Great Man, Great Book: Hadley Arkes and First Things

 

Hadley-ArkesThere 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?'”

There are 22 comments.

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  1. EPG Inactive
    EPG
    @EPG

    Thank you for the suggestion.  You have made me want to read the book (which is one of the great services a book review can provide — both to author and to potential readers).  It’s on my list (maybe this summer).

    • #1
  2. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Very informative post, as always.  I recently read my first book by Arkes, The Return of George Sutherland, and will now make sure to get First Things.   And speaking of the Lincoln-Douglas debates have you read Crisis of the House Divided by Harry Jaffa?

    • #2
  3. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Mark:

    Very informative post, as always. I recently read my first book by Arkes, The Return of George Sutherland, and will now make sure to get First Things. And speaking of the Lincoln-Douglas debates have you read Crisis of the House Divided by Harry Jaffa?

     I have read the Jaffa book, and Arkes cites him several times.  Excellent, but you’ve got to pay attention.

    • #3
  4. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    tabula rasa:

    Mark:

    Very informative post, as always. I recently read my first book by Arkes, The Return of George Sutherland, and will now make sure to get First Things. And speaking of the Lincoln-Douglas debates have you read Crisis of the House Divided by Harry Jaffa?

    I have read the Jaffa book, and Arkes cites him several times. Excellent, but you’ve got to pay attention.

     Yes, I had to reread several sections!

    • #4
  5. 3rd angle projection Member
    3rd angle projection
    @

    Great recommendation. I have the book but have yet to crack it. Soon though. In the meantime, Arkes posts an occasional article at The Catholic Thing. This link should take you to his archives.

    • #5
  6. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    I would only add original Ricochet contributor (O! wherefore art thou?) Shelby Steele and his many works, most particularly White Guilt; pages 66-67 deserve an emphasis. This book was published in 2006 but reads as “futuristic” as did Kubrick’s 2001.

    • #6
  7. Robert Lux Inactive
    Robert Lux
    @RobertLux

    Thanks for this post, Tabula Rasa. I’ve long pleaded Ricochet to have Arkes on a guest contributor. Libertarian Ricochetti who, in their legal positivism (Exhibit A Richard Epstein, Salvatore Padula, etc.) can’t seem to comprehend that the Founders’ argument — at a Constitutional, not just state or local level — for individuality, rights and liberty is rooted in natural law, would meet more than their match.

    My favorite, succinct crystallization of this is Hamilton’s letter denouncing Hobbes: in fine, Hamilton denied there is no standard higher than the generation of power by which to rank human beings. Hobbesianism leads, ultimately, however unwittingly, to might makes right.

    To elaborate a bit further: according to the Founders, the individual in the state of nature — following Locke’s rhetoric, rather than Hobbes’ — still does not have a right to do a wrong.  (Only just now reading Salvatore’s dialogue with Jennifer Thiem from this past December, this is pith of the problem: Sal thinks natural rights inhering only in individuals somehow leaves History open to whatever mercurial instantiations of the family. From the Founders’ p.o.v, this is nihilistic).  
     
    Or they should commune with the books you’ve so nicely outlined.

    • #7
  8. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Robert Lux:
    I’ve long pleaded Ricochet to have Arkes on a guest contributor. Libertarian Ricochetti who, in their legal positivism . . . can’t seem to comprehend that the Founders’ argument — at a Constitutional, not just state or local level — for individuality, rights and liberty is rooted in natural law, would meet more than their match.

    My favorite, succinct crystallization of this is Hamilton’s letter denouncing Hobbes: in fine, Hamilton denied there is no standard higher than the generation of power by which to rank human beings. Hobbesianism leads, ultimately, however unwittingly, to might makes right.

    Tabula Rasa:

    The chapter in First Things on Hobbes is profoundly illuminating. 

    Arkes would be great on the podcast.  He’s not a table-pounder, but–if you listen to his lectures–you learn that he is a great advocate.  Everything he says means something and is the product of searching reflection.

    He is a living rebuke to the idea that conservatives are dumb.  He is passionate about his beliefs, but his arguments are the epitome of reason.  He’s one of our side’s greatest minds–we’d all be better for having spent some time reading him.

    • #8
  9. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    One more thing I failed to mention:  Professor Arkes is the founder and director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding.

    Professor Arkes intends to use the Institute as a major vehicle for communicating about natural rights philosophy.

    This is a group that deserves more attention from conservatives who care about ideas.

    • #9
  10. Robert Lux Inactive
    Robert Lux
    @RobertLux

    tabula rasa:

    One more thing I failed to mention: Professor Arkes is the founder and director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding.

    Professor Arkes intends to use the Institute as a major vehicle for communicating about natural rights philosophy.

    This is a group that deserves more attention from conservatives who care about ideas.

    Indeed- Arkes’ spearheading this is a crucial event.  

    I’ll mention a good, quick overview of this whole matter is Charles Kesler’s video interview with John Eastman about lawyers, law schools and the natural law- i.e., how most lawyers are actually ill-served at most, particularly at elite, law schools when it comes to Con Law. Two short YouTube videos: The Disappearing Constitution: What Law School Should Teach and Natural Law & the Conservatives on the Court

    • #10
  11. Reckless Endangerment Inactive
    Reckless Endangerment
    @RecklessEndangerment

    Robert, 

    Prof. Arkes has an upcoming review in the New Criterion of Prof. Epstein’s Classical Liberal Constitution that gets to the root of just what you are saying is lacking in the discourse between the libertarian and conservative legal minds. I, myself, see the  problem similarly. In the domain of freedom on matters without deep moral import (such as choosing vanilla or chocolate), we would not judge someone’s decisions based off of an objective standard that would hold true in all places in all times. But say the decision was between having someone work for you for wages or work for you in bondage. That decision runs contrary to our notions of what is right and wrong because under slavery, you’ve removed from the enslaved man the humanity that would make him equal under law to his owner.  Slavery is wrong in all places at all times, EVEN IF ONE CONSENTS TO BE A SLAVE, because there is never a right to do a wrong.  Just because we cannot reach a broad consensus on what the truth is does not mean that universal truths do not exist.

    • #11
  12. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    It was worth saying twice:  Double post. Sorry

    • #12
  13. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Let me add one more thought.   I just re-listened to the last two lectures in Professor Arkes’s Modern Scholar series:  First Principles and Natural Law: The Foundations of Political Philosophy, (Parts I and 2).

    They are superb, and the last half of the last lecture is deeply moving.  Dr. Arkes does the best analysis and refutation of the thinking underlying Roe v. Wade that I’ve ever read or heard.  Wherever you reside on the abortion issue, you owe yourself the opportunity to hear Dr. Arkes case against the horror the Supreme Court unleashed upon us in 1973.

    • #13
  14. user_442638 Inactive
    user_442638
    @JohnPresnall

    This is a fine post which succinctly summarizes some of Arkes major themes. Thought I’d link this 2011 lecture Arkes gave to the James Madison program where he speaks of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act.

    • #14
  15. Milt Rosenberg Contributor
    Milt Rosenberg
    @MiltRosenberg

    Thank you Tabula for a well-deserved appreciation of Hadley Arkes. My hour-long interview with him is available here on Ricochet. Just go to the full roster of podcasts on the Milt Rosenberg Show  and scroll down to find and hear it.

    • #15
  16. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Milt Rosenberg:

    Thank you Tabula for a well-deserved appreciation of Hadley Arkes. My hour-long interview with him is available here on Ricochet. Just go to the full roster of podcasts on the Milt Rosenberg Show and scroll down to find and hear it.

     Milt:  Thanks for the comment.  I’ll listen to the podcast.  Have him back. 

    • #16
  17. Wes046 Member
    Wes046
    @Wes046

    Just Started Conflict of Visions. Looking forward to First Things. 
    I’ve been trying to get a “Goodyear Blimp” view of the “Other Side”. 
    Prager Horowitz & Hoffer [Best Hope, Point in Time, True Believer] have been the start.
    Much political commentary has me as an ant walking across a persian rug. I enjoy any work which lifts me off the surface and reveals  Pattern.
    Thanks for the recommendation.
    -wbajr tbc

    • #17
  18. user_96427 Contributor
    user_96427
    @tommeyer

    tabula rasa: irst, 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.

    My familiarity with Professor Arkes is limited to Milt Rosenberg’s interview with him a while back, but he struck me as the kind of natural-law advocate who conflates arguing for the existence of natural law with arguing that specific propositions are subject to it and that his own opinion on them is correct.  For example, Arkes seemed to argue that because natural law exists, and that he can make an argument against homosexuality citing natural law, that homosexuality must, therefore, be immoral according to natural law.

    It reminded me of this:

    20100311

    • #18
  19. Reckless Endangerment Inactive
    Reckless Endangerment
    @RecklessEndangerment

    Tom, 

    You seem to hold that the natural law has the trappings of a religious sect. The natural law, as Prof. Arkes expounds upon it, is more of a lens through which to view the world using the testing of principled reasons within context. It is a way of testing whether or not the positive law, the law man posits or puts down himself, has any weight behind it other than consensus or exertion of the strong will against the weak. Is there a logic behind the positive law? Not necessarily. Arkes reminds of Burlamaqui’s insight,  “the authority of the Lawgiver may provide the external incentive to obey the law. But that external incentive is given a further, internal support when the law is in accord with the laws of reason.” No appeals to divine revelation here.

    • #19
  20. user_96427 Contributor
    user_96427
    @tommeyer

    Reckless Endangerment: You seem to hold that the natural law has the trappings of a religious sect.

    No, I hold that natural law is generally not as easy to derive as its proponents often make it out to be, especially as you get specific.  Again, I cite Arkes’s arguments regarding homosexuality.  It’s a long way from “objective morality exists” to “X an example of objective morality, properly derived.”

    • #20
  21. Reckless Endangerment Inactive
    Reckless Endangerment
    @RecklessEndangerment

    I am glad that we are fleshing out the contours of where we can prudently apply principled reasoning in accordance with the natural law and where the positivism is better suited. One of Prof. Arkes’s best examinations of this phenomenon is in his book “Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths”  when he discusses the case involving Bob Jones University and its prohibition on interracial dating. The natural law would of course tell us that it is unjustified to discriminate on characteristics that people are powerless to affect–but also we know in the name of prudence, not everything immoral should be made illegal. In private choices made by private persons in a thoroughly private entity on matters of sex and intimacy not regulated by law, as in the Bob Jones case, the long arm of the law isn’t feasible or warranted. Just as Prof. Arkes’s remarks in Milt’s podcast don’t judge the homosexual lifestyle–that’s a private choice between private individuals. He comments on SSM, a public manifestation of that lifestyle, a more appropriate topic for discussion. Public policy is best informed by natural law reasoning, but also prudence and statecraft.

    • #21
  22. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    This does seem interesting.  Thank you for this.  His Wikipedia entry says that he’s also an editor First Things Magazine, and the online limited version is here.

    By the way, in addition to those three works you mention as “re-orienting” for me I would add Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

    • #22

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