On Freedom, the Law, and Human Obligations
by Jeremy A. Kee
“God created things which had free will. That means creatures, which can go wrong or right… If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will… though it makes evil1possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” 2
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once suggested that Western societies have developed a burdensome overdependence upon the rule of law. It may seem a counterintuitive suggestion particularly when levied against the West. Is not the western world, after all, the last bastion of freedom? A man of Solzhenitsyn’s rearing should be the last to criticize a well-established legal structure and, what is more, a system of government that at least as far as the average American can discern, adheres to said laws; yet Solzhenitsyn states quite clearly,
“The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired great skill in interpreting and manipulating law… Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point-of-view, nothing more is required.”
For stating such controversial notions, Solzhenitsyn quickly developed an uncomfortably honest reputation. Such is the beauty found in the truth—not that it will justify our actions, but that it most often will rebuke them. Solzhenitsyn understood this, yet as time passes, the world he left shows with each new day how quickly and easily such an understanding is forgotten.
With increasing incidence, man believes that his freedom is the highest and is turning to the law to precisely determine his freedoms. To go make matters worse, he holds an erroneous view of the meaning of freedom that strays farther from the truth with every new suggestion. So concerned is man about his freedom through the law, that he either neglects willingly or embraces fully his ignorance of the deeper, truer law inborn in every living human—what Solzhenitsyn referred to as human obligations.
II. Man’s Views of Freedom and Evil
Man’s free will renders him equally capable of good as evil, and freedom like any other good thing can very easily be abused. The popular understanding of freedom in modern society is understood as man’s right to do as he will, with the impishly imposed caveat that one man’s choices should not infringe upon those of his neighbor3, because it is believed that this unhindered lifestyle is the only sure path to happiness. Man’s love of self leads him to buy into this socio-geocentricity, making his happiness of critical importance. This in turn breeds a society in which evil may thrive. Modern man relates all too easily with the libertarian ideal that he is an island, believing that his choices, and therefore his consequences, are his and his alone. When man adopts this view, both he and the society in which he lives are opened up to all kinds of evil.
This mindset is dangerous, for no action is without consequence.4 It stands to reason that the greater a man’s ability to choose, the greater the consequences shall be. As he relies more heavily on the law to determine the scope of his freedom, his soul grows sluggish and over time he forgets his obligations to his neighbor. Such reckless and ill-advised expansion of individual freedom makes evil all the easier to commit and all the more likely to be committed, due to man no longer being bound to such parochial concepts of good and evil. Those who today hold fast to such traditional ideas as the importance of the nuclear family as the center of a healthy society, temperance both in public and in private, self-control, responsibility, charity, and so on are chastised as remnants of the Dark Ages whose opinion should be treated as such. These ideas are very quickly, and very literally, being outlawed in the modern-day.
Up to this point I have mentioned evil a number of times, but have at best only implied how it factors into a society so frantically concerned with their ever-expanding freedom. It is a fairly simple point to make. Man grows dependent on the law to determine his freedoms, thereby allowing the law to determine right and wrong. When man’s moral and ethical foundations are so easily altered, the very idea of right and wrongappears negotiable. The door is now open for traditional ideas of evil to become acceptable as common social practice due to the nebulous nature of right and wrong. If right and wrong defy definition, who is to say which behaviors or actions are and are not right? St. Augustine proposed that evil is the absence of good, the privatio boni; if the good cannot be definitively decided upon, neither then can concept of evil. With laws responsive to the whims of public opinion governing right and wrong in the public square it is only a matter of time before both concepts are both discarded altogether.
So dense is the array of moral and ethical specters haunting society that it now relies upon laws the original purposes of which were to merely uphold and support moral and ethical behavior in the first place. This is the logical path from which emerged human rights,5 which are the legal determinations of man’s entitlements. What is truly good for our fellow man is now so far from common knowledge that we must have it canonized in order that we may always have a reference point.
It is prudent to remind that the purpose of this essay is not to disparage the rule of law; rather it is to demonstrate that the letter of the law alone will not suffice if man is to be that for which he is intended. The law can be a most valuable and righteous gift. However, there inevitably comes a time in the employment of all good things at which that which was once good begins to be less so. To that end,
“… a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed, but a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either… A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.”Man needs the law, but not to determine right from wrong. It was Cicero who famously wrote that, “Law ought to be a reformer of vice and an incentive to virtue.” 6 Such is the case, however, that we presently have rights defended by law only because it is the law from which they draw definition. Man is free to think about himself and himself alone to the world’s end, but this only illustrates that what man is free to do should not be assumed good strictly by virtue of being a choice of free will.
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