All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1965

From Eden To Paradise: Choices verses Compulsion

Mr. Banks has taught American history at Oklahoma State University and presently is a free-lance writer.

Out of the civil rights and related issues emerges that old problem which has haunted civilized man ever since his curiosity got the upper hand in Eden. By what force, he keeps asking himself, will the desires and activities of men be governed? Must all human behavior fall under the rule of law, or can there be a functional division between “law” and “moral duty”—between established legal procedure, which demands compliance with basic social ideals, and individual sense of moral obli­gation, which persuades one to comply with general principles of humanity?

Apparently, the problem of vol­untary-versus-compulsory social duty has been the basic issue of all the great “revolutions” of the past, whether the birth of Chris­tianity, the Renaissance, Reforma­tion, French Revolution of 1789, or, in its earliest stages, the Rus­sian upheaval of the early twen­tieth century. Always, one question headlined the tattered banner of progressive humanity: What is the ideal relationship between in­dividual freedom and legal order? A definitive answer will be pro­vided only when mankind com­pletes the long journey from Eden to Paradise, that beautiful land void of apples and crafty reptiles which cause so much human im­perfection. Here on earth, most societies have succeeded only in establishing some kind of balance between the extremes of voluntary and compulsory activity. The “balancer” in this society is the Con­stitution, a fundamental guideline which embodies the universal ideals of moral behavior while prescribing limitations on the le­gal enforcement of those ideals. This is the Constitutional order of the “free society,” a functional compromise between choice and force.

Moral Responsibility and Restraint

Though the word “free” is ha­bitually used to describe the vol­untary character of our national organization, there certainly is nothing free about maintenance of the existing Constitutional bal­ance. The free society’s normal ap­petite for human sacrifice would stun even the old pagan gods. Heading the list of sacrificial de­mands are two essentials which members of this society must con­stantly place afresh on the altar of sustenance: fulfillment—rather than evasion—of moral respon­sibility, and moral restraint based on awareness of moral-legal dis­tinctions.

Concerning fulfillment of moral duty, it is apparent that a free society cannot exist apart from the humanitarian spirit which sustains it; the history of all civ­ilization underscores this fact. Only through a sense of moral obligation can men live in har­mony outside the restraint of law.

As a nation’s moral fiber begins to rot, men become something less than human, and this inevitably results in an ever-increasing will­ingness to employ additional law as a remedy for such social “de­fects.” In the free society, exten­sion of law is directly proportional to diminishing morality.

Moral restraint, the second basic demand of Constitutional order, implies little more than recogni­tion of moral limitations. Not hav­ing reached Paradise, mankind still falls short of angelic perfec­tion, and therefore social order remains somewhat defective—it does not live up to our moral ideals. Men may, however, over­look this fact when possessed by unrestrained humanitarian fervor. When this happens, moral dedica­tion becomes just as destructive as moral laxity, for invariably pas­sion obscures the vital difference between moral responsibility and moral influence for remedial legis­lation. Thus, the fiber which re­strains law may snap from stress as well as decay—the results are identical.

Today, it seems that both stress and decay are threatening to tip the scales in favor of ever-expand­ing legislation of social duty—at the expense of previous choice. On one hand are unrestrained forces which seek perfectionist reforms. “The outdated legal limitations must be removed,” they seem to be saying. “Progress demands a new order capable of satisfying all hu­man need. It is right; society must do it—now.” These idealistic voices belong to authoritative sec­ular and “religious” equalitarians, men in positions of leadership who apparently have dedicated them­selves to legislating Paradise on earth. Part of the problem before us, then, is the examination of the equalitarian leadership and its re­sponse to the two basic demands of the free society, but this takes care of only half the task. The light of inquisition should be placed also on the “grass roots,” to examine the role of the individ­ual in upsetting or maintaining the moral-legal balance. Even a brief study of this sort may dis­close which is the greater villain—passionate leadership or passive individual. Most likely, it will be a tossup.

Secular Equalitarians

Consider first the secular equal­itarian, a person whose frustrated desire for human perfection finally leads him to believe that society, like a machine, may actually be regulated to assure absolute preci­sion. Possessed by fervent desire to cure society of its malady, chaotic individualism, this ideal­ist disowns the moral, voluntary spirit of social organization and resorts to uninhibited legislative promiscuity.

It is not difficult to understand this lack of respect toward Consti­tutional order, for the equalitarian thesis clearly rests on one assumption: outside of legal regimenta­tion, there can exist only irresponsible, inhuman individualism. Law is the great and simple equal­izer with which egoistic men and women—the gears and springs—may be assigned a “human,” im­personal role in the great social machine. Whether intentionally or unconsciously, the secular equal­itarian assumes the role of a ma­terialistically divine creator who suggests, “Let us re-create man in our own image. Let us legislate Paradise on earth. Progress de­mands it.”²

The Church in Politics

As stated previously, the secular perfectionist shares his utopian aspirations with another, vastly influential force, official represent­atives of most churches. Though this is nothing new, only recently has the secular-religious romance grown so ardent that it presents an immediate threat to the free society. As one Texas preacher ex­claimed to this writer last summer, “Looks as though we’ll have to start asking God to protect the state from the church, since we have no antitrust laws to forbid collective church influence on so­cial legislation.” He referred, of course, to the decisive role of the church in pushing the Civil Rights Act through Congress. The min­ister, like many others in all church bodies, was quite concerned about the “religious” tendency toward converting moral responsi­bility into legal compulsion—some call it “legislating morality.” And, to repeat the point, that is the danger of the equalitarian coali­tion, a joint venture into secular-religious idealism which can sweep aside existing legal limitations. Without church support, there could be no hope for success; but, the church seems eager and frighteningly able.

“Religions are many, reason one”—this observation by the well-known philosopher, George Santayana, catches the full flavor of current “religious” psychology.’ Today, religious bodies are searching for common ground, the most common point of identification, around which they may reason together. The camp meeting has settled down on social grounds, a nonspiritual realm void of theo­logical differences, and social re­form has become the cause celébre of the united religious establish­ment. If such reforms were to be accomplished through increased religious-moral dedication, we could all rejoice and sing praises to a reborn church. But, regretfully, there is no reason for such elation.

Secularized Religiosity or Rational Morality

The church conciliatory move­ment results primarily from pro­gressive theological “moderniza­tion,” which erases fundamental spiritual differences that naturally create disunity among religious bodies. Church modernization has thus produced a secularized religi­osity or, as Santayana called it, “rational morality.”4 At the same time, the church retains its spirit­ually derived vision of Paradise and projects it onto society. The result might be called “the politi­cal gospel.”

Emphasizing the similarity be­tween religious and social ideal­ism, Santayana stated that politi­cal guidance is the natural role of “a systematic religion.” Perfection of society, he said, “is precisely what wise legislation and good government profess to do: so that the spheres of systematic religion and of politics, far from being in­dependent or incommensurable, are in principle identical. “5 So, it seems almost natural that re­ligion unshackled from spiritual purpose would tend to become a political force, rather than an in­fluence for voluntary, moral ap­plication.

In any religious mind, Paradise and social perfection occupy simi­lar planes of thought; absolute so­cial harmony corresponds with the heavenly ideal. Therefore, the im­portant distinction between spirit­ually oriented religion and religion of the rational variety lies not in the desire for human perfection, but in the manner in which per­fection will be attained. In secu­larized religion, the earth-godly power of law replaces spiritual force as the regenerator of im­perfect man. The state displaces God. The Son becomes only a source of Christian ethics according to which society is to be gov­erned. The evil fruits of human individualism wither away under the influence of law, an imper­sonal force which remolds disrup­tive personal will.6 Certainly no one should be too surprised to find “modern” church spokesmen col­laborating with the secular equal­itarian leadership; with the spirit­ual quality removed, both stand exposed as dedicated social ideal­ists.’

A Duty of Leadership

In a society founded on concepts of popular government, however, leadership’s primary duty is to promote a sense of reality, as well as humanitarian idealism. Its main functions are to cultivate individual moral and legal re­sponsibility and to remain loyal, itself, to the fundamental law of social organization. The two tasks are equally important; both can be unbearably frustrating to men who cannot discipline themselves to acknowledge human imperfec­tion. The responsible leader sup­presses the urge to discharge moral responsibility through the catharsis of legislation, and thus preserves that most important vir­tue of authority—moral restraint.

Through its example, leader­ship testifies that Constitutional order can be maintained through moral dedication to the principles of humanity and personal applica­tion to the political business of self-government. On the individ­ual’s voluntary assumption of both responsibilities rests the f u­ture; and whether or not the in­dividual meets the demand will depend largely on the example of leadership. Doctor Harold Bosley, former Duke Divinity School dean and now pastor of Christ Church, New York City, emphasized this point at a Methodist conference last July. Because the churches, the government, and other groups tend to “shrink back from direct involvement,” Doctor Bosley said, the Civil Rights Act and the 1954 Supreme Court school decision were enacted.8 When moral lead­ership begins to ebb, expect a legislative flow.

Undisciplined Human Nature

An old rule of human behavior indicates that a person will usual­ly tend to abandon a duty which someone else tries to assume for him. Another ancient principle suggests that authority, secular or religious, has an intrinsic dis­position toward assuming the “burdens” of others. These two fundamental truths point out the central problem of any hierarchi­cal system. The desire to lift re­sponsibility from the stooped shoulders of those in the lower ranks may arise from lust for power or from human compassion; but whatever its origin, it is des­tructive if it enables individuals to escape basic moral and politi­cal responsibilities.

Undisciplined human nature seems to abide by one rule: It is easier to receive than to give. So, with this reality in mind, author­ity has to remain alert to the task of cultivating Constitutional dis­cipline, rather than undermining it through unrestrained pater­nalism. As Walter Lippmann once stated, only when men have “learned the grammar of consti­tutionalism,” acquired it as “in­tuitive habit” and “the normal idiom of… behavior,” will the full promise of liberty be realized.

Though secular and religious leadership has a major role in nourishing the free society, its efforts are almost entirely depen­dent on the individual’s ability to sense his responsibility and act to fulfill it. It is a mistake to re­gard either of these responses as natural or automatic; neither the feeling of obligation nor the execu­tion of duty is naturally conven­ient or enjoyable.

In a prosperous nation, moral duty can become little more than a hindrance to the pursuit of im­mediate profit and pleasure—thus, as in the case of leadership, moral­ity is frequently and conveniently discharged through legislation. Santayana provides a good explan­ation of this moral-legal conver­sion by stating that “people al­ways do as they like; but while they are believers, they must con­fess that they have sinned; where­as by the easy method of discard­ing their faith, they can have their fun and call themselves virtuous.”¹º

Taking the Easy Way

Though Santayana refers to religious responsibility, the same psychology applies to the purely moral realm: a person may think that he can discharge moral duty through law, and thereby satisfy his conscience. The beauty of the method is its efficacy in relieving the individual of the physical me­chanics of moral duty. The final result, as Santayana points out, will be a complete loss of con­science (faith).

What a person cannot accom­plish through self-discipline or moral strength, he may assuredly achieve through law. It is always easier to command than to per­suade, whether the object of atten­tion is oneself or another; so, to the individual of conscience living in the modern society, the end (rather than the means) becomes of utmost importance. Having satisfied conscience through law, the timesaving instrument of “ac­complishment,” the shirker goes about reveling in the irrespons­ible freedom of being free. This attitude represents the new ma­terialistic individualism of this age, a doctrine of self-service that steadily slashes away at the moral fiber binding that impatient de­vourer of human freedom. What has produced this attitude? How can it be changed? These are dif­ficult questions, but some answers are clear enough.

Man and His Attitudes

Material prosperity has often been blamed for corrupting man’s moral character, but this seems quite unbelievable. To say that material objects produce human attitudes is simply to excuse men of responsibility for those atti­tudes. No, the corrupting influence lies in the individual’s inability or unwillingness to evaluate the pre­vailing ideologies which permeate his social, economic, and political life, particularly the equalitarian ideology of “individual freedom.”

The liberal-equalitarian declares that progress follows man’s inner urge to free himself from the shackles of exploitation. Always, the emphasis is placed on man as a creature struggling for his “rights”—and never his respon­sibilities. By its unrestrained, hyp­notizing chant of “Rights! Rights! Rights!” the collectivist leadership has, indeed, given im­petus to the loosening of human shackles: it has helped snap those fragile chains of moral responsi­bility which link individual men to civilized humanity. This is the nature of equalitarian “freedom,” an ideology of rampant idealism which worships the god of imme­diate satisfaction. The sole respon­sibility for evaluating such short­sighted doctrines belongs to the individual. If he is unable to do so, he must strive to educate him­self so that he can; if he is un­willing,…

Responsibility, unlike instinc­tive pursuit of pleasure, proceeds from inner conflict, fought on a battleground stretching from man’s brain to his soul. From this individual struggle emerges a sense of values expressed through physical activity. To the spiritual­ly motivated person, the source of values is, as Bonhoeffer expressed it so well, the Christian mani­festation, a timeless example of men rising above instinct and tak­ing up their crosses of spiritual and earthly responsibility.

The individual lacking spiritual impulse toward moral duty must, it seems, derive his values through human reason. Only as he does this can he call himself a free man, as Spinoza emphasized a few de­cades ago. “The freer we conceived man to be,” the great rationalist philosopher wrote, “the more we should be forced to maintain that he must of necessity preserve his existence and be in possession of

his senses…. And so man can by no means be called free because he is able not to exist or not to use his reason, but only in so far as he preserves the power of existing and operating according to the laws of human nature.”” General­ly, Spinoza argues that freedom exists for the individual only when he strives to derive a code of hu­man conduct (basic values) from the experiences of civilized man. Strangely enough, this is the proc­ess by which the existing Consti­tutional order was established.

Resolution Plus Action

Individual responsibility, how­ever, involves not only reference to the experiences of man, but also mental application in projecting future consequences of personal attitudes and activities. When the individual does this, he al­ways arrives at one conclusion: Freedom of action becomes a last­ing value, rather than raw enjoy­ment, only as a person resolves to secure it and then works to do so. Mere enjoyment of freedom re­quires no human intelligence—even a coyote can run freely across the meadow and joyfully bark at the moon. It does, however, take the human quality to recognize that fu­ture liberties rest on established order and that such order must be maintained by moral, human ap­plication.

The free society will thrive as its moral fiber is strengthened, and moral sensitivity will spread and intensify as the individual learns to function as a responsible social being. This requires per­sonal inventory of human nature, accomplished through reference to the humanities and social sci­ences. A person’s concern for things outside himself seems to increase in proportion to his awareness of the world in which he exists, and this comes through knowledge. Knowledge alone, how­ever, provides only a base for re­sponsiveness; it never transforms an individual into a responsible human being.

A person must acquire pro­ficiency in the fine art of critical thinking, he must be capable of evaluating knowledge in relation to himself. Out of centuries of human experience, the individual has to “find himself,” see himself as he stands in comparison with the lasting values of civilization.

Then, he is able to determine his own values and purposes in life. Through this process, man de­velops respect for himself as a hu­man being, and this sense of self-respect or self-approval encour­ages him to display his human, moral qualities—thus, the human “conscience” rejoices over its hu­manity.

“The strength of self-govern­ment and the motive power of progress must be found in the characters of the individual citi­zens who make up a nation.”12 In this free society, such individual character rests on a deep sense of moral duty and a clear recogni­tion of the Constitutional division between moral persuasion and le­gal compulsion. Such character ac­knowledges, regretfully, that there is no short cut between Eden and Paradise.

Foot Notes

1 Throughout this study, “moral-legal” and “voluntary-compulsory” are used interchangeably. Since some philosophers delight in pointing out that man is “free” to obey or disobey law, moral or voluntary obligation will always refer to a course of action solely dependent upon the individual will and involving no penalty except that admitted by the individual.

2 The liberal-equalitarian concept of “progress” is an essential part of the moral-legal question, but cannot be dealt with in this brief study. Always, “progress,” “the march of events,” “the mainstream of history,” and so forth are used to justify reform, but search in vain for definitions of these slogans (e.g., see J. K. Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. N. Y.: Mentor Books, 1963, p. 21ff.).

3 See George Santayana, The Life of Reason (N. Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), p. 181 ff. This is the one-volume edition.

5 Santayana, Dominations and Powers, p. 163.

6 It is difficult to ignore the similari­ties between this thinking and that of Marx—the general ideas merge into one predominant thought: through com­pulsion, human nature can be “per­fected.” In a fairly recent study, Harold J. Blackham provides an interesting summary of “theocrats” who seek to stabilize society (eradicate individual will) through impersonal law (Harold J. Blackham, Political Discipline in a Free Society. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1961).

7 In contrast to the modern church, fundamental Christianity profits from Scriptural knowledge of human nature and seeks perfection only in Paradise. Fundamentalist churchmen quite defi­nitely reject physical compulsion as an instrument of Christian attainment—this has been the case ever since Chris­tianity, the “law” of example and per­suasion, replaced the physically compul­sory Mosaic law. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the controversial German Lutheran theolo­gian executed by the Nazis at Flossenbürg) exemplified the fundamentalist attitude by calling on the church to leave its shell and respond to the problems of this world. Throughout his writings, Bonhoeffer pleads for the church to do one thing: witness for Christ through personal example and persuasion. He specifically rejects church politics and the idea that social progress and the “Kingdom of God” are related (See the authoritative analysis of Bonhoeffer’s works: Martin E. Marty, ed., The Place of Bonhoeffer.. N. Y.: The Associa­tion Press, 1962).

8 The Houston (Texas) Post, July 4, 1964.

9 Walter Lippmann, An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society (Bos­ton: Little, Brown & Co., 1943), p. 343. Lippmann emphasizes throughout his work the vital importance of moral re­sponsibility in social organization. The Good Society and a later work, The Public Philosophy (1955), are strongly recommended for those interested in a depth study of the problem.

11 Benedict De Spinoza, Writings on Political Philosophy, ed. A. G. Balz (N. Y.: Appleton-Century Co., Inc., 1937), p. 88.

12 Elihu Root, “Experiments in Gov­ernment,” 1913—a lecture delivered while Root was a Republican Senator from New York. The great jurist and former Secretary of State under T. Roosevelt was warning against a too-rapid pace of reform. The most acces­sible copy of the lecture (a partial text including the quotation above) is in­cluded in the following collection of documents: Richard Hofstadter, Great Issues in American History, vol. II (N. Y.: Vintage Books, 1958), pp. 283-85.

  • Mr. Banks is an Instructor in American His­tory at Oklahoma State University.