Tyranny by Persuasion

John B. Shea
April 11, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Modern democracies are drifting inexorably toward totalitarianism and abuse of language is a potent factor in this unfortunate reality. Accordingly, in order to understand how in modern times, distortion of the meaning of the words 'justice', 'right', and 'truth', has resulted in a loss of freedom, one must first understand the true meaning of those words. Freedom is properly understood to mean the lack of coercion in the choice of the kind of life a person wants to live, assuming that it is in keeping with the eternal law. St. Thomas Aquinas understands the virtue of justice to be founded on the notion of "jus", or "right."1 This concept of "right" is owed to all human beings because of the objective reality that they are persons, rational beings, and are related to each other as equals since they share a common human nature.

The eternal law is God's wisdom, inasmuch as it is a norm for all action. Man is destined by God to an end which is in harmony with his nature. He is intelligent and free but not ungoverned by law. Through his very nature he has a law, which, as Jay Budziszewki has put it, "we cannot not know because it is imprinted on our minds, inscribed upon our consciences, written on our hearts." Those actions which are found in our nature and lead to our destined end, eternal life in union with God, are "right", that is, morally good; those at variance with our nature are "wrong" and immoral.2,3 This second meaning, which St. Thomas ascribes to "right" as "morally correct", applies not only to justice but to all the virtues. He defined natural law as "the rational creature's participation in the eternal law."4 Natural law commands us to be prudent, just, courageous and temperate in all our actions, and forbids the arbitrary claim for oneself of 'rights' as understood in nihilist modern thought. Typical examples are the imagined 'right' to choose abortion and in vitro fertilization.

The History of Moral Thought

St. Paul teaches, "For man has, in his heart, a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man: according to it, he will be judged." (Romans 2: 14-16). Cicero wrote specifically about natural law and in general, the ancient Greeks and Romans had some understanding of the sovereignty of God, and of the natural law. Hippocrates enunciated the principle "first do not harm" and the Roman Galen forbad the prescription of an abortifacient. After the fourth century, A.D. medical ethics for the most part, was consistent with Catholic teaching. In the eighteenth century however, following the Renaissance revolt against religious authority, men began to lose their belief in a personal loving God, and indeed began to assume His role. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) for example, held that sovereignty is derived from a social contract, and not founded on authorization by God. For him, natural law was the law of power, and the state in which that power was vested, was the only way to control man's egoism.

In 1873, Cardinal Newman wrote: "The ancient world of Greece and Rome was full of superstition but not infidelity, for they believed in the moral governance of the world and their first principles were the same as ours … But we are coming to a time when the world does not acknowledge our first principles."5

In the seventeenth century Descartes had said: "I think, therefore, I am." For him the concept had become more real than the apprehended reality, which the concept merely described. In the next century Kant held that postulates such as truth and freedom had to be held as existing apart from any relation to nature.6 A retreat from a realist metaphysics had begun. By the nineteenth century science and technology had given rise to momentous achievements, which were of great material benefit to society. This benefit was so attractive that many came to the view that science, with its satisfactory utilitarian results, was the sole source of truth.

Pragmatism and Politics

In the U.S., by the beginning of the twentieth century, realist metaphysics was replaced by the individualistic pragmatism of William James and John Dewey. For James, the function of philosophy was to look at "consequences, facts."7 For Dewey, there was no absolute truth, only relative truths, ever changing as the result of experience. He believed in 'plans of action' which, if they led to 'progress' were true, and if not, false. Dewey's notion of evolving truth is vividly reflected today in the judicial activism of Supreme Court judges in both the U.S. and Canada. Thinking that there is no such thing as truth, or that, if there is, no one can know it or agree about it, these judges find "rights" in their respective constitutions and laws, which cannot be found in any objective interpretation of these documents. They play fast and loose with the truth, using words as blank checks. They even try to compel elected parliaments to carry out their instructions. The public also has come to accept Dewey's notion of the truth and those in political power have therefore been able to usher in what Father Neuhaus has called "the end of democracy: the judicial use of usurpation politics."8 Hadley P. Arkes demonstrates that 'judicial activism' is more properly referred to as 'judicial injustice' because the courts are acting irresponsibly in misinterpreting constitutions and laws in order to institutionalize injustice.9

The Judiciary

In Canada, the Supreme Court, headed by judges whose appointments have never been screened or subjected to scrutiny, takes an active role in determining public policy.10 In 1998, the British Columbia Supreme Court held that a school board must uphold the secular nature of public schools, effectively barring orthodox Christians and Jews from serving on a public school board. The Ontario Supreme Court in 2000 ruled, against the opposition of the school, that a 17-year-old student in a Catholic school could attend the graduation dance along with his twenty-one-year old 'boyfriend'. The judge, R. MacKinnon, rejected the statement of Bishop Anthony Meagher, who explained relevant Church teaching, and accepted the pleading of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association that there are many different "opinions" in the Catholic Church. In 2001, Madame Justice L'Heureux Dube of the Supreme Court of Canada, rejected Trinity Western University's argument … "that one can separate condonation of the 'sexual sin' of 'homosexual behavior' from intolerance of those with homosexual and bisexual orientation." In July 2003, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that homosexual 'marriage' was now a right guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights. The Court redefined marriage as "the voluntary union of two persons." Would it be a Socratic irony to ask why these judgments and interpretations are so often consistent with the politically correct opinions of the day?

Pragmatism and Health Care

The alteration, which Descartes initiated in classical metaphysics, was reflected in American bioethics and political and legal theory in the latter half of the twentieth century. The American philosopher Richard Rorty, a nihilist who does not believe in any objective moral truth, nevertheless holds that "By use of rhetoric one can change one's desires into the truth."11 In the absence of a common societal belief in an external authority, the authority of God, the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas asks, "Are there post-metaphysical answers to the question: What is the 'good life'?" He asks, in effect, how modern atheistic society can make moral decisions. In his view, what is morally right "can only be won in a common endeavour."12 Such a view is simply ethics by consensus. These ideas have had a devastating effect on the culture of the modern world.

The U.S. government Belmont Report defined the three principles of bioethics as 'beneficence', 'autonomy' and 'justice'. These principles were not based on natural or divine law, but on whatever was decreed by bioethics 'experts' and was mandated by the current law of the land. The object of these principles was purported to be the promotion of the common good, but the truth about the good was not held to be objectively determined but was pragmatically defined as a best 'outcome' or 'consensus' arrived at as a simple utilitarian compromise between the parties to a conflict or debate.13 If consensus could not be achieved, judicial intervention or coercion was certain to follow - witness the Terry Schiavo case. This kind of coercion demonstrates that the Belmont 'autonomy' and 'justice' are a sham.

Pragmatic Bioethics, an influential recent book, indicates some of the radical results which this benign sounding term 'consensus' can lead to. In it there are authors who approve of killing to relieve pain, of suicide if it "gives meaning" to life, and who condone both abortion and human embryo research.14 Pragmatism has fostered the notion of consensus based 'political correctness' and of 'political correctness' based on consensus. Note that this consensus is intended to be the result of manipulation. Paul Wolpe and Glenn McGee state, that "…in modern biotechnologic controversies, public debate must be shepherded and fostered by an elite that is prepared to seize rhetorical primacy, and to mold existing institutions or create new ones for that purpose."15 As an example of such primacy, this year it was reported in Britain that a U.K. clinical ethics network had been established to provide information and support for clinical ethics committees. An important aspect of this support is to "…reassure both clinicians and patients without presupposing that there is an ethically correct outcome" (Italics added). Such reassurance would undoubtedly assist the achievement of a 'consensus' about a patient's treatment, and help to lessen the chance of subsequent litigation by patients or their relatives.16

These elites may have noble motives, but they base their claim to authority on a Pelagian utopianism, which ignores the natural law, the fall of man and the need for the grace of God. In this regard they merely conform to the ideas of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the French positivist who held, as do present day pragmatists, that society should not be truly democratic, but should be led by an elite. Comte's elite were, as Joseph Varicalli put it, "…those best able to decipher and implement the truths of scientific understanding." Comte's 'science' was not confined to the study of natural phenomena, but was also "…a world view, an alleged moral order."17 As Jason Bofetti has indicated in "How Rorty Found Religion" (First Things, May 2004, no. 143), Rorty offers social solidarity that can take the place of a 'communion of saints' in the form of a democratic community, "a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something, not merely human, that really matters." Rorty, an atheist, advocates a 'civil religion' or democracy, a faith in human potential for socially just behavior, which emphasizes relations among men and not between us and God. He holds that when belief in God conflicts with 'civil religion', traditional religious beliefs must yield.

Pragmatism has delivered the cause of true justice a violent blow. The unborn, the aged and the infirm are being killed. Women are rarely made aware of the fact that oral contraceptives are frequently abortifacient; that abortion increases the incidence of cancer of the breast; that in vitro fertilization results in the death of the death of a large majority of embryos, and that the condom does not prevent the spread of sexually transmitted disease. Women are therefore often not free to give properly informed consent. It even appears probable today that in the future Catholics and others of good conscience may not be morally free to enter the practice of medicine, nursing or pharmacy.

The United Nations

The Cartesian denial of truth has led to a nihilistic notion of the universe, which has found favor right at the top of the political tree - the United Nations Organization. Its Charter, with its emphasis on the global interdependence and universal responsibility of the "one Earth Community", implicitly promotes a concept of 'one world government'. It reflects Hans Kelsen's view of the law as a system of producing norms; an essentially coercive order, which commanded obedience.18 Kelsen's view bore no relation to reality and did not refer to anthropology, history, religion, psychology or morality. In his view man could exist only as an artificial person, recognized as such in the eyes of the law. Human dignity, human rights, and the family had only a judicial existence. Norms could be based merely on established custom or consensus. The norms were to be consistent with each other and were all ultimately derived from a first norm, which was simply presupposed. The reason for its validity could not be questioned. Its truth was not pertinent. Obedience was to be blind, as it was in the Kantian imperative. Unfortunately, Kelsen's theory of rationalist positivist law has profoundly influenced United Nation's conceptions of the "New Rights of Man", of consensus and of internationalism.19

An "Earth Charter", lauded by Mikhail Gorbachev in 2000, was intended to guide the conduct of "all individuals, organizations, businesses, governments and transnational institutions."20 Msgr. Michel Schooyans, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, and consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family, has stated that the "Earth Charter" depicts the human race as "a part of a vast universe in the process of evolution" … marked by "an unprecedented growth in population." The "Charter", he said, "sees all religions - but particularly the Catholic faith - as obstacles to progress" and sees Christian Humanism as a concept, which has to be abandoned and rejected, in order to exalt a neo-pagan cult of "Mother Earth."21 Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, President of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, speaking at Lourdes at the World Day of the Sick celebration on February 10, 2004, said that "… the new global pragmatic consensus ethics demands that religion must be replaced by a new spirituality which has as it objective global well-being within sustainable development."22

The rise to power of Wolpe and McGee's new 'elite', an elite deeply committed to atheistic pragmatism, has been responsible for the corruption of judicial power both at the national and international levels. In this regard, Judge Bork has written, "The crucial question for all nations that desire to remain self-governing is how to tame and limit the anti-democratic aggressions of their judiciaries and of international tribunals and forums."23


The worldwide loss of a proper understanding of the truth about the meaning of justice and freedom has led to a form of tyranny never before seen in history. It operates with the cooperation of a new class of enforcers … judges, appointed by a powerful elite, who are only too willing to do its bidding. This elite, is described by Robert H. Bork (First Things, Aug. Sept. 2004) as composed of university faculties, the news media, many churches, foundations, television networks and Hollywood. It rules not only by means of subtle persuasion of the populace, which results in what is euphemistically termed 'consensus', but also by the use of brute power if and when necessary.

There are signs however, of the beginning of a public reaction to this bullying. President George W. Bush, in his January, 2004, State of the Union Address to Congress, in response to a Massachusetts court decision last year, that ruled in favor of same-sex marriages, warned that a constitutional amendment may be needed. He said, "If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage."

Pope John Paul II has taught that, if the understanding of revealed truth "wishes to integrate all the wealth of the theological tradition, it must turn to the philosophy of being … in harmony with the demands and insights of the entire philosophical tradition." He also has taught, that "In order to fulfill its mission, a moral theology must turn to a philosophical ethics which looks to the truth of the good, to an ethics which is neither subjectivist nor utilitarian. Such an ethics implies, and presupposes a philosophical anthropology and a metaphysics of the good."24 For Aquinas, the good is just another way of thinking about being. Aquinas' natural law tells us that natural reason, when presented with various instances of the good, sees that we are not just free, but also morally obliged. It is therefore our duty as Catholics, not only to dialogue, but also, to demand the freedom to proclaim the faith in Christ, the truth that makes us free, and also to recall the world to a true philosophy and a true science.


1 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 11-11 58 I. [Back]

2 Jay Budziszewski, PhD. Assoc. Prof., Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. 'Escape from Nihilism. The Real Issue', (Feb. 13 2004). [Back]

3 Catholic Encyclopedia. Natural Law. 1X. [Back]

4 St. Thomas Aquinas, 1-11 Q.xciv. [Back]

5 John Henry Cardinal Newman, Catholic Sermons of Cardinal Newman, London: Burns and Oates, (1957). 121-123. [Back]

6 Jacques Maritain, Freedom in the Modern World, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, (1936), 4. [Back]

7 John Dewey, Journal of Philosophy, V., 50. [Back]

8 Fr. Richard Neuhaus, First Things, (Nov. 1996). [Back]

9 Hadley P. Arkes, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, Cambridge University Press, (2002). [Back]

10 C.Gwendolyn Landoldt, Judicial Activism, a Threat to Democracy, Life Ethics Centre, Toronto: (2003), 142. [Back]

11 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, Philosophical Papers, vol.1. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. (1991), 8-9. [Back]

12 Jurgen Habermas, The future of human nature. Cambridge (UK): Polity Press (2003). [Back]

13 The Belmont Report (1978), Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research. The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. [Back]

14 Pragmatic Bioethics, Second Edition, (2003), M I T Press. [Back]

15 Ibid. [Back]

16 Anne Slowther et al. 'Development of Clinical Ethics Committees', British Medical Journal, (17 April 2004), 328 950-952. [Back]

17 Joseph A. Varacalli, 'What Hath Sociology To Do With Catholicism?: An Orthodox Catholic Response to Tertullian, Comte, and Marx.' Faith & Reason, (Summer 2003), Vol. XXVIII No.2, 181. [Back]

18 Hans Kelsen, Pure Theory of Law. Knight trans., U.C. Berkeley Press, (1967). [Back]

19 Michel Schooyans, The Hidden Face of the United Nations, Translated by Rev. John H. Miller, C.S.C., S.T.D., Central Bureau CCVA, St. Louis, Mo. (2001), 82-83. [Back]

20 Earth Charter Secretariat, (2000). [Back]

21 See reference 19 above. [Back]

22 Zenit News Agency, The World Seen from Rome, (Feb. 14 2004). http://www.zenit.org [Back]

23 Robert H. Bork, Coercing Virtue: The Worldwide Rule of Judges, American Enterprise Institute Press, Washington (2003), 159. [Back]

24 Pope John Paul 11, Fides et Ratio, Encyclical Letter, No. 97 (1998). [Back]