Pragmatism, Utilitarianism, and the TSA: How the Rejection of God from the Public Ethos has Eradicated Your Inalienable Rights

In all the recent justifications I’ve heard for the enhanced TSA searches, not one appealed to virtue or to the “rule of law.” Rather, the arguments made have been, “It prevents terrorism” or “it’s for the greater good” or even “it’s legal because we say it’s legal.”

While such searches are highly disturbing (especially for those who practice modesty), the justifications behind them are even worse. What is worse than the justifications offered by the TSA is that more and more people adopt the “this works” mentality when approaching any number of issues.

It seems that as a nation we’re relying on the Constitution less and less. Whereas the Constitution used to be the stop to government intrusion, it’s now seen as subordinate to our end goals; if our means rely us to subvert the Constitution in order to obtain what we declare a greater goal, then so be it.

Consider that President Obama’s administration is currently engaged in a legal battle stating that they have the right to assassinate American citizens without regards to due process or judicial review, even if such an assassination occurs outside of a combat zone. Or consider that multiple courts have upheld that people coming through US Customs, even US citizens, are not subject to the 4th Amendment; that is, the government can confiscate your items and detain you without probable cause or a search warrant. The justification in both instances is that in order to provide security we must suspend our rights. In order to prevent terrorism, capture terrorists, bring them down, or to simply bring in criminals, we must place our Constitutional rights on the alter of security.

Pragmatic Utilitarianism

Americans in general have always tended towards pragmatism as their method of ethics, but their overall ethical goals were generally shaped by virtue ethics (or a remnant of virtue ethics). That is, there was an end goal that ascribed to a certain virtue and whatever we did to meet that goal was good.

Pragmatism is the idea that the ends justify the means; if I must harm some people in order to achieve my end, so long as that end is greater than the harm I created I have acted in an ethical manner. Utilitarianism is the way we evaluate what our ends should be, which is generally whatever the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. What is “good” is generally determined arbitrarily and in our postmodern world has led us to a situation of Rex Lex (we’ll get to that in a bit). Suffice it to say, pragmatic utilitarianism is the teaching that the ends are the greatest good for the greatest amount of people and whatever means it takes to achieve that are then justifiable.

Consider the situation with the TSA. The argument is that for the security of the greater good, rights must be sacrificed, with certain members of the administration saying that we give up our Constitutional rights when we buy a plane ticket. The end (greater security) justifies the means (abolition of Constitutional rights) under the current ethical paradigm of our government. If I have to stomp on your 4th Amendment rights or violate your religious belief in modesty (thus trampling on your 1st Amendment rights) then so be it. As long as the end goal – which is security in this case – is achieved, your rights can be sacrificed.

We see this mentality so prevalent elsewhere in our Congress and even our national ethos. Why do we ban guns and put limits on them, even though the 2nd Amendment expressly states that citizens are allowed to have weapons and even form into a militia (one that is meant to challenge the government should the government usurp the Constitution)? The reasoning is that to lower crime, we must infringe on the public’s rights to weapons. Thus, the law of the land is put aside for temporary security. The ends (security) trumps the law (rights).

The Road to Tyranny

Pragmatic utilitarianism in and of itself doesn’t lead to tyranny, even when adopted as a national ethos. It’s quite possible that under a utilitarian ethos, the “greater good” could still be defined as the Constitution (or base rights), that no matter what, citizens having these base rights and keeping such rights from being infringed upon produces a greater good than any violation of those rights. The road to tyranny begins when we do away with Natural Law formulated from the belief in a Creator and instead place the government in such a role.

The Constitution was written by men from varying backgrounds. Some were staunchly Protestant, others Anglican, and many were Deists to Agnostics (Agnostic in the sense that they didn’t know what God was true, but still believed that “God exists” was more plausible than “God doesn’t exist”). In all they shared a common belief in a Creator who established a natural moral law, one that every human institution – including governments – had to adhere to. Such a concept is often referred to as Lex Rex, with “Lex” referring to the law and “Rex” referring to the king (or government). The ordering of the words Lex and Rex is intentionally done so in order to place the law above the king. The concept is that the law concerning humans and their rights was created by God or was simply an extension of His character; in either case, God became the ultimate lawgiver. Thus, while the king had sovereign rule over the people, his rule was limited to the bounds of the natural law.

Our nation actually grew out of the concept that laws could not be arbitrarily decided by a king or even by a Parliament. Rather, they adopted a Republican[1] style of government. The law, or protected rights, came before the government. While the government could raise taxes, increase security, defend the nation, or pass any number of laws, all those laws had to be written with the citizen’s rights in mind. If any law, no matter how well intentioned or even needed, trumped the rights of the citizens then such a law was illegal.

Such a system of government only works when there is a Natural Law in place, and Natural Law only works so long as there is a general belief in the Creator and absolute moral law. Even under a social contract theory where ethics evolved our of a need for survival, the ethics are determined by their survival grade and not as absolute. Thus, only when the national ethos accepts that God exists can we adopt Natural Law and only by adopting Natural Law can we preserve our Republic.

Unfortunately, believing in God became passé for our government leaders and for those that do believe in Him, they ardently strive to prevent their belief from influencing their decision-making. The fear is that by acknowledging there is a Lawgiver and a Natural Law, one would alienate atheists who have no belief in God. Thus, in order to embrace everyone, we accept a secular mentality. But under such a mentality the question arises, “Who makes the law?”

If there is no Lawgiver then there is no absolute natural code of ethics that a government has to follow. The Constitution is no longer a document acknowledging people’s God-given natural rights that the government can’t touch, but instead becomes a document given by the government, one the government can also take away or suspend. Under a secularist mentality of the government, Lex Rex becomes Rex Lex, there the king (government) becomes the giver of rights. Thus, if the government declares you have no rights, you cannot appeal to Natural Law to show you do have rights; the government has the arbitrary right to give or take away your rights because they are subject to no one but themselves.

Thus, the road to tyranny begins when God is taken out of the public discourse and Natural Law is eradicated from the public ethos. But humans are not built to survive without a leader. Every system, whether a government, a business, a philosophy, or anything else, will quickly leave Anarchy and begin to form a hierarchy; history has shown us that the descent into chaos is generally temporary. At some point, when x is replaced, is replaced y will take its place. In the case of Natural Law, the government has supplanted God, and such turbulence occurred in the 20th century. While Americans slowly moved towards secularism in the 19th century, it was in the 20th century when the national paradigm began to shift drastically against the idea of allowing a belief in God to interfere in public discourse. While academia had adopted such a policy in the late 19th century, such a mentality did not encapsulate the public ethos until the 1960’s. In the post-60’s climate where postmodernism finally defeated virtue theory, God was removed from the public ethos because He was “offensive.”

The road to tyranny began when God was removed from the public ethos. Once this occurred, the government became the lawgiver. Of course, the government is composed of people and people are fickle, or put more succinctly, people are mutable. Thoughts, values, desires, and almost anything else about humans are subject to constant change. A politician may support a bill one year and be against it the year after that. He may have his ethical values change over time. The fact is, when the government is in charge of giving rights, those rights are subject to constant change because the government will constantly change.

The Solution

The solution to the travesty we face is quite simple; if you want inalienable rights, put God back at the center of our ethos. This is more than paying lip service to an unseen, distant, ambiguous Deity. Rather, we must recognize that God exists and there’s good reason to believe God exists (in fact, one could argue that the burden of proof rests upon the atheists to prove naturalism as tenable). In light of the good reason for believing God exists, we should likewise believe that He is a Divine lawgiver.

This means that the ethical norms between individuals are held accountable both by the government and ultimately by God. Likewise, the government’s laws and their actions are held accountable to God. The government’s law may reign supreme only so long as it recognizes its role in the natural order as below God’s established law.

Recognition of Natural Law given by a Lawgiver is the only way to truly protect human rights. Once God is removed from the equation, Natural Law crumbles and with it so too does the intrinsic value of humans as well as their inalienable rights (as such rights become alienable since they come from a mutable source).

[1] Not to be confused with the modern day party, “Republican” is simply a descriptor for a nation that is a Republic