Law, Liberalism and the Common Good

In D. S. Oderberg & Chappell T. D. J. (eds.), Human Values: New Essays on Ethics and Natural Law. Palgrave-Macmillan (2004)
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There is a tendency in contemporary jurisprudence to regard political authority and, more particularly, legal intervention in human affairs as having no justification unless it can be defended by what Laing calls the principle of modern liberal autonomy (MLA). According to this principle, if consenting adults want to do something, unless it does specific harm to others here and now, the law has no business intervening. Harm to the self and general harm to society can constitute no justification for legal regulation or prohibition. So pervasive is this understanding of legal intervention in human affairs, that it is common now to encounter arguments in favour of permissive laws on, for example, private drug use, pornography, sexual and reproductive choice, based on the idea that to intervene in these areas would constitute a breach of the liberal ideal. The only alternative to modern liberal autonomy is assumed to be radical oppression, in which the State intervenes in the individual’s life to impose unwarranted measures designed to further its own ends. The legacy of Stalin, Hitler and other modern tyrants has undermined conceptual appeals to the common good. So widespread is this liberal assumption in the Western, English-speaking world that critics of the outlook embodied by MLA are customarily regarded with suspicion and charged with paternalism, narrow-mindedness and intolerance. Laing highlights contradictions inherent in the modern liberal tradition. She argues that there is a certain reliance on the notion of the common good within the natural law tradition that is instructive. According to this view, the common good constitutes a mean between two extremes: on the one hand, contemporary liberalism’s over-insistence on radical individual autonomy and, on the other hand, totalitarianism’s over-emphasis on collective social benefit. There is, I will argue, substantial terrain between the conceptual excesses of modern liberalism and oppressive tyranny that needs to be acknowledged and discussed.
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