OPINIONS, TOO, HAVE CONSEQUENCES

George Anastaplo

I.

            A distinguished North Carolinian, Richard M. Weaver, published during my College years six decades ago a controversial book, Ideas Have Consequences. (Mr. Weaver, an old-fashioned conservative, was our annual Thanksgiving Day guest the last years of his life.) He suggested in his book the disturbing social effects following upon some of the fashionable ideas of the day. We should wonder, in turn, how various fashionable opinions of our own day should be regarded.

John Stuart Mill published, in 1859, his famous essay, On Liberty. There is something ennobling about Mill’s campaign for liberty. But, should we not be obliged to wonder about passages here and there? Consider, for example, this celebrated paragraph in Mill’s essay:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Particularly challenging for us here should be the culminating insistence, “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

That is, should we not wonder about what we may do to promote salutary opinions, especially those that tend to restrain harmful desires? Or is there something oppressive, if not even tyrannical, about any general effort to identity and treat some opinions as salutary and others as crippling?

II.

            Consider, however, the paragraph following that just quoted from Mill’s On Liberty essay:

It is, perhaps hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar [1542-1605] or a Charlemagne [742-814], if they are so fortunate as to find one. But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in the direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.

It is appropriate, it is argued here, that measures may be taken to elevate “backward states of society.” Despotism, we are told, “is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians . . .”

But, we must wonder, what may be done—perhaps, even, what should be done—to head off developments (including the spread of opinions) that threaten a return to barbarism? May not the maintenance of civilized modes sometimes require measures similar to those needed for the ascent from barbarism?

III.

            Mill, in the pages following upon the two paragraphs just quoted, reinforces his argument that “the individual [should be] sovereign” to a considerable extent, far more than is generally recognized. Among the historical reminders provided here by him are of the suppression by well-meaning men both of Socrates and of Jesus (as well as of the early Christians).

But, we must wonder, did either Socrates or Jesus ever suggest that the opinions of the day should be as privileged as Mill insists that they should be? Jesus can be remembered for having identified some opinions as pernicious, and as such not to be endured.

And Plato’s Socrates, as in the Republic, describes at length the opinions needed for the development and maintenance of the healthy polis. He even goes so far, it will be remembered, as to discipline the poets of the polis.

IV.

            Another teacher of mine at the University of Chicago was Friedrich A. Hayek, still another old-fashioned conservative. Our social relations in this instance were limited to the lemonade we could provide Mrs. Hayek on our front porch when we saw her walking by on a hot summer day. We learned on that occasion that the Hayek telephone (in their home in Europe) had been ringing ever since he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics more than six months before.

Mr. Hayek’s arguments for minimalist government are usefully discussed in the May 8, 2011 issue of the New York Times Book Review (p. 12). It is noticed there that Mr. Hayek believed that the limits of human cognition are such that no government can know enough about a society to plan effectively on a large scale. The New York Times author (Francis Fukuyama) then says of the Hayek thesis,

The government’s true role in more modest: to create laws that are general and equally applied; these laws constitute the matrix in which the spontaneous interaction of individuals can occur. (It may, however, surprise some of Hayek’s [current] followers to learn that [he argued] that the government may need to provide health insurance and even make it compulsory.)

But, it must be wondered, how did Mr. Hayek get to be the eloquent champion that he was of a “minimalist” approach? Was he not personally a remarkable product of a sometimes “oppressive” civilization that had been centuries, if not even millennia, in the making?

V.

            The material quoted at length on this occasion from John Stuart Mill can provide clues for our consideration of underlying problems here. Emphasis is placed by him on “individual” and “society”.

These terms are significantly different from “citizen” and “community” (or polis). Implied in this shift in terminology is a depreciation of the political, with trans-political (if not even worldwide) allegiances made much more of.

This shift may even be seen in what has happened, since the Second World War, to how the First Amendment is talked about by jurists and scholars. Its traditional “freedom of speech” terminology (rooted in parliamentary necessities and assurances) has been converted into our modern “freedom of expression” (which makes much more of the individual, much less of the citizen). The traditional primacy of the political order is thus obscured.

VI.

            Friedrich Hayek, I have suggested, took John Stuart Mill to an even further extreme with respect to the relation between “individual” and “society.” Before Mill, I am now obliged to suggest, Immanuel Kant (with his emphasis on a determined truth-telling in all circumstances) developed still another extreme.

Consider haw a French contemporary of Kant (Benjamin Constant) summed up the position here of his German counterpart:

The moral principle stating that it is a duty to tell the truth would make any society impossible if that principle were taken singly and unconditionally. We have proof if this in the very direct consequences which a German philosopher has drawn from this principle. This philosopher [that is, Immanuel Kant] goes so far as to assert that it would be a crime to tell a lie to a murderer who asked whether our friend who is being pursued by the murderer had taken refuge in our house.

Did Kant, like Mill later on, fail to defer enough to the limitations and needs of the community, especially with respect to what should be said?

It can be wondered, of course, whether Kant “really meant” all that he was provoked to say on this occasion about determined truth-telling. But whatever he indeed believed, would-be Kantians thereafter have, to the distress of their associates, acted on the basis of what Kant is widely understood to have said about these matters.

VII.

            Is the Conquest of Chance implicit in the three systems (from thinkers in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries) that we have glanced at on this occasion? Or is Divine Providence somehow relied on by one or more of these thinkers to make things work out satisfactorily?

Chance developments do have to be dealt with from time to time. Certainly, they cannot always be anticipated. But is not a disciplined community likely to be better able to deal with disturbing developments than one in which a doctrinaire Individualism “reigns”?

Discipline may be seen in how the national community is ordered in the United States Constitution of 1787, which includes (both in its Preamble and in its inventory of Congressional powers [Article I, Section 8]) a recognition of the General Welfare as a proper concern of Government. The critical significance of this governmental concern seems to be recognized (in a peculiar sort of way) by the deliberate elimination of all references to the General Welfare from the government-leary Confederate Constitution of 1861.

VIII.

            We should now notice, by way of illustrating the suggestions made thus far on this occasion about Citizenship and Community, some fashionable opinions of our day that seem to have had significant effects. These are opinions that some might even insist are “not any government’s business.”

One set of such opinions has to do with how sexuality, especially outside a conventional marriage, should generally be regarded. Among the significant consequences of these opinions is the ever-growing epidemic we have of unwed motherhood. It is hard to believe that this development will be without significant (mostly harmful) effects across generations, and not only among the stricken celebrities we have heard so much of recently.

Less ominous in appearance, but also potentially traumatic, are the enthusiastic opinions most of us have about professional sports. Among the dubious consequences of this growing appetite is the seduction of boys (especially among minority groups) into hopeless dreaming which sacrifices the salutary education that is now available to them.

IX.

Can it be reasonably insisted that the prevalence and consequences of such opinions should never be legitimate concerns of communities and their governments? Is not a kind of gilt-edged barbarism threatening to overtake us?

Of course, the would-be censors among us can sometimes move decent people to resent all governmental interference with our lives. We (as defenders of the community’s duties) should be reminded here of the Prudence advocated in the Declaration of Independence even in the exercise of the sacred Right of Revolution.

We should be reminded as well of advice given by Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Politics,” xii) to his fellow Americans, very much caught up in the exhilarating exercise of self-government, “Good men must not obey the laws too well.” We look, of course, to our teachers and the texts with which they have endowed us as we prayerfully consider which laws we should not be too eager to obey, even as we recognize the blessedness of decent communities dominated by sensible citizens who do know how to use the laws of the land.

Epilogue

Permit me to add a few words for this special occasion, recognizing thereby Larry Yoder’s conscientious service (with the aid, of course, of his remarkably talented wife)—his three decades of conscientious service in developing and maintaining here at Wildacres the Annual Hickory Humanities Forum Weekend.

There are things, including of course opinions, that Larry Yoder regards as either good or bad—and he recognizes as well that it is worth considerable effort both to encourage the good and to discourage the bad. That is, it has long been obvious that he takes some principles and opinions seriously, even controversial ones that it can be particularly costly to maintain. Otherwise, he senses, he himself would not be worth much.

Thus, Larry Yoder has long known that opinions matter, that they can have profound consequences. This recognition has moved him to devote three decades of highminded efforts to the promotion, in the greater Lenoir-Rhyne community, of civilized discourse about enduring issues. He has, in the course of these noble endeavours, illustrated for us Ralph Waldo Emerson’s perception (in his “Self-Reliance”), “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”

These remarks were prepared by George Anastaplo for the opening session, on May 19, 2011, of the annual Hickory Humanities Weekend Forum of the Lenoir-Rhyne University at the Wildacres Conference Center, Little Switzerland, North Carolina.

George Anastaplo is Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago; Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago; and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and of Philosophy, Dominican University, See http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s