Thursday, 18 April 2024
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    The American Dilemma: Personal Autonomy and The Common Good by Herbert London

    Herb London John M. Olin Professor of Humanities, NYU President, Hudson Institute

    In an examination of contemporary society there is a philosophical contradiction that insinuates itself into every discussion.

    While modern liberalism as defined by, enlightenment philosophers, Locke and Kant emphasizes the ideal of individual autonomy – the belief that individuals are free to do as they choose as long as their actions do not harm others – the socialization necessary to promote the common good is often overlooked.

    Socialization is accomplished through family, religious institutions, schools and associations – the very same institutions adversely affected by unrestrained autonomy. It is precisely the tension between socialization and individual autonomy that is at the core of liberalism’s dilemma and, as a consequence, is an essential factor in determining the nation’s future.

    At the moment the nation has a cultural vacuum dominated by the proliferation of newly created rights and the virtual omission of duty. According to the prevailing national sentiment, public policy is regarded as “neutral” on the question of the common good and the means needed to create it. The result is numbing social pathologies from high rates of violent crimes to a breathtaking number of illegitimate births.

    As I see it, the way to restore philosophical balance to American ideology is to reassert the notion of public virtue, once implicit in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, as a constraint on individual autonomy. Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of History at City College in New York City, has discussed the remoralization of society; I would call it a Great Awakening for the enduring beliefs associated with our national character.

    Higher education was once the institution relied on as a cultural transmission belt. However university professors are more likely to be avatars of “adversary culture” than devotees of tradition. It is fashionable to challenge traditional loyalties and encourage a critical attitude toward authority of any kind. Wisdom and truth itself have been put in the cauldron of contemporary relativism and are now merely myths or social dogma.

    In almost any debate on political theory it is axiomatic among liberals and the libertarian wing of conservatism that government must remain neutral on the matter of the common good. The John Stuart Mill position, that the only purpose for the rightful exercise of government power over any member of the community is to prevent harm to others, is the prevailing orthodoxy.

    To some degree that is understandable. Americans fear an intrusive government that will limit liberty through a demand for conformity. But in the process of emphasizing autonomy philosophers have overlooked the moral truths and constraints which refine the meaning of life.

    If mediating institutions are voluntary, shed as a result of the whim of autonomous individuals, then moral truths are alterable or revocable as well. Hence license is an extension of freedom and disintegration of the nuclear family is an elaboration of self fulfillment.

    Ironically autonomous man who rebels against government authority becomes more reliant on government as mediating institutions weaken. This is at heart the key issue of the modern state.

    The restraint needed to balance liberty comes from the legitimacy of mediating institutions. These institutions develop in individuals the principles needed for social order such as the Golden Rule, the ends do not justify the means, and the Ten Commandments.

    While government cannot promote these principles itself, it can promote the institutions that give voice to these principles, recognizing as it does so that there should be a prohibition on arbitrary government coercion and implicit constraints imposed by moral law.

    In a democratic republic citizens cannot be compelled to lead a virtuous life. Nevertheless, in a pluralistic society as ours, there can be a public philosophy that defines civic purposes from our national tradition, that recognizes the value of liberty and simultaneously reinforces virtue and public order as a harness on the pursuit of happiness.

    Leaders in the nation should not be reluctant to define what is the common good and how it might be pursued. If there is to be a national conversation on any theme, it should be on the tension between personal autonomy and the common good.  Moreover, it must be a conversation that recognizes the relationship between unfettered private action and the proliferation of social pathologies.

    America should be grateful for its liberty, but it should be equally grateful for the traditions that keep that liberty in check.

     

     

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