Imposing values

According to the influential version of liberalism taught by the late Harvard philosopher, John Rawls, in a liberal society no law should be based ultimately upon any particular philosophical or religious point of view. The "coercive power of the state" should be used, he claimed, only to promote views which every reasonable person would accept.

Rawls' theory is the sophisticated version of what people mean when they ask "whose values" should settle a question.

Thus, for example, on Rawls' view abortion should not be illegal, because that would be to "compel" women to have a baby, when a reasonable person might not accept that the unborn child was an equal human person.

(For the moment, put aside the question of whether keeping someone from participating in a natural process, began through their own initiative, rightly counts as "compelling" that person: whether to prohibit an abortion is to "compel" a pregnancy.)

Rawls' view about what we can, or cannot, compel others to do, was based upon a conception of society as "fair". It wouldn't be "fair," he thought, for me to force someone to observe religious or philosophical beliefs which I, but not that other person, accepted. Likewise it wouldn't be "fair" for a majority to force a minority to observe religious or philosophical beliefs, which that minority did not accept. The majority should not take advantage of their temporary dominance to compel the minority, because, after all, they would not wish to be similarly compelled if they happened to be in the minority.

To make abortion illegal would be "unfair" in this sense, because it would force "pro-choice" women to abide by the specific beliefs of pro-life women.

Rawls' view is appealing to many at first glance. Americans have a sense of fair play, and they want to treat others as equals. We think that persuasion, not force, should hold sway among fellow citizens.

But on deeper inspection Rawls' philosophy is obviously flawed and at odds with the foundations of democracy.

Consider slavery. Can the slaveholder be compelled to give up his slaves? I personally believe that every human being has dignity, and so each human being should enjoy the fruit of his own labor. In my view, no one should be enslaved. Yet, I also recognize that mine is a particular viewpoint, which not everyone shares. In fact, most cultures throughout history have accepted some form of slavery.

Also, my view is based on a religious view. I believe that each human being is "created in the image of God." The current opposition to slavery, which I share, is demonstrably the legacy of Christian activism. The pagan world accepted slavery; only Christians started to oppose it.

The Declaration of Independence asserts that "All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights." But not everyone believes in God, or in creation. Creation is opposed to science, people say. How, then, can I impose on others a particular religious view, especially when that view is said to be at odds with science?

(It would be pleading for a hypothesis to insist that slaveholders "really" or "deep down" believe that slavery is wrong: many of them are entirely unconflicted about owning slaves. Moreover, there are many philosophical and religious views according to which slavery is perfectly permissible. One cannot say, then, that it is always completely and utterly "unreasonable" for someone to wish to own slaves.)

Thus, on Rawls' view it would be "unfair" for me to compel a slaveholder to give up his slaves, as this would be forcing him to abide by my idiosyncratic views, not leaving him free to decide the matter according to his own views.

G.K. Chesteron once wrote in a book about his travels to America: "The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man." Yet, according to Rawls this dogma cannot be used as the basis for law.

Rawls' view looked appealing at the start. But if we accept it, we have to reject the heritage of American democracy.

Similarly, anyone who supports legal abortion, and the reasoning underlying it, has already rejected that heritage.

What is the problem with that? The main problem, of course, is that abortion is the killing of human beings, as slavery is the enslavement of them. But there is a political problem as well, namely, that after abortion became legal, the United States split into two countries and was no longer "one nation, under God, indivisible."

The original United States -- the one to which I and others like me still belong -- is a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." A proposition is a dogma, a truth. The other country, which I reject and abhor, has rejected that proposition, under the spurious logic that to insist on that proposition is to be "unfair" to the person compelled--when most obviously the person compelled means to be much more "unfair" to someone else.

All of the "culture wars," the sharp rhetoric, the hatred which fills the airwaves and internet -- all of the subsequent outrages -- and the continuing erosion of the family and individual responsibility, can be traced back to this split.

Michael Pakaluk's most recent book, "The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God," about Ruth V.K. Pakaluk, is soon to be published by Ignatius Press.