Unwitting Enemies

It's a cartoon staple: Donald Duck is quarrelling with chipmunks, Chip and Dale. When Chip and Dale race up a tree, Donald Duck saws off the branch on which the chipmunks are sitting. But the laws of physics operate differently in cartoon land than in real life. When Donald finishes sawing through the branch, it doesn't fall to the ground; the tree does. The cartoon is funny -- but in real life, if someone saws off the branch we're sitting on, there are dire consequences. This is just as true when it comes to the law as it is with trees. As moral philosopher Professor Hadley Arkes notes in his new book, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, many of our elites "have gradually talked themselves out of the ground of their rights, without being quite aware of it." They can "no longer offer a moral defense of those rights." In effect, "they have talked themselves out of the premises on which their own freedom rests." This has happened because our politicians and our culture have indirectly absorbed the teachings of academics who claim "God is dead," truth is gone, and everything is permitted, writes Arkes. He goes on to say that much of the language of our laws is rooted in layers of moral understanding and religious persuasion, that are no longer recognized by many. And yet, he says, "My colleagues in the academy speak firmly of 'rights,' or of the 'injuries' done to 'persons,' and they seem serenely unaware that their language here is grounded in understandings that they have professed, at least, to have rejected long ago." "The modern liberal will strike a militant posture in defense of rights, but he can no longer explain why that biped who conjugates verbs should be the bearer of 'rights.'" Not only politicians, observes Arkes, but the man on the street has absorbed the moral relativism promoted in the academy. The result is that most Americans can no longer give account of the premises of this regime in which we live and thus cannot offer a moral defense of it or the rights it was meant to secure. We cannot vindicate our own rights, never mind the rights of anyone else. We have become, Arkes concludes, "an unwitting enemy" of the regime the founders established. This has had enormous consequences on our laws -- especially laws having to do with the protection of human life. For if there are no fixed moral truths, then the law has no authority. Someone can say, "Why should I obey it? Says who?" -- or so goes the traditional bar room riposte. And without moral authority, there is no answer other than, "I say so. I have the power." But then the law simply turns into a system of power without the least pretense of finding a moral justification for itself. It is precisely this approach to the law that allows judges -- and the culture they influence -- to question, for instance, whether the sick, the handicapped, or the unborn among us are fully human. You and I must teach our fellow citizens why our laws must be based on something greater than naked power -- and what happens if we abandon the grounding of moral truth. If we neglect the natural law that has undergirded our laws, we will, like Donald Duck, end up sawing down the very tree we sit in -- the moral basis that undergirds our freedoms. And once that happens, our freedom and our civilization come crashing down. For further reading: Hadley Arkes, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  1. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Spence, 1999).
St. Augustine, The City of God (Modern Library, 2000). Charles Colson, "Cultivation of Conscience," a commencement address given to the graduates of Wheaton College, 1 June 2000. Dr. F. Russell Hittinger, "The Beginning of Freedom: Natural Law and Virtue," speech delivered at "Justice That Restores," BreakPoint/Justice Fellowship's conference on justice and the Christian worldview, in Orlando, Florida, March 14-16, 2002. William J. Abraham, "Pluralism and the Paddy Factor," Findings, Fall 2002.


Chuck Colson


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