Cultural observers are saying that we live in a time of increased division and social strife. Political discourse has degenerated into name calling, distorted quotes, misrepresentation, deep fakes, down right lies, betrayal, opportunism, insincere and impossible promises, and catchy sound bites. Some people blame the current president and others the former one. Still others blame the Electoral College, the corrupt media, the schools and universities, the coastal elites or the common folk of fly-over country, the churches, or social media. However I’d like to propose a different diagnosis: modern society is built a foundation of sand. Within its genetic makeup there is a principle of dissolution that will enviably work its own destruction.
The Killer Gene
In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas argued that, in order to be just, human laws must be based on the moral law, which in turn is based on the eternal law of God’s being and will. Moral law is vastly more expansive and radical than human law. But human law should conform to the moral law in so far as it is possible to enforce without doing more harm than good. And some aspects of the moral law are not humanly enforceable. Hence there will never be a human society that is governed wholly by the moral or eternal law.
Modern political thinkers in the 1600s shifted the legitimating basis of human law from moral and eternal law to a human agreement or contract made for mutual benefit. The fundamental principle in this theory is individual liberty, which can be limited only by the liberty of others. In 1860, John Stuart Mill put it this way: laws should allow maximum liberty and exclude only behaviors that cause harm to others. Or in the language of popular culture, “You should be able to do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.” Hence modern society recognizes no moral principle above human desire. An individual’s desires can be legitimately limited in law only by the desires of other individuals. Laws function to harmonize the conflict of desires.
Contemporary society accepts and builds on the modern understanding of the function of law, but it moves two steps further. (1) It transforms the legal principle of maximum liberty in pursuing desire into a moral principle. Originally, the principle of maximizing liberty was proposed as a rule for making laws. It was not proposed as a moral principle to bind and guide the conscience; for it had no advice about what is good and right. It was not concerned with virtue and vice but with harmful behaviors. But contemporary society views pursuing one’s desires and approving of others’ pursuit their desires as a moral duty or even a sacred duty. It is good and right to pursue whatever one desires as long as you celebrate as good and right whatever other people want to pursue. And if you disapprove of others’ choices you are violating your moral duty and have become a bad person deserving of condemnation. Unlike legislated law, which is limited to legal judgments about enforceable rules, morality is all-encompassing. Negative judgments can be made about the character and the otherwise legal behavior of others. One can show one’s moral disapproval in words and behaviors that are not illegal and do not have the force of law: protest, shunning, boycotts, and various forms of verbal “calling out.”
(2) The second step contemporary society takes beyond the original maximum liberty principle is this: after expanding the maximum liberty principle from the legal to moral sphere, contemporary society begins the process of reverse transferal. It is so outraged by the legal but “immoral” behavior of those who do not conform to its new morality that it demands that its morality be legislated into law. The quest for individual liberty circled around to become suppression of individual liberty. The very ones who protested so loudly against imposing morality on others now demand that their morality be imposed on everyone. What began as an effort to reduce the sphere covered by laws and increase private liberty has become the cry for more laws and less liberty. The protest against moralist and judgmental attitudes has become moralistic and judgmental. The limited legal sphere became the unlimited moral sphere, which returned as the unlimited legal sphere!
When a society founds itself on individual desire as its sacred principle and basic moral good, it has already set its trajectory toward failure. Human desire is unprincipled, omni-directional, and chaotic. Human beings in their curiosity can desire anything! Human desires conflict with each other and with the desires of others. It should not be surprising, then, that contemporary people cannot engage in civil discussion about important topics, because, according to contemporary theory, all speech arises from and aims at fulfillment of individual desires. Where there is no truth and reason is not honored, alliances are possible but agreements are not.