America’s public discourse is in bad shape. Anybody can see this. Our political “debates” involve almost no real argument, no deliberation about what ends are to be pursued and what means are best suited to those ends. They are instead characterised largely by assertion and counter-assertion, with the claims stated in the most strident terms — as if stridency could persuade. Moreover, and worse, the parties to our disagreements cannot refrain from moralistic denunciation of each other. If your opinion differs from mine, you are a bad person.

Until recently, far-seeing people might have said that this situation is pregnant with evils for the future. If they no longer say so, it is only because the future has arrived and the evils are upon us. Crowds of Americans confront each other in the streets, trying not to convince but to overawe each other with displays of force in numbers, and even by the use of physical force itself. People are abandoning — and reveling in abandoning — the rational discourse that distinguishes human beings from all other animals. All prudent people know and feel: this cannot continue without disastrous consequences.

Can this frightening trend be stopped and reversed? We must try. The first step toward a solution is an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Adam MacLeod provides this diagnosis in his useful and charming book, The Age of Selfies: Reasoning about Rights When the Stakes Are Personal.

Rights without truth lead to social war and tyranny

MacLeod is a lawyer and a professor of law (at Faulkner University’s Thomas Goode Jones School of Law). In this book he displays the evenhandedness we would wish from a wise judge. His argument is a model of fairness. He never criticises any view without acknowledging what is good about it, or how a reasonable and decent person might be attracted to it. Rising above even the admirable virtues of a good judge, he proceeds with the care and patience of a Socrates. Indeed, one senses that the book grew naturally out of dialogues with his students.

The fundamental error with which MacLeod deals has taken deep root in the minds of many young Americans: a yearning to be free from all externally imposed standards. In generations past, our civilisation was sustained by confidence in reason’s ability to perceive the natural law, and by appreciation for our traditions as a good (if imperfect) guide to thinking about natural law and applying it to concrete situations. Such ideas have been under intellectual assault for decades, with the result that natural law and tradition hold very little credibility for many Americans.

One might think that this trend would lead to widespread vulgar amorality, to the triumph of pure pragmatism and self-interest, and hence a public culture in which everything is negotiable. As MacLeod explains, however, this is not what is actually happening. Human beings are too idealistic for such an outcome to take hold.

Instead, as the old sources of moral authority decline, they are replaced by self-generated standards. We choose our own values, and we understand them as profoundly linked to our very identities. Indeed, for many modern Americans, their self-created values are their identities.

To many this sounds like the happy consummation of modern, enlightened freedom. But as MacLeod demonstrates, it is really a recipe for irremediable conflict. If there is no objective truth that is accessible to reason, there is no way for anybody to persuade anybody else. And if our self-generated values are the basis of our identity, then our very being — psychologically speaking — is at stake in every disagreement with our fellow citizens. Values creation and the embrace of the self-constituting self are a shortcut to moral and social war.

This problem manifests itself in the contemporary mania about rights. The concept of rights is, as MacLeod acknowledges, a useful one when grounded in a traditional understanding of natural law. The invocation of rights can assist a clear discussion of what we owe to others. But the idea of rights divorced from some rational grasp of objective truth can easily lead to an explosion of claims that cannot be limited or mediated.

MacLeod reminds us that rights, which always seem good from the standpoint of the person claiming them, necessarily make demands on others. If rights are not grounded in some understanding of natural law, if values are created by the unfettered individual, then there is nothing to prevent individuals or groups from inventing rights for themselves that, they then demand, all others in the community must acknowledge. Thus “rights” can actually become a vehicle for tyranny — the self-righteous tyranny of those who believe that we violate their rights by disagreeing with them.

The natural law is what makes us free

We must, then, return to the older conceptions, must recover our ability to think and speak about the natural law. To modern ears such a project seems inseparable from a loss of freedom. MacLeod, however, is careful to reassure his readers on this score. As he points out, the progress of freedom has actually depended on the quest to understand and live according to the natural law.

Martin Luther King fought segregation by appealing to an objective morality, just as the abolitionists fought slavery by appealing to what is just by nature. Similarly, the Allied governments were guided by some understanding of natural justice when they conducted the Nuremberg Trials to hold Nazis to account for their crimes. Here MacLeod performs an important service, by reminding us that appeals to natural law or to objective morality have done most of the heavy lifting in our history when it comes to ameliorating the human condition and securing greater justice.

Moreover, MacLeod notes that natural law, properly understood, does not purport to prescribe all of the activities of the individual down to the last detail. On the contrary, it leaves a wide sphere for the operation of individual human freedom and creativity.

Here he offers a helpful distinction between the things we must not do, on the one hand, and the things we should do, on the other. Natural rights, or the negative precepts of the natural law, are absolutely binding and therefore establish an outer limit to what anyone may rightly do. Murder and theft, for example, are forbidden. Here are limits to freedom that any reasonable, freedom-loving person would acknowledge.

When it comes to what we should do — the goods we ought to seek, in contrast to the evils we are obliged to avoid — the natural law leaves considerable scope for the freedom of individuals and groups of like-minded individuals. No one may do evil, but all people are free to do good in the way that seems most suitable to them.

The natural law points us to certain intelligible goods — such as knowledge, friendship, beauty — without prescribing exactly how we are to go about pursuing them. Hence a regime founded on a proper understanding of natural law would possess a robust and free civil society, with, for example, religious and secular schools free to pursue knowledge, and to form character, in their own way.

In this context MacLeod offers a provocative and helpful discussion of the positive value of indifference. “Indifference” is often used as a term of disapprobation. Indeed, it is frequently employed by those who advocate imperialistic conceptions of rights in order to scold the supposed apathy of those who do not wish to join their crusade.

MacLeod reminds us, however, that a certain kind of indifference can be a virtue, or at least a form of sensible decency. We should be indifferent to the ways other people and other groups choose to pursue the good, so long as they are not actually doing something wrong.

But reason is not enough

The Age of Selfies offers a patiently reasoned and compelling argument that freedom and social tranquility depend on a renewed seriousness about natural law and objective moral truth. But is this argument sufficient to arrest and reverse the deterioration of our public discourse?

At the height of the controversy over the war in Vietnam, the conservative icon William F. Buckley participated in a discussion of the question at an American university. Regrettably, the students, overcome by moral fervor, were in no mood for a calm and reasoned exploration of the issue. As the event descended into chaos, Buckley had the presence of mind to tell the crowd:

“Reason may not save us, but the rejection of reason certainly will not save us.”

In that moment of political deterioration, so similar to our own, Buckley discerned that reason may be necessary but not of itself sufficient to restore respect and friendship to our public discourse.

MacLeod sees this as well. Accordingly, his book concludes with reflections on what biblical religion can contribute to the restoration of civil and reasonable discourse. In one sense, the religion of the Bible produces anxiety and hence resistance among contemporary westerners because it raises the stakes of life.

What we might view as a “wrong” from the standpoint of the natural law is viewed by the Bible as a “sin” — an offense against the all-good and all-powerful God. Indeed, this kind of thinking could make our moral disagreements more fraught than they are, if it convinces some to view others as sinners who are deserving of divine punishment.

As MacLeod notes, however, the Bible teaches instead that all are sinners. It thus encourages humility, which is a necessary precondition to listening respectfully to what others have to say about the issues that divide us. And by teaching that all are sinners, the Bible also teaches that all are in need of forgiveness and, therefore, that all ought to be willing to offer forgiveness. Needless to say, a shared disposition to forgive rather than to retaliate against those with whom we differ would go a long way toward healing the wounds in our body politic.

Americans, especially those among our nation’s intellectual and cultural elites, will regard a return to natural law and biblical religion as a step backward, a reversal of the “progress” of our civilisation. But, to return to the point from which we began, no one can deny that the current condition of our political debate indicates that we have lost our way.

And as C. S. Lewis once remarked, when you have lost your way, the most progressive thing you can do is to go back. Adam MacLeod understands this as well, and his book represents a worthy contribution to the intellectual retracing of our steps that we must pursue if we hope to restore reason and civility to our public discourse.

This article has been republished with permission from The Public Discourse.

Carson Holloway

Carson Holloway is a professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO), where he has taught since 2002. He received a B.A. In political science from the University of Northern Iowa...