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A Time to Build: Recovering Perfectionist Liberty

July 12, 2023


Two broad rival visions of freedom can be discerned in the Western tradition of philosophy: voluntarism and perfectionism. While voluntarism has been regnant in our culture for generations now, I suspect that, in light of recent Supreme Court decisions, we may be living at the dawn of a recovery of perfectionism. Before explaining why, let us first explore this question: What is the difference between the two visions?

According to voluntarism, freedom is simply the capacity to do what one wills to do, without external impediments. As Thomas Hobbes explained this view, liberty is simply “absence of opposition.” Freedom on this view primarily means absence of restriction on the desiring self. Voluntarism is perhaps best encapsulated in the immortal words of Eric Cartman: I do what I want

Contrast perfectionism. According to perfectionism, liberty is directed toward flourishing: freedom is for the good. On this vision, freedom increases as one grows in the virtues, for one is thereby advancing toward the good, and growing in one’s capacity to communicate good to others. As the Catechism puts it: “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes” (CCC 1733). 

The theologian Servais Pinckaers illustrated the two visions with the helpful metaphor of a child and a piano, which I have personally experienced. A few years ago, some friends at our parish were looking to give an old piano a new home, and we were happy to adopt it. During those first weeks and months that our new Hamilton was settling in, I would often wake up with a start, wondering if the world was ending. I would then realize it was just the sound of Hamilton crying out in pain as it was being pounded by little hands.

The untutored child in relation to a piano illustrates the bankruptcy of the voluntarist view. In a voluntaristic sense, the child certainly is “free” when he mashes the piano keys at his pleasure. But the noise he generates is not beautiful. It is ugly. I quickly realized that if I wanted a more pleasant wake up call, my children would need piano lessons. And as they underwent instruction, they faced all sorts of impediments to what they had willed to do regarding their posture, hand placement, finger movement, etc. In short, they underwent training to acquire the habits proper to a pianist that restricted their voluntaristic “freedom.” 

Now is a time to put the old ideas of virtue and liberty into action . . . Now is a time to build.

Yet, as they advanced in skill and knowledge, they actually became freer the more they developed their capacity to do excellent things, to make Hamilton sing. My eldest son, for example, can now listen to a song and teach himself how to play it, and add his own riffs. Now I wake up to Hans Zimmer’s “No Time for Caution from the climax of Interstellar. (Ironically, I thus still awake wondering if the world is ending, but it is a more pleasant dread.)

Progress as a pianist is a metaphor for progress in the moral life. The progress of human freedom and excellence go hand in hand such that one grows in liberty as one grows in virtue. For as one increases in virtue, one progresses in self-mastery, which in the Christian rendering is freedom from sin. Such freedom opens innumerable paths in which one can use one’s freedom for the sake of beauty, justice, truth, etc. 

But even if one has the virtues, the law of one’s polity can open or close off paths of virtuous pursuit. And, indeed, one of the predominant questions of constitutional and federal law in recent years has been this: Will perfectionist plans of life be lawful or not? Some would argue that this is primarily a cultural question, and that politics and law are, really, downstream of culture. Others would contend it is primarily a legal question, because culture is downstream of politics and law. In truth, both claims have some validity such that culture, politics, and law are dynamically related to each other. Hence, the law and its interpretation are very important for their potential impact on the culture, and the vision of freedom that animates it.

In its last couple terms, the Supreme Court has handed down significant victories for the perfectionist vision of freedom. Since the days of the old liberal Warren Court, the trajectory of the Court’s jurisprudence has been voluntaristic. “Freedom” was said to include all sorts of rights arrayed against traditional moral duties and virtues, particularly in the realm of sex and the family, but also sometimes in the areas of freedom of expression and religion.

Take the example of abortion: Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court rewrote all fifty states’ abortion statutes to make them radically permissive. This was effectively judicial legislation and imposition of the voluntaristic view on every community in America. Following Dobbs overruling of Roe last year, Americans could once again exercise the liberty that the original Constitution protected: the capacity to decide in their states and local communities whether preborn life will be positively protected and valued in the law in a way that, in turn, orients freedom toward objective goods like motherhood and babies. 

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This term, a couple important cases have underscored that the freedom for perfection vision is legally protected. 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis pitted Colorado against Lorie Smith, a graphic web designer who sought to start a business informed by her faith and which would serve all people regardless of personal characteristic. But Colorado threatened to punish her if she refused to make custom websites celebrating gay weddings. In other words, the case was about whether a state could compel its citizens, contrary to their consciences, to speak its own preferred voluntaristic messages regarding gay marriage. The Court held for Lorie, contending that the First Amendment protects her from compelled speech. In a related case a couple terms ago, the Court held that Catholic Social Services and the volunteer foster parents it had worked with for over a hundred years could not be shut down just because it declined to be conscripted by Philadelphia into advancing its voluntarist vision of marriage. 

Meanwhile, in Groff v. DeJoy, a Title VII case, the Supreme Court reconsidered its precedent for how religious workers should be accommodated by employers. Gerald Groff, a USPS employee, could not work on Sundays when USPS started servicing Amazon orders because of his Christian obligation to observe the Sabbath. USPS refused to accommodate him. The Supreme Court held in Groff’s favor, raising the standard that employers must meet when considering accommodations requests, thereby breathing new life into Title VII religious discrimination claims. 

These cases are significant victories because they make legal space for individual and communal lives premised on the perfectionist view of liberty. Whether as administrators of nonprofits, as business owners, or as employees, the Court has affirmed that Americans have a right to frame their professional lives upon traditional Christian perfectionist principles, which include the belief that what the Bible teaches about marriage and the Sabbath are truths that don’t change with the zeitgeist (Gen. 2:23-24; Matt. 14:4-9; Exod. 31:15; Luke 23:56). 

Christians, and indeed all traditionally minded folks, should not waste the opportunity they have been afforded. The Court’s protection of personal and corporate liberty goes hand in hand with federalism, the Constitution’s allocation of power between the federal government and the states, which is broadly in line with the Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity. While there are potential negative effects of the ongoing Big Sort, this toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube. Americans are voting with their feet, seeking communities with like-minded neighbors—and this provides an opportunity to construct and grow robust communities framed upon perfectionist principles. Now is a time to put the old ideas of virtue and liberty into action in one’s own life, family, workplace, parish, and local community. Now is a time to build.