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Public Discourse and the Need for Reason, Good Government, and Moral Realism

The texts I reflect on illuminate core themes of Public Discourse’s work: cultivating a proper understanding of reason, appreciating the indispensability of moral formation, and framing law around eternal moral truths. I was deeply honored and delighted when R. J. Snell and the current editorial team invited me to join them as a contributing editor, and I look forward to more conversations to come.

Public Discourse is pleased to welcome Micah Watson, Paul B. Henry Chair in Christianity and Politics, and Director of the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics program at Calvin University, as a Contributing Editor. We asked him to write a piece reflecting on how Public Discourse can continue to help shape our political community, public debate, and moral formation.

I have been a fan, reader, and occasional contributor to Public Discourse since Ryan Anderson introduced it in October of 2008, and I’ve been immeasurably blessed to teach gifted young high school men for the Witherspoon Institute’s Moral Life and the Classical Tradition seminar since the summer of 2010. I was thus deeply honored and delighted when R. J. Snell and the current editorial team invited me to join them as a contributing editor.

Aided by three passages from important texts about American culture and politics, in what follows I ruminate informally on some animating themes of our discourse and our public life, and why I think Public Discourse plays such a crucial role in advancing a vision of, and conversations about, human flourishing and the common good.

Reason, Rightly Understood

One reason I am bullish about Public Discourse is its commitment to providing a venue in which we can reason with one another, where we can be honest about the stubborn realities of passions and mere instinct in an imperfect world, without surrendering entirely to them. In these pages we witness men and women of various positions and dispositions applying reason, and appealing to reason, treating readers and interlocutors alike as rational beings worthy of engagement and respect. This, then, is my first rumination about the importance of Public Discourse in our current age. Here is an approach to reasoning well together about our convictions and their application to our shared life. Here is where we can practice the sort of thinking and reasoning together that makes flourishing public life possible.

I’m reminded of the remarkably prescient manner in which Alexander Hamilton opened up Federalist 1:

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

I take Hamilton’s challenge here to be a live one. We too must decide whether we are capable of establishing, or maintaining, good government from reflection and choice. The point here isn’t that rational judgment is infallible or that human beings will always arrive at the right, good, and noble through the unfettered use of reason. It’s a question of whether it is possible for human beings to reason together, to reflect and choose, about how we can live well together. If it is not possible, if all talk about reason, reflection, and choice is merely a mask for an underlying will to privilege and power, then the various factions warned about elsewhere in the Federalist papers can only compete with each other in a zero-sum game. Our prospects for a more perfect union would be bleak indeed.

 

Yet we need not think that reason is purely instrumental. We can reject the teaching of Thomas Hobbes that “the thoughts are to the desires, as scouts and spies, to range abroad, and find the way to the things desired,” as well as his pupil David Hume’s claim that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” We can do so because we can see for ourselves the fruits of careful reasoning in great works of our history. The intrinsic value of reason rightly understood is on full display in the works of figures like Abraham Lincoln in his Cooper Union address and Martin Luther King with his magnificently reason-based arguments in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Public Discourse aims to continue illustrating to readers that the power of reason still lives on even in contentious, fragmented times like ours.

Virtue, Reason, and Good Government

But, of course, reason is necessary but not sufficient. My second passage comes from a sermon by the eponym of the Witherspoon Institute, the Scottish preacher and sixth president of Princeton University John Witherspoon. Witherspoon delivered what became his most famous sermon, “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men” about a month before he joined the Continental Congress in the summer of 1776. Near his hortatory conclusion he delivers these lines:

Nothing is more certain than that a general profligacy and corruption of manners make a people ripe for destruction. A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue. On the other hand, when the manners of a nation are pure, when true religion and internal principles maintain their vigour, the attempts of the most powerful enemies to oppress them are commonly baffled and disappointed. This will be found equally certain, whether we consider the great principles of God’s moral government, or the operation and influence of natural causes.

Reason and morality go together, as reason is much more than the mere calculation that Hobbes and Hume describe. Knowing the right thing to do without a virtuous disposition is worthless, if not dangerous. Witherspoon makes a stark claim here about the necessity of moral character for the success of a free country. The alternative to a virtuous citizenry will eventually be slavery. The irony of Witherspoon’s claim and his own unfortunate involvement with the peculiar institution is borne out in early Americans’ toleration of slavery as a necessary evil that led later generations to embrace slavery as a positive good.

Witherspoon reminds us that the importance of any political system depends on the undergirding moral character of the people who authorize it. Rotten character eventually rots through the whole system. If that’s the case, then a flourishing society will rest on far more than a “good form of government”—even though governmental encouragement of virtue and discouragement of vice is legitimate.

 

In addition to a good form of government, a flourishing society also needs a healthy moral ecosystem, a respect for the human person, strong families, a robust education for future citizens who will provide the consent of the governed, and an economy that fosters opportunities for material well-being without reducing human goods to mere materialism. Those familiar with the Dutch polymath and theologian Abraham Kuyper may be forgiven for seeing echoes of his notion of sphere sovereignty here, and followers of Public Discourse will recognize the five pillars that compose the framework for both a healthy society and the publishing philosophy of this outlet. Whether one’s language is spheres or pillars, a sound approach to human flourishing and the public good recognizes the variegated but interconnected nature of that good.

Faith and Reason

Witherspoon’s sermon pertains to the mission of Public Discourse in one other important way. Witherspoon backs up his claim that political success depends on the vigor of morality and manners by appealing to both God’s great principles and the “operation and influence of natural causes.” This is to say that Witherspoon, as a good Calvinist should, appeals both to divine revelation and the natural law. He later says in the same sermon that he does not “mean to recommend a furious and angry zeal for the circumstantials of religion, or the contentions of one sect with another about their peculiar distinctions.” Rather, he contends, “I do not wish you to oppose any body’s religion, but every body’s wickedness,” and that he often feels “more joined in spirit to a true holy person of a different denomination, than to an irregular liver of his own.”

I cannot think of a better instantiation of the spirit Witherspoon here describes than that cultivated over the years by the editorial team and authors of Public Discourse. Here you find authors from various differing faiths and some professing no faith at all, but nevertheless joined in a common project of perceiving and promoting the good for human beings, all without papering over the significant differences that remain. Witherspoon insisted in this sermon, of course, that a proper understanding of morality includes our duties to promote the knowledge and reverence of God, as well as obedience to his laws, which we can know through revelation as well as through “natural causes.” I think he was right, and find it providential that this very staunch Presbyterian Scot in 1776 expresses something close to what a Polish pontiff would write in 1998: “Faith and Reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth. . . .”

Moral Realism

There is one more truth I’d like to ponder from one final fragment, which is the crucial importance of moral realism. The concept of moral realism combines the emphasis on reason from the Hamilton quotation and Witherspoon’s insistence on moral character in his sermon. Moral realism, in contrast with legal positivism and other nihilistic “isms,” holds that there is a moral reality woven into the fabric of the cosmos. We can discover what is true about right and wrong, act accordingly, and frame our laws and policies to reflect those truths.

 

We find one particularly noteworthy example of moral realism in Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 meditative fragment drawing on Proverbs 25:11, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Lincoln is considering the important role that the Constitution and the Union have played in the success of the United States thus far. As important as both are, they are not the key to American prosperity. That key, Lincoln insists, is the principle of “liberty for all” expressed in the Declaration:

The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.

I find this justly famous line of Lincoln’s to be one of the most profound, if brief, commentaries on the American political experiment. There is more to the project of living well together than governmental scaffolding, even scaffolding as magnificent as the Constitution (particularly after some crucial amendments). Lincoln reminds us of the importance of moral ends and prudential means, and how the apple of gold that animates American constitutionalism comprises the true principles expressed in those familiar words that all men, human beings as such, are created equal and endowed with rights by a Creator. Only by reminding ourselves of those first truths can we rightly appreciate the many strengths and the remarkable resilience of our important but ultimately secondary constitutional tradition.

The texts I’ve reflected on above illuminate core themes of Public Discourse’s work: cultivating a proper understanding of reason, appreciating the indispensability of moral formation, and framing law around eternal moral truths. There are many good outlets publishing on the American constitutional tradition, and Public Discourse does more than hold its own when it comes to constitutional commentary and jurisprudential reasoning. There are also many fine outlets that address the philosophy behind human flourishing and the natural and divine goods that contribute to it. But I think Public Discourse is without equal when it comes to pursuing the truth about these human goods, understanding the interdependence of reason and virtue, fostering conversation that treats people with reasoned respect, and applying the truths woven into the cosmos to changing circumstances. I’m grateful to be a part of it and look forward to more conversations to come.

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