One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in my life was to avoid speaking about things about which you know little to nothing. It was a now-deceased, old-style Jesuit who told me this. He also warned me that expertise in one area doesn’t translate into an authority to speak about everything else.
I couldn’t help recalling this counsel recently when reading in the American Jesuits’ flagship magazine, America, an article entitled “A Call to Virtue” by the distinguished economist Jeffery Sachs. Here Professor Sachs argued that another old-style Jesuit—Pope Francis—will be coming to an America uninterested in virtue, mired in consumerism, and fast becoming a hyper-individualistic society obsessed with rights.
Turning on the television soon confirms there’s some truth in Sachs’ analysis. Witness the relentless advertising that tells you that you’re not fully human unless you have the very latest whatever. Yet materialism and consumerism are just as widespread in, for instance, social-democratic Western Europe, klepocratic Russia, Communist China, and crony corporatist Latin America. Hence, it can hardly be described as a particularly American problem.
As for rights talk, Mary Ann Glendon pointed out back in 1991 this is certainly a problem in America. Observe how progressivist Americans commonly use the language of “reproductive rights” (which Sachs, incidentally, supports) as a euphemism for legalizing the at-will termination of what reason and science tell us are unborn human beings.
Again, however, “rights-talk” is hardly a peculiarly American problem. One nanosecond spent inside the European Parliament or the United Nations General Assembly soon cures you of that illusion. That’s partly because progressivists, whatever their nationality, have done their level best to detach rights from any substantive account of natural law. Rights have subsequently been left to be identified not by natural reason but what by transient majorities or elites determined to shut down reasoned discussion just happen to want to label as a “right.”
Disdain for Virtue Wasn’t Part of the American Founding
Careful readers of Sachs’ article, however, will soon notice his inference that the type of radical individualism and an associated disdain for virtue which he portrays as endemic in America owes something to the American Founding. At the beginning of the piece, Sachs writes that when Francis comes to America to bring the message of the Gospel
he will face a society in thrall to a different idea—that of the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The urgent core of Francis’ message, which is the message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, challenges this American idea by proclaiming that the path to happiness lies not solely or mainly through the defense of rights but through the exercise of virtues, most notably justice and charity.
Sachs’ skepticism of aspects of the American experiment also emerges when he argues, “By throwing off the yoke of King George III, by unleashing the individual pursuit of happiness, early Americans believed they would achieve that happiness. Most important, they believed that they would find happiness as individuals, each endowed by the creator with individual rights.” Sachs goes on to suggest that America “is a society that has been wounded, even gravely, by its flawed and limited vision of humanity.”
The problem with Sachs’ argument is that anyone—anyone—who’s studied the American Founding in any significant depth knows that the language of virtue and natural law permeated the writings and events leading up to the American Revolution and its aftermath. Take, for example, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton.
Preserving Freedom Requires Virtue
As a young man, Carroll’s father—Charles Carroll of Annapolis—admonished him to remember that “[t]he rest of your Life will be a continued sense of ease and satisfaction, if you keep invariably in the Paths of Truth of Virtue.” Freedom, happiness, and virtue were thus, to Carroll senior’s mind, inseparable. Carroll of Carrollton himself understood that freedom and virtue went hand in hand. Writing to his only son, Charles Carroll of Homewood, a dissolute wife-beating alcoholic, not long before Easter in 1821, Carroll of Carrollton quoted Psalm 14.1 and told him:
‘The impious has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.”’ He would willing[ly] believe there is no God; his passions, the corruption of his heart would feign persuad[e] him there is not; the strings of conscience betray the emptiness of the delusion . . . [T]he heavens proclaim the existence of God and unperverted reason teaches that He must love virtue and hate vice, and reward the one and punish the other.
Carroll and many other Founders didn’t doubt that a virtuous citizenry was a prerequisite to the stability of a free republic. Commenting on the proposed federal Constitution, Carroll warned that once virtue ceases to prevail either as a reality or ideal in free societies, the laws would become “dead letters, their spirit and tendency being inconsistent with the general habits and disposition of such a People.”
Moreover, Carroll added, the potential for despotism becomes real in such circumstances. “Such,” he argued, “has been the destiny of every People, once free, but who knew not how to enjoy the blessings of freedom; who, suffering their liberty to become licentiousness . . . passed laws subversive of every principle of law and justice to glut their resentments and avarice.”
What Pope Francis’s Predecessors Knew about America
The irony is that the two popes preceding Francis well understood that it’s at best an over-simplification to claim that the American Founding was influenced by an atomistic individualism that somehow voided the claims of natural law and the call to virtue. As Saint John Paul II said in an address to the American ambassador to the Holy See in 1997:
The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain ‘self-evident’ truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by ‘nature’s God.’ Thus they meant to bring into being, not just an independent territory, but a great experiment in what George Washington called ‘ordered liberty:’ an experiment in which men and women would enjoy equality of rights and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness and in service to the common good.
John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, pointed out that millions of Americans in the past and present have grasped that rights go hand in hand with virtue and our responsibilities to our fellow man. Speaking at the White House in 2008, he stated:
Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience—almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. . . . the late Pope John Paul II . . . reminded us that history shows, time and again, that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation”, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul. Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent “indispensable supports” of political prosperity.
What’s even more ironic—and goes unmentioned by Sachs—is that his apparently hyper-individualistic selfish Americans are by far the most generous people in the world when it comes to freely giving their resources to those in need, at home and abroad. Nor does Sachs seem aware that Americans who do so are overwhelmingly politically conservative and religiously observant. For all their talk about caring for others, liberals and skeptics suffer, apparently, from serious generosity deficits.
The American Founding was not perfect. It had its faults, most obviously the persistence of slavery. But no political system can or ever will be perfect. In any event, whatever its weaknesses, the American experiment’s philosophical underpinnings and the everyday lives lived by ordinary Americans surely deserve more nuanced treatment from a scholar who really should know better.