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Value-based governance

Stephen Wandor | Sunday, April 7, 2013

“When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
So states Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons.” I should think it hard to find many people who would disagree with this sage advice from one of the greatest lawyers and statesmen of all time, yet this is exactly what Jack Rooney suggests in a recent column (“Defining Love,” Mar. 22). Mr. Rooney believes that “more often than not… conservatives place their own ‘values’ (often deriving from the Christian right) above [personal liberty]. Such imposition of values applies not only to same-sex marriage, but also to abortion, capital punishment and the role of religion in government as a whole.” Yet is not a certain imposition of values just what More is calling us to do?
Indeed, if you take a closer look at law, you will find government truly is a collection of values that it imposes on society. Take, for example, the principle and commandment “Thou shall not steal.”  Not only does this show up in the 10 Commandments –  clearly something ‘valued’ by the Christian right – but it is also enshrined in law. There are very few who would argue this value should not be law despite its religious connections, so then the question must be asked: From where should we derive the values we enshrine in our law and our government?
Clearly religion cannot be the answer in such a diverse country with many different faiths. It would be best to find a basis for our law in something that can cross faiths, generations and cultures. To me, the answer to this question seems to be something innate within each and every human being: our telos. The understanding of what it means to be a human being, or telos in philosophical terms, is this common theme from which values and laws can be derived in a rational way for all people. Telos is something deeper than what we generally think of when talking about the purpose of our current lives, but it is at the very core of many of our actions.  
This common goal all humans have is a desire within themselves to be the best version of themselves that they can. Christians would rephrase humanity’s telos to say our purpose is to know, love and serve God, but this is exactly how Christians would define becoming the best people we can.  Without this purpose or an understanding of humanity driving our values, we will be left in a world where what I ‘feel’ is right defines my values, and what you ‘feel’ is right composes your values. There is no common basis for law or governance in this kind of world, and thus the strongest will prevail while others give up their private conscience on behalf of public duties for personal gain.  
To summarize, government must be an entity that imposes values on its people, but these values should come from something common within man. This common theme is our telos, which can be defined as becoming the best version of ourselves we can. From this understanding of humanity, we can now develop a government through an examination of what values can be rationally derived from our purpose. As for what these values are, I will leave that to further debates and discussion, but this provides a basis on which government should function.  
Perhaps it is then not religion that fuels many conservative values, but rather an understanding of humanity’s telos and the dignity of each individual which can be derived from that. Saying “it is in the Bible” or “because God says so” certainly does not constitute a valid reason to support a law, but religion can be a very helpful aid in furthering our understanding of our purpose in this life and how we can obtain a more perfect government. Criticizing a person’s position because of their faith is an ad hominem attack, not a justification for the other side, and certainly does not help us obtain a greater knowledge of our purpose and our government’s role in it.  
For reasons of brevity, it is impossible for me to give a full justification of or reasoning for all that is written here, so I invite anyone who wishes to further the discussion to investigate further and read (I highly recommend Sir Thomas More in the area of conscience and law). Finally, I am always open to respectful dialogue on just about any political issue, for it helps us all to become the best persons we can be.
Stephen Wandor is a senior studying aerospace engineering. He can be contacted at swandor@nd.edu
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer