Why “Liberalism” Needs Natural Law

There is an ambiguity marking many of these sallies against liberalism (itself a term that’s invested with often-contradictory meanings).

Do today’s anti-liberals believe that the core problem is an ideology of radical autonomy, one that preaches liberation in the name of “tolerance-respect-diversity” while simultaneously shoving unscientific gobbledygook like gender theory down our throats? Or, do they also regard what I’ll call “liberal institutions” as antithetical to the good life? To put it more crudely: are particular structures and commitments such as constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, market economies, legally-recognized and often constitutionally-guaranteed rights, and a strong distinction between the temporal and spiritual realms, essentially reflections of a very destructive creed?

 

Over the past few years, we’re witnessed a resurgence of a long-standing critique of what’s often called “liberalism” by prominent conservative and Christian intellectuals. This goes far beyond arguments which have long preoccupied some traditionalists concerning market economies and their impact upon culture. It’s evident from reading these contemporary critics of liberalism and proponents of forms of what’s called integralism that the market often functions as a proxy for two larger targets. One is the American Founding. The other, by extension, is the type of liberal constitutional order which assumed decisive form in the Anglo-American world from 1688 onwards.

There is, however, an ambiguity marking many of these sallies against liberalism (itself a term that’s invested with often-contradictory meanings). It can be summarized in the following way.

Do today’s anti-liberals believe that the core problem is an ideology of radical autonomy, one that preaches liberation in the name of “tolerance-respect-diversity” while simultaneously shoving unscientific gobbledygook like gender theory down our throats? Or, do they alsoregard what I’ll call “liberal institutions” as antithetical to the good life? To put it more crudely: are particular structures and commitments such as constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, market economies, legally-recognized and often constitutionally-guaranteed rights, and a strong distinction between the temporal and spiritual realms, essentially reflections of a very destructive creed?

Many anti-liberals would, I suspect, acknowledge the pre-Enlightenment origins of many of these institutions. The economic arrangements which we call capitalism, for example, first manifested themselves in a relatively systematic form in medieval Europe. Once we dispense with Marxist and fellow-travelling mythologies about the origins of the market, the historical record on that point is hard to dispute.

It’s equally difficult, I’d argue, to deny that the roots of modern constitutional orders which seek to organize political life in ways that promote liberty and justice go back further than 1776 and 1688 to the early-modern and late-medieval worlds and even, some believe, to particular Roman and Greek thinkers. There’s also strong evidence to suggest that the idea of natural rights, so associated with the Age of Reason’s approach to politics, existed several centuries before Thomas Hobbes, John Locke or Thomas Jefferson put pen to paper.

If all this is generally true, it’s worth considering whether liberal order can be premised on claims about human nature that don’t presuppose preferential options for utility-maximization or atomistic visions of society. In short, we should explore the possibility of grounding liberal institutions upon markedly non-utilitarian ideas which embody conceptions of freedom closer to that articulated by Aquinas than John Stuart Mill and John Rawls. That requires, however, more attention to something which hasn’t featured strongly thus far in the liberalism-integralism discussion. This concerns the relationship between liberal order and the tradition of natural law in our post-Enlightenment world.

By “natural law,” I don’t mean “natural rights” per se. Indeed, if rights are to be distinguished from what are often no more than rationalizations of what temporary majorities or the powerful just happen to desire, then they must be grounded in a robust account of natural law. And by that, I mean right (“law”) reason (“natural”): the reason possessed by all people that, in principle, allows us to identify what is good and just (rather than simply useful or efficient) for individuals and communities but which also helped give rise to liberal order.

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