Commentary Magazine


Metaphysics and Politics in the Modern Age

In a National Affairs essay, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague George Weigel writes about the importance of metaphysics to our political and social life. 

According to Weigel, “there is a morally significant givenness to reality: a structure of The Way Things Are that can be discerned by reason and that, being known, disclosed certain truths about the way we should live.” He goes on to argue that “public policy that fosters individual human flourishing and the common good must take account of reality, and realities”–but worries that a “post-modern insouciance” about the deep truths embedded in the world and in us is having, and will continue to have, profoundly harmful effects on American society. We live in a time in which everything is up for grabs, in which many people view the human condition as plastic and malleable, and that “in a culture without metaphysics, the one trump card in public life becomes individual willfulness.”

In the similar vein, Ken Myers, host and creator of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, recently interviewed Adrian Pabst of the University of Kent on metaphysics. In the course of their discussion Myers pointed out that “our peculiarly modern disorders are tied to confusion regarding metaphysics.” Politics today typically excludes the question of the nature of things, he argues–and added that we falsely assume we can talk about things like wealth creation, justice, marriage and other matters without talking about what things are real and which are not. “Behind public policy is a vision of the common good,” according to Myers, “and behind a vision of the common good is a vision of the good.” What we need to do is retrieve metaphysics from the shadows if we hope to get things right.

I’m quite sympathetic to these arguments, including for entirely practical reasons. Because the suppositions we begin with determine the lives we lead, the laws we pass, the institutions we build, and the civilizations we create.

And so, for example, the architects of our Republic not only carefully studied history; they made judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government around them. Men are not angels, but they are capable of virtue. We are capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, believed capitalism depended on taking into account self-interest. It makes a world of difference, then, if we operate on the assumptions of Rousseau or Jefferson, Nietzsche or St. Paul, Marx or Madison.

Now it would be silly to expect ordinary Americans to sound like graduates of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. At the same time, it really would help our political discourse if we paid a bit more attention to metaphysical premises, if for no other reason than to identify, with some precision, points of intellectual, moral and political departure. Doing this may not resolve our political conflicts, but it would go some distance toward clarifying them. And once having done that, we can then explain, hopefully with care and persuasiveness, that philosophical errors at the beginning can lead to human suffering at the end, just as getting things right at the outset can result in human flourishing and fulfillment.

As a well-known carpenter from the first century put it, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.