SPidge Tales

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Liberty and Freedom

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe and the mystery of human life.” Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, 1992.

“You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of [the fruit of the tree] your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.” Satan, Genesis 3:4-5 (New American Bible translation)

A major focal point of the culture wars is the role played by the courts. Divisive issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, that the Constitution is either ambiguous about or silent on, often end up in a stalemate in the public eye and in the legislative realm. They end up being “decided” and “settled” through the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. And, I use the quotation marks because those two words need Chris Farley’s “Matt Foley ‘Van-Down-by-the-River’ Motivational Speaker” emphasis, because we all know nothing is settled. The hot button issues are as divisive now as they were when courts ruled upon them (and, in the gay marriage issue, will stay divisive after the courts rule); with the same pro and con arguments trotted out that we have heard endlessly. The only thing that opposing sides can agree on is which cases are monumental. Everyone agrees that Griswold V. Connecticut, Roe V. Wade, Stenberg V. Carhart, and Lawrence V. Texas were significant. However, the case that I believe is overlooked is 1992’s Planned Parenthood V. Casey.

Planned Parenthood V. Casey is seen by liberals as, though chipping away a little bit at Roe V. Wade, nonetheless upholding that court precedent and ultimately not that significant a decision. Casey is seen by conservatives as, though recognizing some rights for the unborn, sadly continuing the precedent of allowing their intentional destruction. In one sense, both sides are right. Casey did not really change anything substantially. However, in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion writing for the majority to uphold the basic claims of Roe V. Wade, he unloaded the giant elephant into the room: At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe and the mystery of human life.

Kennedy was the “wild card” in the decision. The vote ended up being a narrow 5-4 decision. No one knew how Kennedy would decide until he gave the decisive vote to the pro-Roe side. Whether this statement on liberty is central to his argument, or ancillary, I do not know. But, the implications of the statement are far reaching.

What is liberty? What is the purpose of freedom? Why are we here? What is the “good life”? What does it mean to live a good life?

For the ancients, it was taken for granted that there is objective reality, and there is a right way to live one’s life. Different cultures may have differed on what that objective reality is, some saying it is many gods, some one God, some an animated nature, but all agreed that there is an objective order to the world. It is the task of humans to conform themselves to the way things are. Unlike modernity, the existential, metaphysical, and ethical could not be separated. They are indelibly linked.

To steal a metaphor used by Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft (and what I have said above in the preceding paragraph comes from him, which in turn probably comes from the likes of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis), if our lives were sailboats out at sea, there would be three questions to ask: How do I keep my boat from crashing into other boats? (Social Ethics) How do I keep my boat afloat? (Personal Ethics) And, the most important question of all, what is my boat doing at sea in the first place? (the question of the Summun Bonum, the greatest good or purpose in life) Since the Enlightenment, the issues dealt with are keeping boats from colliding and, occasionally, keeping one’s own boat afloat. The question of why the boat is at sail in the first place is seen by modernity as either unanswerable or just a personal question that each person must find a reason for himself.

Unlike the ancients, the “Enlightenment” calls for us not to conform ourselves to objective reality, but to conform objective reality to our own personal likes and dislikes. Instead of finding meaning that is present, we are told to decide for ourselves what meaning we want, or, further, to create our own meaning.

Our American form of government, based on the Constitution, has always been an uneasy, ambiguous, amalgamation of the ancient and modern worldview. The Founding Fathers borrowed language of human rights, and self governance, from Enlightenment thinkers like Locke. Yet, they considered these rights, such as rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as being given by a Creator.

Anthony Kennedy took a dangerous turn with the wording of his majority opinion in the Casey case. Is liberty really the right to determine the meaning of our own existence, of the meaning of human life and the universe? Some humility is called for here. We need God to put us in our place, like he did with Job. Who are you to think you have a right to decide these things? I am the one who created you. We have only been on this planet for a fraction of the time earth has been here. 100,000 years out of 5 billion is less than 1/10 of 1%. Earth and the solar system are only one tiny part of the vast universe. And, suddenly, we have the authority to grant meaning to existence?

Liberty is emphatically NOT the right to decide for ourselves whatever the hell we want to make of ourselves or what the meaning is of existence. Liberty is the right to live free from tyranny, and the right to pursue those goods that through our God-given conscience we can recognize as being worthy of our pursuit. To claim for each person the right to decide for himself the meaning and purpose of life is to imply that there is no ultimate meaning and purpose in life. For, if there is ultimate meaning and purpose, there is no need or reason to have to create our own. And, without ultimate meaning and purpose outside of ourselves, there is no basis to guarantee or offer liberties to people other than that we desire to. Seeing that desire can easily change, the basis on which liberty is founded is tenuous at best without ultimate meaning beyond our own interpretations.

Anthony Kennedy’s version of freedom is not true freedom. It is the offer of the devil in the Garden to the man and woman. Be your own gods. Be your own masters. It is the fool’s gold of Gorgias and the other Sophists, of Pontius Pilate (what is truth?), of Descartes, Nietzsche, Sartre, Hitler, and Stalin. True freedom and liberty, far from being constrained by an outside concept of the good, only really matter if there really are good and bad, right and wrong, choices to be made.


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