The Distinction Between Sin and Crime
America’s founding fathers employed an experimental model based on the notion that government ought to protect rights. Yet even that greatest of political achievements was predicated upon a moral condition, most famously expressed by John Adams:
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
What did Adams mean? Self-government, a term which has lost some of its meaning over the course of history, surely refers to autonomy. To self-govern is to live in political independence without subjugation to tyranny. But Adams and his contemporaries saw more. To them self-government demanded self-control, the ability to restrain ourselves from the thoughtless indulgence of every whim. In his time as throughout history, religion was widely regarded as the only institution aside from government capable of restraining men’s base instincts. Even today, many still hold to Adams’ view that the Constitution is inadequate to govern an irreligious people.
Certainly, it is true that the Constitution is wholly inadequate to the government of an immoral people. However, the morality which men need in order to coexist in peace need not come from religion. A Russian immigrant to the United States who spent her life decrying the evils of communism also discovered an objective morality derived through reason, a morality which references the facts of reality in its demand that each individual live free.
Ayn Rand’s theory of rights is based upon the observation that life is the ultimate value. In other words, life makes all values possible and all values serve a thriving life. For example, let’s say you want a new car. Without life, there would be no you to want the car. Further, you want the car in order to improve your quality of life. The same proves true of any value you may choose to pursue. While particular values can certainly be subjective (I like onions while my wife hates them), the concept of value is not. No matter what you prefer, you can value it only because you live, and you pursue it in service of your life.
Further noting that human beings conceive of and pursue their values through a process of rational thought, as opposed to the instinctual nature of lower animals, Rand concluded that man’s nature endows him with the right to act upon his own judgment. That right is necessarily bound by the same right in others, so that you cannot rightfully act to harm or restrict another.
In a world where this objective morality was recognized and observed, government would look very different than it does today. It would most resemble the early United States as originally intended, though it would differ remarkably even from that. Let’s tick through some issues and consider how they might be addressed.