What makes life worth living? For the most part Western society has settled on an individualistic answer: whatever I decide or desire. It’s judgmental—an act of cultural imperialism, as we’re taught to say at fancy colleges—to suggest that there’s a right answer to this question. Rather, we are told, people should be able to organize their lives around what they feel or think best. We’re happiest, the present-day liberal presumes, when we can make up our own minds about what makes life worth living—or even if life is worth living.
The commitment to freedom seems complete, yet paradoxically this liberalism tends toward an anti-democratic authoritarianism. The promise of freedom stems from the fact that we’re not to be constrained by objective moral truths. It’s a form of freedom that comes with a very strong disciplinary warning—you are not to impose your view of moral truth on anyone. Thus the paradox: the dictatorship of relativism.
The abortion license stems directly from this view of freedom. If I think that the satisfactions of sexual intimacy are what make life worth living, and if I don’t wish to intermix these satisfactions with the complex realities of children, then my liberty is threatened by a legal regime that prohibits abortion.
The same liberal reasoning holds for a wide range of issues: from euthanasia to same-sex marriage, from pornography to restrictions on religion in the public square. Law professors come up with all sorts of concepts and categories: a right of privacy, a right to equal protection, the Establishment clause, and so forth. But this patchwork largely serves to bring ever more fully into the law the modern liberal consensus: human life is enlarged and fulfilled insofar as we enjoy the freedom to define for ourselves what makes life worth living.
Nobody thinks this freedom should be absolute. We worship the gods of health and wealth, both of which are lawgivers of sorts, as the no-smoking and calorie-counting Jihadists here in New York demonstrate, as well as the gimlet-eyed consultants who are constantly warning us that we need to save for retirement. Liberalism also insists that our freedom does not include a freedom to harm others—a seemingly modest but in fact elastic limitation. Is the professor who teaches the natural law arguments against homosexuality inflicting harm? The pastor who preaches on Romans 1:26-28?
Thus we find ourselves returning to the paradoxical dictatorship of the liberal consensus that promises a profound existential freedom. It’s not easy to be tolerant, non-judgmental, and inclusive. As most liberals recognize, we’re not naturally inclined to back off and let everyone do their own thing. On the contrary, we need to be subjected to a sustained discipline, which is why the modern liberal view of existential freedom has given rise to the diversity bureaucrats and multi-cultural harpies who staff the dictatorship of relativism.
Can the paradox endure? One wonders. When it comes to abortion, the liberal consensus seems positively willful in its refusal to open its eyes. Reality—the child in the womb—is eclipsed by the liberal ideal. The fact of life is erased by our supposed need to have the power to define everything (even the universe, according to the soaring rhetoric of our legal sages).
I’m the first to admit that belief in the God of Abraham admits of all sorts of objections. But the more I think about the predominant contemporary liberal ideal of freedom—to define the meaning of my own life—the more absurd it seems. There is nothing about modern science that remotely suggests that I have the capacity to define my own concept of existence. The biological sciences teach that our experiences of consciousness emerge out of neural patterns very likely organized in accord with the principles of evolution. The social sciences testify to how deeply embedded we are in culture.
Yet somehow our present-day liberal view of existential freedom remains the default position, so much so that social and religious conservatives have difficulty getting oxygen. By and large we bend to the default position, making essentially liberal arguments in the public square: divorce harms children; promiscuity has social costs, the traditional family provides the basis for prosperity. All true, but these are essentially prudential arguments designed to limit the damage of contemporary liberalism rather than propose an alternative.
This approach isn’t sufficient. By my reckoning, the deepest public significance of modern liberalism rests in its view of existential freedom: we are happiest and most fully ourselves when we have the freedom to make up our own minds about the meaning of life. If we’re to promote a sane view of public life, then we need to confront this view directly.
St. Paul thought that in the ordinary course of affairs we are in bondage to our disordered desires. We are, as he puts it, slaves of sin. Aristotle and other ancient thinkers did not have a Christian (or Jewish) concept sin, but they held a similar view. Left to our own devices, we end up barbarians in the thrall of untutored passions.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that a common view of human flourishing emerges, which is why so much of ancient thought could be used in Christian moral teaching. Aristotle thought we should be shaped by the norms of a Greek city. Ancient Stoics thought that universal reason ought to govern our lives. And St. Paul preaches submission to the life-giving authority of Christ. Profound differences indeed, but in comparison to modern liberalism not all that different. In each case we achieve our fullest humanity when we are disciplined by proper authority.
Yes, yes, I can hear the objections: Which authority? Who is to decide? They’re not stupid concerns. Who is not profoundly aware of the many abuses of authority? And it’s evident that we live in a pluralistic society where many authorities compete for our souls.
But these are the perils of traditional and religious views of human flourishing, not paradoxes. That’s one reason I find myself thinking that the unifying vision of social or cultural conservatism—the primacy of authority—is more plausible than the liberal presumption in favor of an existential freedom. And it’s also why I think the conservative view holds out more promise as a social philosophy. If we acknowledge the role of proper authority, then we can deliberate about its purposes and limits—something we can’t do under the paradoxical dictatorship of relativism.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.