Bill Buckley and ‘Professional’ Moralists

I was recently rereading Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist, a collection of William Buckley’s columns and short essays. In one piece, from 1987 (timely journalism!) Is There a Role for the Moralist?, he looks at the intersection of law and religion:

“The Vatican’s recent proposals urging governments to ban medical intervention in human reproduction,” writes the [New York] Times’s Marcia Chambers, “raise serious constitutional issues that could soon emerge in state legislatures and the courts, legal scholars say. The experts say that if laws supporting the Vatican’s position are adopted, challenges to them would center on two legal doctrines: the right to privacy in decisions controlling a human’s body and church and state separation under the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

There is a lot of unmediated though in that paragraph. Presumably if the Vatican came out against racial discrimination in 1854, the U.S. Supreme Court would nevertheless have felt free to wait until 1954 to prohibit Jim Crow. But the silly business apart – the suggestion that a codification by the American democratic process of ideas that originated with a church somehow makes those laws fragile – we really ought to acknowledge (within reason) the role of the professional moralist.

There are moral quandaries, and we need guidance. And those who believe that the Judeo-Chirstian narrative is God’s narrative should give special attention to the personal relevance of a body of men whose lifelong concern is the study of right and wrong, and how to tell the difference between the two.

In this space we’ve argued about right and wrong before, but the point is that when it comes to politics, leaving a creative space for people with conflicting views of “good” to work towards their vision is both the most moral and efficient way to determine the best arrangements. Whether those arrangements are moral, economic, or social, they transcend the political realm. For libertarians, most things are too important to leave to politics.

I must quibble with Buckley on one point, however. I would not call men or women of the cloth “professional” moralists. Speaking generally, such people feel called to remove themselves from life, to abjure the trappings of this world, to live a life distinct and apart from their parishioners. It seems reasonable to call such people academic, rather than professional, moralists. They study morality, but are prevented from routinely engaging in the substantive interpersonal transactions or relationships where morality may be found, or found wanting. A history professor studies history, but is rarely studied himself.

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