Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of Public Discourse. Our founding editor, Ryan Anderson, published our first essay on October 13, 2008. Over the next week, we’ll celebrate this milestone with some of the best essays of these years, one from each of our five pillars: the Human Person, Sexuality and Family, Politics and Law, Education and Culture, and Business and Economics.
In this inaugural essay, Ryan noted what makes us distinct—and while our publication schedule has grown from two essays a week and the staff has changed, our commitments remain: (1) we’re not interested in quick reactions but in serious moral reasoning; (2) we draw on scholars from the academy but without arcane technicalities or obscure jargon; and (3) we don’t shy away from controversial issues, “convinced that careful reasoning can settle many of the challenges before us.” In these fifteen years, we’ve published articles on the moral, cultural, religious, and political issues of our time, including the most controversial and sensitive; but we have done so in a manner of which we can be proud, respecting the intellect and personhood of our readers, interlocutors, and intellectual contestants.
Our fundamental commitment, as I would phrase it, is respect for the human person. A person, as defined by Boethius and Aquinas, is an individual substance of a rational nature. Since persons are rational beings, we are obliged to engage in the effort of persuasion without thwarting rationality. Coercion overlooks personhood. So, too, do lying, trickery, and duplicity. But, as is so often forgotten, persuasion merely through emotion or passion is also morally illicit. Our commitment is to give our readers reasons, never descending into sensationalism, outrage, or sentimentalism. We’re attempting, as best we can, to engage the intellect, and to move ourselves and our readers to understanding and sober and deliberative judgment. It’s easy to appeal to curiosity or the passions, but delivering morally and intellectually serious content is more challenging. We are, and have always been, up to the task.
We’ve been criticized from time to time for being “too proper,” as if we are governed by some defunct Victorian code of the stiff upper lip as the world burns around us. Such claims fundamentally misunderstand our project. We are not calm and polite because we are ignorant of the state of the world; we simply refuse to violate a moral truth admitting of no exceptions: persons are never to be treated as merely means to an end, and we are committed to treating all persons, including those we argue with, as persons.
As Ryan articulated fifteen years ago, “We contend that at the heart of our public debates are ethical questions—questions about good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust”—and that “we rely on neither revelation, emotivism, nor majoritarianism.” Instead, we tackle these issues “rationally through critical reflection on man’s nature, his personal and communal flourishing, and the ethical principles that should guide his conduct.” That is, we believe Public Discourse is a moral enterprise, one requiring vigilance, discipline, and charity as we seek to explain, defend, and cherish the good of persons. Ours is not a political platform, not talking points for some faction; ours is a moral endeavor dedicated to the well-being, happiness, and flourishing of the human person. Each and every human person.
Please don’t mistake our commitments. We are not simply minding decorum as if at cotillion. To some people, the substance of our views might appear to lack decorum. Our project isn’t to avoid, dodge, or smooth over. Our commitments to marriage as traditionally (and truly) understood, to sexual morality, to the dignity of life from natural conception to natural death, to the biological reality of sex, to the family, to the natural law, to constitutionalism, to subsidiarity, to the duties and thus rights of parents, to the freedom and responsibility of the person against statism and irrational individualism—these are all conversations of the highest order, necessary conversations, all of which follow from our reverence and respect for the person, for freedom. Yes, we have argued against abortion, against gender ideology, against euthanasia, but always—always—because such things are gravely immoral—wicked—in their disregard and betrayal of the person. We are always arguing for the human person, for the freedom, dignity, agency, well-being, and happiness of people.
A besetting defect of our age is sentimentalism, dangerous and awful. Our culture is awash—drowning—in sentimentalism. The West has chosen to face evil with soft-hearted and soft-headed emotional responses. Soft-heartedness might be a virtue, but soft-headedness is not. It is not just a vice, but vicious. In the name of a false kindness, a supposed niceness, an ersatz acceptance, many in our culture would smile in apparent benevolence as persons are degraded, ruined, and rendered unhappy. Virtue is not some prim propriety for social norms—it constitutes human fullness, perfection, flourishing, and joy. Soft-headedness has no place in a life of moral seriousness.
We in the West have enjoyed unprecedented wealth, health, and comfort. In consequence, many have forgotten how unusual this is in the grand scope of history. Thomas Hobbes was wrong about most things, but he wasn’t wrong to note the real possibility for life to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Our civilization and culture are remarkable accomplishments, and we ought to have gratitude for their existence. Gratitude is quite opposed to entitlement or to a naiveté that assumes that prosperity, comfort, peace, and order are the natural direction of things, what we can simply expect. It’s not so. Civilization and culture are achievements—remarkable achievements—maintained only with effort and vigilance, and they can be lost, quickly. Decadence, indifference, and decline are real possibilities. We know this to be true since we are living it.
So, too, is evil possible. Why God allows evil I do not presume to know, but evil is allowed. An age of comfort and decadence thinks evil is impossible, a feature of the past, something we have the power to eradicate. This is not true. In the last week, we have been reminded, starkly and horrifyingly, of evil. Israel, that brave and noble bastion of Western civilization—a remarkable marriage of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome—has suffered cruelly at the hands of barbarism, savagery, and hate. Children murdered and decapitated, the dead defiled, women tortured in unspeakable ways—women, whom all sane people honor for their generosity in giving life—families destroyed, and all norms of justice wantonly desecrated.
Evil was not vanquished in 1948, 1968, or 1988—only the foolish and culpably naive could think so. Every new generation brings into existence potential barbarians needing education, guidance, what Plato calls “gentling.” The self-satisfied West has forgotten history, forgotten reality itself, in its wanton disregard for law, order, religion, and education, and in its obsessions with sex and liberation. As a result, the West finds itself disappearing, lacking the will to live, while shocked to discover barbarism still exists in the world. And, as is evident in the faltering attempts of the media, our elites are virtually bereft of moral categories; they are intellectually and morally decrepit, or maybe adolescent is a better term.
Soft-headedness is a moral failure. There is no excuse for it. We have a duty to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible—a challenging personal and cultural achievement. We are obligated to think, to reflect, to contemplate, to inquire, to understand. Yes. Also, we are obligated to treat other humans as equally capable and equally obligated to think, reflect, contemplate, inquire, and understand. It is not only an act of justice but an act of charity to view another person as, like oneself, committed to the truth of things and to sobriety of judgment and action.
That is the task of Public Discourse. We know there is evil in the world. We are certain that many of our cultural tendencies, so often praised in the name of kindness, are not at all kind but rather destructive of the person, but we cherish persons and wish to defend them. But we cannot defend the person in ways that diminish or thwart their agency, rationality, or dignity. So we argue, give reasons, explain the nature of things, or, as Ryan put it years ago, tackle all these things “rationally through critical reflection on man’s nature, his personal and communal flourishing, and the ethical principles that should guide his conduct.”
That’s our commitment. It will not change.
To all our authors, editors, past and present staff, readers, supporters, and donors: thank you for supporting Public Discourse. We hope to continue to shape public commentary on the most pressing issues for the next fifteen years, and more to come.