Much gets said these days about liberty and freedom across the political spectrum. At the heart of talk about “inalienable rights” is usually the notion of freedom, and in the contemporary context, we find political systems often construed as protectors of personal rights. Yet when the foundation for the notion of justice and right is personal liberty, or “freedom,” problems arise.
Let me give an example. Freedoms can often be pitted against one another: the exercise of one person’s right to free speech can enable the defamation of another person, impinging upon their right to maintain an accurate depiction of their character and reputation. Similarly, my right to affordable food can impinge upon the right of another person to just working conditions in a distant land. Amidst these sorts of troubles, it remains unpopular to suggest that religious faith might offer some sort of a solution, and while this sentiment is deeply rooted in Western history, it is not necessarily productive.
With the rise of Protestantism, the medieval notion of authority came under threat. Long-held convictions regarding the subject of moral authority were questioned, leaving people wondering whether they owed allegiance to the pope, the prince, or neither. After over a century of bloody wars and conflict across Europe over the subject of religion, a treaty was struck and Christian doctrine was sidelined as a unifying factor for the political identities of the emerging European states, at the Peace of Westphalia. Leaders concluded that it would be best to sideline religion for the sake of social stability. Following a few generations after this legacy, the philosopher Immanuel Kant developed a new way of moral thinking that could respect the need for social order but leave faith conviction on the sidelines. The system he imagined has become one of the more enduring philosophical legacies for the succeeding centuries!
Fast-forward to the present day, and it has become clear that, though Kant offered a new sort of “objectivity,” there were losses as well. In order to grant coherence to the concept of duty in this newly secular modern world, objectivity became the new focal point of moral deliberation. And this objectivity comes at a cost, as Plato suggests: “If we are to have clear knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body” (Phaedo). Old theological notions such as justice, were replaced with new secular ones like “fairness” and “equality.” But this brave new world can be bleak at times, as the secular vision for the good life, which was to be achieved through science and engineering, has been frustrated in a wide variety of circumstances, including new wars, Nazi projects in human engineering, and fascist experiments in social engineering. To be fair, this new Scientific society has also brought us refrigeration and disposable toilet cleaners, but one is often left wondering… where is the idea of the “good life”?
In Kant’s vision, created particularities had to be left on the sidelines along with the creator. In privileging our rational faculties for the sake of objectively discerning our duties, Kant also left behind the role of our emotional lives and the unique contours and needs of the social life of neighbourhoods.
I would argue much is to be gained with a re-affirmation that at the true center of freedom lies the notion that we are created, contingent creatures. In the wake of the creeping failure of the modern orientations for the moral life – progress, science, engineering – in some cases people have finally given up on orienting our societies to any sort of purpose at all. And, without an orientation, we are prone to wander. As Augustine observed in another age of violent conflict, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you [God]” (inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te). I think it is no accident that Augustine puts this in the plural as well. Not only are our personal lives prone to disorientation when we have nothing by which to order them, so too is our common life prone to wander restlessly searching for an orientation which can guide our life together.