Yet such subjectivist thinking is prevalent today. Professor Mahoney affirms that we must renew our commitment to “self-rule and self-command” in order to flourish.

Some excerpts from the piece:

“The American Founders were in no way moral relativists, let alone moral nihilists. Rejecting religious sectarianism and the forceable political imposition of religious truth, they nonetheless appealed to honor, civic virtue, and the “honorable determination” of a free people to govern themselves. The idea that moral judgments are utterly arbitrary, that distinctions between right and wrong, and better and worse ways of life, are wholly subjective, was completely alien to them. Almost all of them spoke of a human “moral sense” without which freedom degenerates into moral anarchy and despotic self-assertion.”

“We now live in a different moral universe, and by no means a better one. Today, even religious believers habitually speak of morality in terms of “values,” a term derived from economics which suggests that something is good because we value or choose it (its modern use was made famous by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber). Language matters, and the language of “values” is, whether we like it or not, the language of moral relativism, even moral subversion.”

“Today, we still appeal to human rights, ever more expansive, ever more indiscriminate, ever more bereft of prudence – while the old idiom of natural rights, which largely presupposed natural law or the natural moral sense, can barely be heard. How else could we arrive at the conclusion that biological nature can be dismissed at will and that human beings inhabit 73, or is it 153, different genders? This is the reductio ad absurdum, the farcical concluding stage, of the view that human beings create themselves and are beholden to no standards above, or outside, the human will.”

“Against the poison of subjectivism – and its ugly twin, unthinking moralistic and egalitarian rage – we must renew the Great Tradition with its reasonable confidence in self-rule and self-command. Our civic and civilizational renewal must be informed by moral facts and truths inherent in our nature and ultimately bequeathed to us by the divine source of our rights and obligations. Such is the great unspoken presupposition that gives life to the American civic tradition.”

Read the full essay 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