Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, May 27, 2011

An alliance of shared values... But what are the shared values?


During May 24 and 25, President Obama engaged the world and, in particular, the English people during his trip to Europe. During his time in the United Kingdom, he participated in a state dinner with Queen Elizabeth [here], delivered an address to the Houses of Parliament at Westminster Hall [here], and conducted a joint press conference with the Prime Minister, David Cameron [here].

During each of these occasions, the President talked about concurrences between the peoples of the United States and the United Kingdom. He rightly and properly acknowledged the social, economic, cultural, and, yes, legal ties between the peoples of his host country and the United States. In my own modest efforts in the classroom, I attempt to remind future lawyers of the indebtedness we Americans owe to the genius of the English rule of law and its legal system and the human laws which they have generated. Of course, I have always been intrigued by the expression attributed to John Adams that we are a nation of laws, not men, and I believe the origin of this expression is based on what we in the United States have inherited from our legal heritage from across the Atlantic Ocean. Of course there is a questionable side to Adams’s words if his expression is viewed to mean that the law is first and people are second, i.e., the human person is the subject of the law and not the master of it. From the perspective from which I consider the matter, the preferable meaning of Adams’s formulation is that the law, as a system of reasoned and objective moral norms, is equally applicable to one and all and protects each from the appetite of the other; hence, the law is servant rather than the master of the human person, all human persons regardless of their condition or location. In short, it is in this second understanding of Adams’s words that the person is protected from the whims and the caprice of his or her fellow travelers in this life.

The President used an important set of words to describe the heritage we share with the British people: there is an alliance of “shared values”, and he spoke of this common legacy on the three occasions to which I have referred. Queen Elizabeth helped define the values when she commented on the “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism, and of the sturdy alliances an enduring convictions with which ...[the United States] had met past challenges and would meet future ones.” Our President graciously responded by noting and acknowledging “the union of hearts based upon convictions and common ideals.” He elaborated a bit on this point by further stating, “Our relationship rests on common language, common history, common adherence to the rule of law, the rights of men and women – the very ideals born in this nation.” At Westminster Hall, the President additionally stated that, “Our relationship is special because of the values and beliefs that have united our people through the ages.”

But what are those ideals? What are those shared values? On what principles are they based? What constitutes the “rule of law” to which there is a “common adherence”? What is the foundation of this special alliance? Indeed, our President elaborated by speaking of a robust economy in which all have a role; he emphasized a protected environment in which future generations can flourish; he spoke of the determined need to withstand the bullies and thugs who threaten all peoples through terrorist enterprises. But there is more to what underpins the ideals and values shared by the two nations.

What is missing from the President’s definition of the alliance of shared values is the crucial role of the virtuous citizenship that must be combined with a solid understanding of the nature and essence of the human person. I do not think that the President intentionally omitted this, but it is clear he did not include these two matters in his addresses delivered in the United Kingdom earlier this week. I find that much of what the President said could effortlessly bring comfort to the autonomous individual who is isolated from others in his or her cocoon of liberty fortified by separation from virtue and the understanding of what is the human person and why is he here on this planet.

So what is it that is so important about the virtuous citizen? He or she treasures the freedom about which the President spoke, but this person also recognizes that the rights and claims that attend this freedom must surely be accompanied by a healthy understanding of responsibilities and obligations to all others who have the right to make and perfect the same claims.

The virtuous citizen, I suggest, would be cognizant of this. The virtuous citizen would know that what has made the rule of law established by the “alliance of shared values” so admired in many places throughout the world is the recognition of what is authentically just—to each person his or her due, and the further recollection of what is justice—right relationship between and among all members of the human family. The virtues of humility, prudence, courage, hope, fidelity, wisdom, and others make this recognition and recollection essential elements of human existence and the actions which ensue from this existence.  

The President did speak of the importance of human dignity to the shared values and ideals. But this dignity must be founded not on what powerful and influential pressure groups say it is but rather on what right reason establishes it to be. Sometimes this conclusion is contrary to what the culture insists. Illustrations of this point are found in human history associated with these shared ideals. But, the examples of Thomas More and John Fisher quickly come to mind. As Jacques Maritain defined it in 1943, human dignity is that which is due the person simply because he or she is human. With this point about dignity in evidence, the virtuous citizen would acknowledge that the core of the shared values of which the President spoke must necessarily incorporate the non-derogable right to life and continued existence by every member of the human family if human dignity is to have substantive meaning; moreover, these values must come to the aid and protection of the fundamental unit of every human society, viz. the nuclear family.

Without recognition of these points, the shared values of which the President frequently mentioned can be negatively influenced by human whim and caprice as I have already stated. The circumstance where these values are compromised by human fancy would be the very sort of thing of which Blessed John Paul II taught can make a democracy a thinly disguised totalitarianism. The President appeared to acknowledge something about the beliefs of the virtuous citizen when he said, “It has been the values that we must never waver in defending around the world – the idea that all beings are endowed by our Creator with certain rights that cannot be denied.” The virtuous citizen knows from where his or her being originated and that he or she is not the only one who was so created.

Let us pray that our President and the other civil leaders who heard him will understand the truth about the shared values of which he frequently spoke and incorporate them in the heart of their labors. When this happens, we will know that our civil leaders are also virtuous citizens for whom mere consensus about solutions to the grave or pressing issues of the day that confront the human family is insufficient for the common good of all who have been “endowed by our Creator with certain [and inalienable] rights that cannot be denied.”


RJA sj



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