“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Of liberty and Good Intentions
The intention behind Justice Kennedy’s famous/infamous statement from the landmark case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and its subsequent cultural effects–or fallout—have been debated for nearly thirty years. While pro-choice proponents have generally championed the statement, pointing out that it places the power to decide life’s most consequential moral questions into the hands of the autonomous individual–where, in a free and open society, they believe it belongs– many others agree with commentators like William Bennet, who once described it as an “open-ended validation of subjectivism.”
I believe Kennedy thought he was maintaining the proper balance between the autonomous individual’s right to choose one’s values and a society’s need to make and enforce the law. By threading this needle—in his estimation—he was leaving space for human beings to grapple over the meaning of life, their place in the universe, and the deep mysteries we have sought in vain throughout history to fully understand. Unfortunately, the neutrality he was seeking to model, a stance he believed was “at the heart of liberty,” tips the scale in favor of the autonomous individual to the detriment of humanity as a whole. But how?
Of Liberty and the search for Truth
As Americans, we have always prided ourselves on our ability to make decisions about our own beliefs, and to assent to any and all “laws” our elected officials have created and to which they expect us to submit. Our free and frequent elections should, in theory, allow us to revisit any “mistakes” or overbearing encroachments made in regard to our liberty. Our Constitution has the requisite checks and balances built into it so that no single person, or group of persons, can easily take control of the whole system without convincing a super-majority to allow them to do so—and, even then, it reserves the right to revoke its assent should the person or group and the laws they seek to enact prove detrimental to the Republic in either the short- or long-term. So, when Kennedy seemingly split the difference between the right of the individual to choose the “reality” in which to believe, and the objective laws of reality which would circumscribe those choices, he appeared, to many, to be flexing his libertarian bona fides by maintaining a judicial neutrality they had come to believe was “at the heart of liberty.”
The problem, of course, is that he put his thumb on the scale, allowing those who favor the right to construct the truth to usurp the right of those who seek to discover it. And while Americans have always been a deeply individualistic lot, reserving the right to assent or withhold our assent to and from any and all questions put before us, never before had we been given the absolute right to invent reality—and not just seek our autonomous understanding of it. In essence, he cast us all into a meaningless universe, where our choices—and our choices alone—would govern our belief in “reality.”
So, what’s wrong with that?
Nothing, if we assume that life is inherently meaningless, and that one definition of “reality” and “meaning” and “the universe” is as good as any other. But to make that assumption is to put oneself right back into the same “iron cage” his statement sought to release us from. He has arbitrarily chosen in favor of meaninglessness, and in favor of our right to invent a reality of our choosing, rather than allow us to discover reality as it really is. Do we have a right to define our own reality? To create our own meaning? To turn our quest for knowledge into a mystery novel that only we, autonomously, can solve? At best, the answer is maybe, maybe not. Kennedy, however, has decided the case in the affirmative only. As for the American polity and our house—YES–we will follow the lord of meaninglessness.
Sadly, his attempt was a missed opportunity to, as Emerson frequently encouraged us, “advance on chaos and the dark.” Rather than assume meaninglessness, he could have shifted our focus to that which all of us inherently do have the right (which those with faith in God have always recognized, trusting in him as the author of reality, meaning, and the universe itself)—the right to construct one’s own understanding of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mysteries of human life. Most learned Christians and theologians I have encountered, whether in books or face-to-face, have agreed that God does not coerce us to believe in Him, does not force us to assent to the laws He has created and written into the DNA of the universe. As Pope Benedict once remarked, “the truth cannot be imposed, only proposed.” Benedict chose his words carefully, pointing toward the natural tension that has and always will exist between our choices and truth. Regardless of the truth, we—you and I—must choose to believe.
Restoring our Faith in Reason
The universe is either an ordered cosmos, or a random dispersal of chaos. By leaving it up to the individual to construct one’s understanding of the truth, rather than simply giving him/her the “liberty” to construct the truth itself, one maintains that proper balance between faith and reason that God—or “chance”—needs to allow us the freedom to choose our own destinies. While I believe that Kennedy’s foggy thinking was caused by his attempt to accurately reflect the zeitgeist, and use that spirit to craft a statement that “freed” us all, as individuals, to stake our own claims about what constituted the “mysteries of human existence,” the effect has been just the opposite. He has helped to enslave us, casting us into the dark waters of chaos, where we are all flailing around and kicking up sand and silt. It may be years—or generations—before human beings can look out at the universe with wonder once more, and see, as Wordsworth famously encouraged us, “into the life of things.”
Back to the heart of the heart of the problem
If Kennedy had a chance to go back and re-write that sentence—or, if in the near future, a case before the court allows another Justice to step forth and “revisit” his precedent, I offer this revision, which I believe more in line with his original intent:
“At the heart of liberty, under God or under man-made institutions of authority, is the right to construct one’s understanding of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mysteries of human life.”
At the heart of the heart of liberty is the human heart. Socrates was misguided when he equated the heart with mere “passion” or “spirit.” Reason must hold the reins, yes. But the heart, as Pascal reminds us, “has reasons that reason will never know.” The heart—not reason—is the mediating institution between the “facts” of reality and human understanding. Kennedy, like so many well-intentioned libertarian types, has forgotten the heart’s mediating role in our society’s ongoing search for truth. As C.S. Lewis said in his indispensable treatise, The Abolition of Man,
“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Restoring the function of the heart, in the twenty-first century that still lies ahead, is our only hope of staving off the deep darkness that continues to envelop us. If we, individually, begin anew the search to develop, once again, the heart’s knowledge of reality, then, and only then, will the precarious balance between proposing and imposing the truth to and on the people be restored.