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The Necessity of Moral Absolutes in a Free Society

Editor's Note: The following remarks were delivered by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the Acton Institute’s Fourth Anniversary Dinner at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 5, 1994.

I am truly honored to be with each of you this evening. And, the honor is magnified because I can be here with my wife and best friend. I thank Father Sirico for his patience and persistence. He was kind enough to invite me during my first term on the Court and he certainly made sure that his invitation was not overlooked or forgotten. I have enjoyed both our correspondence and the opportunities we have had to talk. From my vantage point, our exchanges have been enlightening, inspirational, and encouraging.

I am now approaching the end of my third term of the Court. Though the first term was difficult, the subsequent challenges have all been positive and work related. My brief tenure has been most rewarding and peaceful. I am profoundly grateful to have been blessed with an opportunity to be of service to my fellow citizens as a member of the Court. Though I was convinced at different points in my life that first my vocation, then ambitions, were elsewhere, I have come to know that I am where I belong.

Father Sirico had on any number of occasions asked me what topics I proposed to speak on. Unfortunately, I did not know what I would talk about, since I do not have a stump speech and time simply did not permit me to put pencil to paper until this date drew near. One lesson that I have learned at the Court is that the work of the Court is voracious in its consumption of time and energies. I had no idea that it would be so demanding. Between now and the end of the term, the pace will reach somewhat of a frenzy as we work to complete the Court’s business. But, I have found it useful and rewarding to pilfer what time I can to get away from the confines of the work and the Court to be with some of the wonderful people who have been so kind to invite me.

I would like to say just a few more words about the Court from my perspective. Prior to going on the Court, I had not given it much thought as a working institution. Of course, like all of you, I had thought about some of the decisions that affected my life and our country. However, I was not what one could call a Court watcher or a student of the Court. I had visited a few times, but I had never attended an oral argument. And what I had read suggested that there were different and apparently warring camps among the Justices. And, judging from the tone of some of the opinions, there seemed to be some tension. Nothing I had read or heard prior to actually joining the Court suggested otherwise. But all of this is so far from the truth. I have never had the occasion to be a part of an institution that is so civil, so respectful, and dedicated to doing its best as does the Court. I do not say this lightly; nor do I say it for ulterior motives, no matter how obsequious it sounds. The work is hard, the cases are most difficult, and the pace can border on the impossible; but my colleagues and those who work at the Court make it all enjoyable. I am honored to know that I will spend virtually all, if not all, of the rest of my life there.

Often when I sit down to prepare a talk, I catch myself thinking that I can’t say this or that–not so much because it would conflict with my duties as a member of the Court but because it may not be the kind of thing that will be understood or the kind of thing that is said these days. That is not to say that there are not significant limitations. Believe me, there are. But even though there is much that I cannot appropriately discuss, I consider this added reluctance to be spineless. It seems to me that I had far more courage at the age of sixteen, when I would patiently defy conventional attitudes in a still de facto segregated environment by waiting patiently to be delivered my books in a legally desegregated library by a reluctant librarian or when I would be followed or watched intently as I browsed in the unfamiliar wonderland of a bookstore.

Why is it that many, if not all, of us think twice before we say what we really think or believe. Have we been silenced by the popular hecklers? Are we afraid? Is there a cultural inquisitor who stalks us all? Then, why is it that so many of us who know better about so much that we see around us cower and speak in hushed, mousy voices?

Almost a decade ago I heard a minister say that we were money-poor and values-rich in our youth. That is certainly true of my youth, though I did not know that we were money-poor until I was told so during my college years. Indeed, as long as we had food on the table, a roof over our heads, and clothes on our backs, we were money-rich. In all those years, I never heard a single complaint about what we didn’t have. Sure, we were told as kids that we couldn’t have this or that toy, because there was no money for it. But, this was not offered as a complaint, but rather as a realistic assessment of our financial position as a family. Not getting what we wanted when we wanted it (or at all) didn’t mean that we were money-poor.

Much of what I hear about the environment in which I grew up is cast in the civil rights context. I can understand this since, without that monumental effort, life would have been considerably different for all of us–and not for the better. I continue to admire the courage and conviction of those who were willing to stand against an obvious moral wrong. Just as in the abolitionist movement , the immediate solution may have been civil in nature, but the momentum of the movement had morality as its source. And, bigotry and racism, in all their forms, are immoral. But with that said, life in those years is depleted of so much of its meaning when, as is customary today, it is reduced so facilely to just civil rights.

Last May, I returned to my hometown for the first time since becoming a member of the Court. It was a most satisfying visit. Of course, I had a chance to visit with family, friends, and so many well wishers. It was wonderful. At St. Paul C.M.E. Church I was called upon to say a few words. I think a “few words” is different from a speech. I asked the mostly Black congregation a few questions. Now that we technically had civil rights, were their daily lives better? Could they now live their lives in peace; send their children to school with no fears; leave their doors open to catch an evening breeze? The answers, judging from the many nodding heads, were all a resounding “no”. Certainly, they did not think that obtaining their civil rights was a waste of time. That would be ridiculous. No, they were simply asserting that something crucial was missing. What was it? What got thrown out or lost?

Today, it seems that those among us who are skilled at rejecting our culture or criticizing the status quo are exalted over those who just do the best they can with what they have. That is not to say that those who challenge wrongs in our society should not be recognized or credited for doing so; but it is ironic that those who go on constructively in spite of obstacles are ignored or criticized.

I have often wondered about those good people who are the heart and soul of any community, and indeed our country. They have somehow accepted the notion that although our society affords them the freedom to go about their affairs without interference they must find some way to order their lives and live in harmony with others. Certainly, they cannot be completely autonomous and unaccepting of all rules.

With chaos swirling about and with little or no education, I often wondered how it was that there seemed to be a common understanding of right and wrong–of good and bad. At least during the years of my youth, there was no debate that I can think of about the absolutes. Some things were just wrong and generally accepted to be wrong. It was hard enough to do good and avoid doing wrong without engaging in an endless debate about what constituted either.

I can still remember the frustration on my grandfather’s face when I returned home from college, and constantly questioned whether there was anything such as right and wrong. Armed with a little knowledge of moral relativism and a desire to challenge what I thought to be overly restrictive rules that burdened my exercise of freedom without guilt, I argued pointlessly with him. He seemed totally unmoved and undaunted by my citations of philosophers and professors; he knew that one’s primary focus could not be on doing one’s own thing. There had to be something within each of us to order our lives and society. Merely perceiving society as the enemy was inadequate. And merely rejecting the absolutes because they got in my way was not a substitute for principle. Indeed, my whole approach depended on the existence of a dominant culture or way of thinking. He knew far better than me that this would get me nowhere, and confidently, if angrily, ignored me.

Because those in our neighborhood conducted themselves in much the same way, under the same set of rules, all of us were free to come and go in safety. Though our freedoms were impeded by Jim Crow laws and segregation, they were not additionally impeded by disorder. Indeed, it appeared that the obstacles from without demanded that there be order within–at least we had our neighborhood. Somehow it was understood that disorder was the enemy of freedom–everyone could not conduct himself or herself under ad hoc rules and expect to get anything done.

One simple example. It was simply not disputed that one did not engage in disruptive behavior–especially around another person’s house. In turn, they did not disrupt us, and we all were free to rest undisturbed. Similarly, you did not get into another’s house uninvited. Consequently, we could all leave our doors and windows open without fear on those hot summer evenings. Perhaps this does not rise to the level of right and wrong, but it makes the case even more clearly because the sense of right and wrong seeped to the less important level of propriety.

As we gained our freedoms, the emphasis seemed to be on just how do we use that freedom. Some things were right and others wrong. Even if the individual situations presented gray areas, the rules for judging them are black and white. A job worth doing was worth doing right. There was a right way to polish your shoes, a right way to say good morning to our elders, a right way to walk down the street. Always walk like you are going someplace; don’t wander aimlessly or you will wind up on the chain gang or, even worse, my grandfather might catch you.

There were also clear notions of good and bad. Stealing and dishonesty were clearly bad, no matter what the reason. Idleness was the devil’s workshop. I always wondered exactly what it was that the devil built in that workshop. I have now ceased to wonder. The guidelines were countless, but clear. They made life predictable and orderly. Within them, we were safe, free, and happy. I know that sounds odd, since the outside walls of segregation and bigotry persisted. Yet, it is true. We lived together in my community in peace, even as other problems persisted.

Ironically today, that same neighborhood, some 40 years since I first visited it, is not so peaceful. The tradition of segregation is gone. But so is the security of that wonderful little world. On one visit some years ago, while trying to go to sleep one night, we could hear gunshots and drug dealers plying their trade. The pleasant sound of kids running up and down the street was not to be heard. The corner that we frequented for snow cones, ice cream and an assortment of candies and gum seems moribund, and I believe, is occupied by a solitary liquor store. By no means do I think that my little neighborhood is the only place where this has happened. I am certain that there are many in my age group who look back nostalgically on their old communities and see much the same thing.

There was so much that was wrong; but so very much that was good and right. We hear so often about the former, but what happened to the later? What was there that has been changed or eliminated? We know today that something is very, very wrong.

I do not presume to have all the answers. God knows I have enough difficulty deciding the discrete matters that come before the Court to be sufficiently humbled when confronting more broad-based ones.

I am sure that most of us have looked back on the so-called “good old days”. My grandfather used to talk about his “good old days” and I would simply brace myself for a lecture about how terrible rock and roll and rhythm and blues were. He would actually go so far as to take the fuse out of the car so we couldn’t play that awful radio and run his battery down. Of course, I grew tired of hearing these lectures about the good old days. And, I am sure that there are many who would react to me in much the same way as I reacted to my grandfather. But, I have come to realize in so many ways that he was right; I was wrong. Perhaps some few will say in the distant future that I was right. Perhaps not.

So much of life seemed aimed toward building the conscience that is so necessary in a free society. As I noted earlier, freedom did not mean that one could do exactly what one wanted. There had to be an understanding of right and wrong; of good and bad; of obligations; of responsibilities. These, among others were to provide the inner compass to navigate the vast oceans of a free society.

But where did these unlettered people get there knowledge of our needs? How did they know from the moment we set foot in their house that we were to attend parochial schools; be altar boys. For the most part, I believe it was because they already had compasses; they had faith. And, as unpopular as it is to say this today, they indeed walked by faith, not by sight. They were sightless because of lack of education; sightless because of a denial of rights. But, they had faith and they had conscience. And they knew, with unshakable confidence, that we needed both to survive in a free country–even as so many freedoms were being denied us.

You know, I have listened to those who, armed with degrees, honorary and earned, have pooh-poohed those two unlettered people. But what is their alternative to conscience? What is their workable substitute for faith? How do they propose that we all learn how to use freedom properly?

I have found it odd over the years that we are ridiculed for trying to learn how to do good, trying to learn how to use freedom in a way that gives it positive content. I would have thought as I was growing up that this was to be praised. Rather, it is ridiculed in much the same way that we were teased as kids for dressing in uniforms and being required to go to church on Sundays. It was said then that the strictures of religion interfered with fun. I guess some things just don’t change.

I wonder how the critics would have gotten us through those years. What would we have done instead of being altar boys? How would we have learned the discipline of studying and working when there seemed to be no apparent reason to do so? How would we have learned to try to be good if it had not been reinforced by our beliefs? How would they have assured us of our inherent equality when all around seemed to deny it? How would they have kept us from getting killed or going to jail? How would they have kept us from being destroyed by anger, hatred, and animosity? How would we have learned personal responsibility without an overwhelming sense of ultimate responsibility for the whole of our lives? For those of us who were raised Catholic, there was nothing so frightening as going to confession on Saturdays to ask God’s forgiveness for what we had done–not what the devil made us do. We had free will and could choose between good and bad–right and wrong. And when we chose to sin, we had to confront our Maker, having once again fallen out of grace.

But there was so much more than merely not doing wrong. It became so very clear that we were to use our God given talents fully. They were not to be buried. I can remember in the eighth grade after we had taken the entrance examination for high school and I had done quite well compared to the other students, Sister Mary Virgilius expressed nothing but displeasure at me. I had more ability than that according to her. My feeling was that I had done well enough. But in my heart I knew she was right; I had buried much of my abilities under laziness and excuses.

At home I saw people who with so little demanded of themselves that they maximize the use of the little they had without complaint. With this attitude, there always seemed to be enough. Perhaps this is called frugality, but it is also using fully all the talents that were given them.

I know just saying what I have said is not popular anymore. I know just saying it opens me up to criticism. It is not sufficiently sophisticated; it’s impractical; and you can’t bring back that approach. Well, I don’t know all that. What I do know is that when I put my homemade compass down to explore some of those other experiments, they did not work. They merely substituted aimless autonomy of the individual for true freedom.

In one of the essays in her new book, On Looking into the Abyss, Gertrude Himmelfarb reaches much the same conclusion as those around me had reached, though most of them were unlettered.

“Liberals have always known that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. [We] are now discovering that absolute liberty also tends to corrupt absolutely. A liberty that is divorced from tradition and convention, from morality and religion, that makes the individual the sole repository and arbiter of all values and puts him in an adversarial relationship to society and the state–such a liberty is a grave peril to liberalism itself.”

And as Tocqueville put it:

“Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion...is more needed in democratic republics than in any other. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity.”

I, like many of my generation, flirted with those who were not content to decide between right and wrong, but rather decide right and wrong. But, in the end, there is no doubt in my mind who had the better approach to the use of freedom. The people who raised me did.

Thank you all, and may God bless each and every one of you.