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There are a handful of political/philosophical books that have caused me to re-orient the way I think about the world.
Three examples: Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom clarified the way I think about markets and the ever-expanding bureaucratic state; Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions created a framework for the way I think about the differences between the liberal and conservative minds; and C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a brilliant (and short) defense of objective truths, reaffirmed some of my most fondly held beliefs.
Another such book has come into my life, this one dramatically clarifying my thinking about ethics and the first principles of moral and political life. The author is the American moral and legal philosopher Hadley Arkes (pronounced with two syllables), longtime professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The book’s title is First Things: An Inquiry Into the First Principles of Morals and Justice (1986). It is a brilliant modern exposition of the “natural rights” philosophy.
Prof. Arkes is also the author of several other books (about which, more later) and is widely-known for the role he played in the passage of what is now known as the “Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act,”which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in November 2003. Arkes also is the founder and director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. (Check it out here.)
I hesitate to attempt to describe the central points of Arkes’s philosophy because I’m certain I will get it wrong. What follows, then, is an amateur’s effort to introduce some of the key concepts and conclusions from First Things.
There are several central premises in Arkes’s philosophy (this is not an exhaustive list).
First, there are natural and explicable objective truths that exist across cultures and time: things that are right or wrong for everyone (in First Things, Arkes devotes a chapter to the fallacy of cultural relativism). Some of these truths are purely “instrumental truths” that serve as the means to other ends (e.g., eating and drinking are necessary for human beings). But other truths, the higher truths, are of necessity “moral” in nature.
Second, our greatest leaders (Lincoln sits at the top of Arkes’s hierarchy of great men) speak in the language of morals. In a brilliant analysis, Arkes uses the Lincoln/Douglas debates to illustrate arguments based on moral principle (Lincoln’s) vs. those, like Douglas’s, that avoid the moral issue and thus fall into the abyss of relativism (e.g., Douglas’s ambivalence about the morality of slavery is purely relativistic). Lincoln, even while understanding the political problems of ending slavery, never temporized on its moral nature: slavery is and always has been a moral wrong. This distinction leads to one of Arkes’s most valuable insights: that morals (those objective truths about right and wrong that apply to everyone) and law should be linked. This idea has, sadly, been rejected by most modern jurists, who follow Justice Holmes’s conclusion that law and morals should have no connection to one another.
Third, the “language of morals must presuppose, of necessity, a being who is free to choose one course over another. It is only because that being is free that he can be held responsible for his acts, and that he may, with coherence, be blamed or praised.” Thus, Arkes emphatically rejects deterministic ideas about human behavior: he is an advocate for free will.
Finally, the concept of “justification” is central to moral determinations. This is the idea that we cannot blindly prohibit complete categories of human action without asking whether the act was justified. For example, most of us would accept the proposition that we should not cause physical harm to young children. But what about the man who pushes a two-year-old from the tracks as a train approaches but breaks her arm in doing so? His act, under those circumstances, passes the test of “justification.” A man may not walk next-door and shoot his neighbor, but he may cause harm to someone wrongfully assaulting him.
I will stop here, but will merely say there is so much more. Logically, rationally, and often humorously, Arkes fleshes out these, and many other ideas, and in so doing makes a case for the existence of universal truths and universal rights that exist outside of the sophistries of men.
One of his greatest contributions is to reject the silly idea that morals and law should have no connection. He says they should be directly linked and then tells us why. Thus, all legitimate law is ultimately based on an “ought” proposition, which—if we arrive at it rationally—will be based on the logic and language of morals.
In the final part of the book, Professor Arkes applies these philosophical principles to real-life issues, ranging from conscientious objection, intervention in international conflicts, the Vietnam War, income redistribution, privacy, and ultimately abortion.
Most of us know that the opinion in Roe v. Wade is derided by anti-abortion advocates (and by many people who support abortion) as intellectually sloppy and profoundly flawed. Arkes’s dissection of Justice Blackmun’s opinion is an evisceration of these flaws and a commentary on the state of modern American jurisprudence:
Anyone in America who writes these days about abortion must take account of the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade; and in estimating the “quality of mind” manifested by the Court, he would have to regard the profundity which stands near the beginning of Justice Blackmun’s opinion for the majority: “Pregnancy often comes more than once for the same woman, and . . . if man is to survive, [pregnancy] will always be with us.” One becomes aware instantly that one is in the presence of no ordinary mind. Justice Blackmun’s opinion reached, with this memorable passage, its philosophic acme. In the balance of the opinion—which is to say, in the parts that sought to settle the substantive rights and wrongs of the issue—Blackmun’s opinion achieved that distance from any rigorous philosophic and moral reasoning which has become typical of the Supreme Court in our own time.
Blackmun’s judgment rested on the conviction that the Court “need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at a consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” Within the space of five lines, Justice Blackmun managed to incorporate three or four fallacies, not the least of which was the assumption that the presence of disagreement (or the absence of “consensus”) indicates the absence of truth. (p. 360; emphasis added)
If you wish to read a thoughtful, rational, and morally coherent attack on America’s abortion-on-demand regime, Professor Arkes provides it. For an updated discussion of the issue, buy the paperback edition of Arkes’s Natural Rights and the Right to Choose (it was written in 2002, but the paperback came out after the passage of the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, so Professor Arkes was able to add a postscript to the paperback that told “the rest of the story”).
Arkes has also written two essential books on the Constitution and its interpretation: Beyond the Constitution (1990) and Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths: the Touchstone of the Natural Law (2010). It’s best to read them in order.
Finally, as you read First Things, go to Audible and buy two sets of lectures released by the Modern Scholar series: First Principles and Natural Law: The Foundations of Political Philosophy, (Parts I and 2). I found it very helpful to read portions of the book and then hear Arkes clarify and expand the same ideas.
Arkes is, in my opinion, essential reading for those of us on the right who know that we know that abortion-on-demand is wrong, that American jurisprudence is screwed-up, and that the modern world has lost its moral bearings, but need some help picking our way through the philosophical minefields. While Arkes is a religious man (Catholic with Jewish progenitors), his natural rights philosophy (which owes much to our greatest pagan, Aristotle) is not a stealth missionary operation. His philosophical ruminations require one to accept the idea that objective truth exists out there in the world. But his philosophy does not require you to be religious.
The greatest commendation I can give to Arkes is that he has helped me pull several strands of belief I’ve carried with me into a coherent braid of thought.
If that isn’t enough, consider two thoughts from Prof. Daniel Robinson, a friend and colleague of Arkes: “[H]e has traveled tens of thousands of miles, stood at countless lecterns, withstood hateful criticism, and persisted in instructing the thinking part of the world that the newly won ‘right to choose’ fails both as a right and a choice… Hearing Hadley on pivotal cases, I often form the picture of the judges of record reading Hadley’s analysis and saying to themselves, ‘My God, is that what we did?'”