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A Western Blueprint

An atheist defends the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
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Pera does not believe that inter-religious dialogue is possible between Islam and Christianity (or Judaism): There is too little common ground, and these religions are separated by intellectual chasms. But he sees plenty of room, and need, for inter-cultural dialogue about the new democratic movements in the Middle East, the long suffering of Muslim populations under both state and religious secret police, and the repression of many normal liberties. On these matters, a new common ground may be emerging. Here Pera treats also “The Descending Trajectory of Public Liberal Ethics”—that is, the descent from Kant’s two ethical principles, the categorical imperative (which Kant admitted was also Christian) and respect for the human person (an end, and never a means). Compare these sturdy principles with the two dominant moral schools that come after Kant.

First, unlike Kant, John Stuart Mill wanted urgently to separate his morality from Christianity. Therefore, the descent from Kant’s two principles to Mill’s: There is no universal moral law of reason or of religion, and the value-choices of individuals trump everything.

This descent continues in our own time, down to the principle that the public realm must be wholly secular. Religion must survive only in its multiplicity of private worlds. Further, when conflicts arise in the public realm, appeal must be made to the vote of citizens; that is, to the state. The final arbiter of the good, then, is the democratic state. In brief, the secular state trumps the consciences of autonomous persons; what began as liberal principles thus end up radically illiberal.

These four ages of moral and political descent are schematized by Pera in this way:

It is prohibited to violate the moral commandments.

It is prohibited to violate the personal autonomy of the individual.

It is prohibited to set moral limits.

Then, finally, the state decides.Throughout, Pera offers many passages of brilliant brevity and clarity. I liked best his close analysis of key moments in Locke, Kant, Humboldt, and other shapers of what “liberal” means today in the world of political philosophy. Another jewel is his contrast of the liberal state (circa 1930), which made demands on economic activities, to the paternalistic state that has recently begun to expropriate morality.

To say that the paternalistic state is unlimited in its sweep is too weak. It is, in a crucial sense, total in its sweep or (as Christopher Dawson foresaw long ago) silkily “totalitarian.” This is perhaps the new “soft tyranny” that Tocqueville feared, but moral tyranny it is. Human rights conceived of as moral and cultural are infinitely expansible, and a state resolved to protect these rights is essentially limitless in its powers.

One fault bothered me throughout. All of Pera’s essential claims about the intellectual work of “Christianity” giving birth to the basic premises of secular liberalism are applicable, in the first place, to Judaism. It is from Judaism, indeed, that Christianity was formed in the axiom, right at the top of the Torah, that each woman and man is “made in the image of God.” Further, Christianity was formed in Judaism’s substantive definition of the good: that the good consists in actions to please God, who commands most of all that we prove that we love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves. It is, of course, a European convention to think of Europe as, at first, a “Christian Europe” but without stressing sufficiently that, on most matters of polity, Judaism is the teacher of Christianity. Natan Sharansky has pointed out that Christianity notably adds “the anti-totalitarian principle” to the Jewish patrimony: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what belongs to God.” In other words, not everything belongs to Caesar; in fact, by far the smaller part. Most other principles that Pera calls “Christian” are Jewish in origin. In any case, according to Pera, a liberal polity has better defended itself under the protection of a Jewish and Christian ethic, whatever its historical deficiencies, than under the present incoherence and intellectual defenselessness of liberal secularism.

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