Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Hierarchy of Freedom

I was trying to explain to a friend something St. Thomas Aquinas wrote. We spent some time talking past each other. We still are. But somewhere along the line it occurred to me that while I was talking about justice, my friend was talking about legality. That prompted me to think about it and eventually sit down and write this post. It's not a completely worked out topic, so I hope you'll bear with me, and perhaps add your own thought in the comment box.

I often quip (I can't say "joke" because it's certainly not funny) to the effect that we should rename the Department of Justice into the Department of Lawyers because the law often seems to have very little to do with justice these days. Perhaps my disillusionment has to do with a conception that the law ought to promote justice. In fact, at best the law's purpose is to reduce injustice, which is not the same thing.

We recite "with liberty and justice for all" but then we kowtow to "the rule of law" as if it were the highest ideal we are called to. When grave injustices occur in our society we fall back on "it had to be that way because that's the law."

But is the law the highest ideal to which we are called? I was thinking about natural law versus civil law, And arrived at what I am calling the hierarchy of freedom.

Levelis concerned with
Sacredwhat is holy
Justicewhat is fair
Proprietywhat is acceptable
Lawwhat is legal
Naturewhat is possible

This is a hierarchy of "frames of reference" for regarding freedom. At each level in the hierarchy we find a set of "rules" or a way of thinking that includes the lower levels, plus new concepts.

For instance, nature is concerned with what can be done. It's "might makes right" or "anything goes". If you've ever read "Lord of the Flies" you know what I'm talking about.

The next level up is the law. In thinking about the law we are concerned with what is legal. For instance, stealing is certainly something that happens all the time in nature (just watch animals), but it is illegal. We have added a new dimension for determining what behavior can be done.

Moving up to propriety, we are concerned with what is considered proper by society. There are things that, while they are not illegal, have no place in society because they are offensive or would isolate us from others. For instance, while there is no law against wearing a suit of armor to the office everyday, it just isn't done. There are more realistic examples, of course, like being perpetually rude.

The level of justice is concerned with the rights of all. For instance, a "big box" store obtaining land via eminent domain is legal, but it certainly isn't fair.

At the top we have the sacred. An action may be just, but it may not direct us toward union with God. For instance, it is just for me to enjoy the fruits of my own labor, but sharing those fruits with the poor is better. For that matter, if I give money to the poor, but do so without consideration for them as human beings fashioned in the likeness of God, I have not done much. As St. paul write in 1 Corinthians 13:3 "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing."

As we go up each level, the number of possible actions considered becomes more limited. Yet ironically, our degree of freedom is higher. The things that cause us to act at lower levels are things that control us, and reduce our free will. For instance, I might steal food (operate at the "nature" level) if I am hungry enough. But was that my free choice? No, I was coerced by my hunger. Likewise if I cheated on my wife (controlled by my lust), kept money that I found without trying to find its owner (controlled by my greed), etc. None of these are truly free choices. Only at the level of the sacred am I truly considering things that I freely choose without being influenced by circumstances, object, or people.

This, to me, is one of the compelling aspects of Catholicism, and one in which many people fail to see beyond the apparent paradox, or see it inverted by looking at external appearances only. That only through obedience to God are we totally free.

One of the problems of Catholicism today (and I would argue religion in general) is the tendency to reduce faith (sacred level) to some form of social justice (justice level), and ignore (or be embarrassed by) the holiness aspects of it. The true calling of man is to be united with God, not merely to do right by the poor or sick. Reducing it to that level takes away what it is, and so makes it nothing worth pursuing. Hence we see that the further one gets from the "hard crunchy parts" of the faith, the slipperier the slope to sin becomes.

Many of the attacks on the church are an attempt to deny people the ability to choose at any level above a particular one (usually the law). Take homosexual "marriage". Here is something that was against law, propriety, justice and holiness. By appealing to "nature" the laws against it have eroded, and now using that law propriety is under siege. Of course, the attacks go all the way up through the levels, so that the Church herself is persecuted for speaking the truth of the matter.

And that's where I find the difference when people argue that abortion rights or sexual "freedom" is akin to the abolition of slavery. Slavery exists at the "nature" level, and it's abolition brought society up towards justice. Abortion and those other "rights" are attempts to bring the law and society down to the "nature" level. In that light it makes more sense to compare the abolition of abortion to the abolition of slavery.


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