How do you respond to those who want to severe the ideas of limited government and moral truth?
It is a profound mistake to suppose that the principle of limited government is (1) rooted in the denial of moral truth or (2) a putative requirement of governments to refrain from acting on the basis of judgments about moral truth.
Our commitment to limited government is itself the fruit of moral conviction—conviction ultimately founded on truths that our nation’s founders proclaimed as self-evident: namely “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
What’s at the foundation of this proposition?
That each human being possesses a profound, inherent, and equal dignity simply by virtue of his nature as a rational creature—a creature possessing, albeit in limited measure (and in the case of some human beings merely in root or rudimentary form), the Godlike powers of reason and freedom—powers that make possible such human and humanizing phenomena as intellectual inquiry, aesthetic appreciation, respect for self and others, friendship, and love. This great truth of natural law, which is at the heart of our civilizational and civic order, has its theological expression in the biblical teaching that man, unlike the brute animals, is made in the image and likeness of the divine creator and ruler of the universe.
What do you think about a pragmatic approach to these issues?
We must not adopt a merely pragmatic understanding or speak only of practical considerations in addressing the pressing issues of our day. Sound positions cannot be effectively advanced and defended by citizens and statesmen who are unwilling or unable to engage moral arguments.
That is why we should, in my opinion, rededicate ourselves to understanding and making the moral argument for the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, and the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of one man and one woman.
Are you saying that practical considerations should, or even can, be left out of the argument?
No. In a proper understanding of morality, practical considerations are not “merely” practical.
Can you give some examples?
The moral case for the reform of unilateral-divorce laws includes reference to the devastating, poverty-inducing, crime-promoting social consequences of the collapse of a healthy marriage culture and the role of unilateral divorce in contributing to the collapse.
The moral argument for restoring legal protection to the unborn includes reference to the adverse psychological and, in some cases, physical consequences of abortion on many women who undergo the procedure.
Our task should be to understand the moral truth and speak it in season and out of season.
What do you the pure pragmatists urge?
We will be told by the pure pragmatists that the public is too far gone in moral relativism or even moral delinquency to be reached by moral argument. We will be advised to frame arguments in coded language so as not to scare off the soccer moms or whoever is playing their role in the next election cycle.
But you believe this must be resisted. Why?
We must, to be sure, practice the much-neglected and badly underrated virtue of prudence. But we must have faith that truth is luminously powerful, so that if we bear witness to the truth about, say, marriage and the sanctity of human life—lovingly, civilly, but also passionately and with determination—and if we honor the truth in advancing our positions, then even many of our fellow citizens who now find themselves on the other side of these issues will come around.
Why does speaking of “truth” frighten some people today?
They evidently believe that people who claim to know the truth about anything—and especially about moral matters—are fundamentalists and potential totalitarians. But, as Hadley Arkes has patiently explained, those on the other side of the great debates over social issues such as abortion and marriage make truth claims—moral truth claims—all the time. They assert their positions with no less confidence and no more doubt than one finds in the advocacy of pro-lifers and defenders of conjugal marriage. They proclaim that women have a fundamental right to abortion. They maintain that “love makes a family” and other strong and controversial moral claims. The question, then, is not whether there are truths about such things as the morality of abortion and the nature of marriage; the question in each case is, What is true?
What do you think about incrementalism in politics?
Of course, politics is the art of the possible. And, as Frederick Douglass reminded us in his tribute to Lincoln, public opinion and other constraints sometimes limit what can be done at the moment to advance any just cause. The pro-life movement has in recent years settled on an incrementalist strategy for protecting nascent human life. So long as incrementalism is not a euphemism for surrender or neglect, it can be entirely honorable. Planting premises in the law whose logic demands, in the end, full respect for all members of the human family can be a valuable thing to do, even where those premises seem modest.
Fully just law would protect all innocent human life. Yet sometimes this is not, or not yet, possible in the concrete political circumstances of the moment.