America, over the last 200 years or so, has accustomed itself to several different philosophies that, in one time or another, crested in popularity and then receded. While these philosophies waxed and waned, a more persistent philosophy continued to cast its shadow. The struggle that America experienced can be viewed as a conflict between adapting to trends and adopting a perennial view of reality.
Four trendy philosophies warrant mention. In the mid-nineteenth century, utilitarianism shaped people’s minds. This is a philosophy that is based on the usefulness of things. Utilitarianism was clearly linked with a laissez-faire view of economics. It was, however, very much at odds with the Christian mandate to work for social justice. For the strict utilitarian, the end justifies the means, even when the means in itself is of questionable moral value.
Social Darwinism became extremely popular in the late nineteenth and early 20th century. A number of philosophers and social scientists, following Darwin, expanded on the notion of the “survival of the fittest and preached that “might is right”. Such thinking led to advancing racism and bringing about involuntary sterilization. The 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Buck v. Bell, by an 8-1 count, ruled in favor of forcible sterilization for the “unfit”.
Pragmatism had great appeal to a very practical America. Its essence is well captured by William James, when he referred to truth as “the cash value of an idea”. The practicality of pragmatism, however, always left something to be desired. The practice of putting truth aside and having no wider vision than what is practical for an individual, did not offer a blueprint either for social justice or for the cohesiveness of a society.
Finally, relativism took hold of American consciousness in the latter part of the 20th century. This is the philosophy, particularly rampant among university students, which Allan Bloom labored to debunk in his best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind. Essentially, relativism denies that we can know anything objective, that everything is relative to the dispositions of the subject. It has spawned more extreme forms such as skepticism, deconstructionism, and nihilism.
These four philosophies are inadequate as philosophies since they do not provide an objective basis that allows all people to live in harmony with each other. In rejecting truth, they reject the very nature of man, including his rights and his responsibilities. The one philosophy that has remained relevant, though it has never dominated the American consciousness, is the one that is based on the natural law. It has been a consistent corrective for the thinner, but more popular philosophies, never disappearing but always retaining sufficient credibility to call into question its more trendy antitheses.
In 1832, John Quincy Adams pleaded eloquently for the abolition of slavery before the House of Representatives, contending that the principle of natural rights would be inconsistent with the meaning of the Revolution. In his Lecture on the Social Compact—Exemplified in the Constitution of Massachusetts, he argued that man’s freedom is limited by “a law of nature or in more proper words, a law of God, the author of nature.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, Ethics, decried the loss of a sense of the natural among Protestants. “It was a disastrous mistake,” he asserted, for it left Protestant thought “more or less deprived of the means of orientation in dealing with the practical questions of natural life.” Bonhoeffer acknowledged that the “natural” had been “entirely abandoned to Catholic ethics.” Adams and Bonhoeffer understood that only the natural law can provide a basis that is both universal and objective that can serve as a reliable guide in dealing with moral issues such as slavery, forced sterilization, euthanasia, and abortion. To their names we could add many who have recognized that trends are ephemeral and suffer from narrowness, while the natural law provides an objective moral basis for everyone.
The natural law, in various ways, has always occupied a position of some influence in American society. But it has been like the sun whose purpose is to shed light, though this function is often obscured by the presences of passing clouds. We hope that a less obstructed view of that light will fall on America and bless her more abundantly with the brotherhood that she has always sought.