On Truth and Liberty in Political Democracies

July 3, 2015

One of the reasons we need liberal societies is because one person’s truth is not another’s, and one religion’s view of the world is not another’s. Were we all to agree on what truth is, then we would have a much better chance of agreeing on how to organize life in society. Even when religions agree that there is a God, they do not all agree on whether Jesus was a man or the Son of God, whether the pope is the best source of God’s wisdom, or what God wants in particular. And even varieties of Christianity that believe Jesus was Christ were unable to agree on how people should live after the Reformation and still disagree today on what Christ wants of us. The political to and fro between Catholics and Protestants after the Reformation, and the religiously inspired wars that followed, were symptoms of the inability of those in the same religion to agree on how life should be lived or what morals and religious practices should govern civil life. This problem is all the more diffi cult when more than one religion is represented in a commonwealth.

The inability of religions to come to common truths is part of the background to the birth of liberal societies. There was a growing recognition that somehow we had to live together even when we couldn’t agree on the fundamental truths, at least with respect to religion and God. The differences of faith would be set aside for the afterlife and God (if there was one), and this life would focus on practical approaches to living together without killing one another.

The natural rights thinkers believed and hoped that an appeal to reason could produce agreement on key moral commitments in a liberal society that were not dependent on the traditional revelation from God. Reason was thought to transcend religious differences and provide a means by which all people, regardless of religion, culture, and historical epoch, could reach agreement on basic human morality. The appeal to natural rights was originally an attempt to fi nd a truth that all could agree on regardless of their religion, though some still argued Christianity was the most reasonable religion of all. The early moderns had a belief—an erroneous one—that all reasonable men would arrive at the same reasonable conclusions through the light of reason. (Women were not originally thought to be as reasonable as men.) The conclusions from reason were thought to result in a core set of moral insights that could guide people in how to live with one another, regardless of their differences in religion.

What we have found instead, in this book and from others who have earlier passed down this same road, is that reason fails to produce unanimity on all the core substantive moral commitments that should underlie a liberal society. While the language of rights held promise as a foundation for a universal set of commitments and is still a powerful language for talking about what we care most deeply about, it turns out in fact that there is no substantive agreement on what those rights should mean, even if we are able to agree on what those rights are.

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