October 10, 2012 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

The modern era in the West marks the beginning of a new way of understanding the purpose of a social system and how people fit in to it. The transition to the modern world was from a medieval world that was perceived to have inherent ends and truths, based on Aristotelian metaphysics and Catholic moral theology, that provided authoritative answers to fundamental questions about the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, human nature and morality. In Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, the radical political turmoil, stemming from the Protestant Reformation, and a growing sense of the rights of humans were leading philosophers like Hobbes (1588-1679), Locke (1632-1704) and Rousseau (1712-1778) to articulate a fundamentally new type of social and political system. Instead of the divine rights of kings to assert complete rule over subjects, which created an obligation for subjects to obey those divine rights, there emerged the concept that the social and political order should be structured so as to protect and preserve the natural rights of human beings qua citizens. This new understanding of how to understand society and individuals—later called social contract theory—provided the conceptual underpinnings of the eventual emergence of democratic systems: The idea that the social system should be structured in a manner so as to allow individual citizens to be free to live according to their life goals and values within the limits of respecting those same rights of others. This meant that individual citizens should agree to give up some of their rights, e.g. to steal and kill, for the larger benefit of living safely and in a manner of one’s own choice. 

This radical transition from the social enforcement of final truths, mostly in the form of religious dogma, to individual freedom is something we should not take lightly. In the early years of our country, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the governing Puritan authority, enforced the same type of rigid religious dogma on the lives of settlers, much in the same manner as they had experienced in England before seeking refuge in the New World. Fortunately, there were individuals like Roger Williams (1603-1683) who resisted the Puritan requirement of following one dominant religion. It was not a question of whether or not Williams was religious. He was. It was a question of, as he put it, “soul liberty”—the right of individuals to live and believe according to their own conscience. Williams left the Boston area, or more accurately was force to leave, because he was viewed as a radical threat to social order. He went on to found Rhode Island, specifically for the purpose of establishing a new political order in which citizens could be free to live according their conscience and pursue religious and other truths as they saw fit for themselves. Fortunately for all of us today, the views of Williams greatly affected our founding fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) the author of the Declaration of Independence, which says that the role of government was to protect the rights of citizens to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The separation of church and state was a doctrine guaranteed in the 1st Amendment to the constitution; the government was prohibited from “making of any law respecting an establishment of religion” or “impeding the free exercise of religion”.

But if we are not careful, we forget our history and what it teaches, and we do so at our own peril. Many people on the political right in America today believe in final truths, and it is their right to do so. The problem is their desire to make their version of final truth, whether it be Christian fundamentalism or any other doctrine, the basis of truth throughout society. This is exactly the type of heavy handedness that John Winthrop (1687-1749), a major Puritan leader in Massachusetts Bay Colony, was promoting in early 17th Century America. Philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) has pointed out that democratic life requires each of us to give up our quests for final, Platonic-type truths. I would say, at least we must be willing to confine them to our own private quest. We may have strongly held substantive moral and religious beliefs; we may even stand on a soapbox in public promoting them and encouraging others to accept them. But we cannot force them on others, especially in the case of making laws or using the force of government to limit citizens’ rights to freedom of religion, speech and conscience. 

John Dewey (1859-1952), America’s most important philosopher, saw human freedom as a contingent, historical achievement that occurred within the context of emerging democratic systems. History could have turned out differently; humans in the West could have remained subjects within authoritarian political systems. And there is no certainty that democratic systems will continue. Key to its survival is for citizens to seek a world in which living peacefully in a diverse world takes moral priority over externalizing final answers and universal truth. 

In such an anti-foundational social order where priority is placed on individual freedom, moral truth becomes relative to a great degree. The question arises, how can we get a foothold in ethics, and know right from wrong? This will be the topic of another blog.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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