Fidelity and the Person

Social glue is important in three areas: marriage, local community, and national patriotism

Princeton Professor Robert George has launched a new initiative that declares June “Fidelity Month” [see here]. He started the effort with a June 1 webinar, featuring a religiously diverse panel, discussing the importance of fidelity as social glue in three areas: marriage, local community, and national patriotism.

George has been moved by America’s growing social polarization: we seem to be lacking that social glue, and its absence has deleterious consequences for our society. I wish the initiative success, because America’s social fragmentation will not be healed without the recovery of a thicker mesh of common values. Values “diversity” is no recipe to promote our national goal: e pluribus unum.

Here I’ll focus on one point raised in the webinar: freedom and fidelity.

Yuval Levin put it well: freedom and fidelity go together. But—he admits—lots of Americans think they don’t, that to the degree that one holds to fidelity, to duties and responsibilities, one loses “freedom.”

Professor George seconded him, noting that American liberalism tends to regard all obligations except those freely chosen to be impositions on liberty and curtailments of freedom.

Why do people think freedom and fidelity are opposed?

Part of the problem, I’d argue, is the concept of the atomized person whose freedom is supposedly endangered by all-but-voluntarily-assumed obligations.

Western philosophy has been plagued for a good 500 years by a variety of thinkers who deemed human social relationships as artificial. One defining characteristic of “modern” thought is radical individualism — individuality supposedly imperiled by relationship.

This is far removed from classical thought, which recognized that human beings are naturally social. Aristotle (who was repeatedly praised in George’s webinar, but I hope his effort takes it down a notch to the man-in-the-street) said man is social because he is “political,” i.e., interested in his polis, his city-state, his place. Judaism and Christianity say man is social because God saves him not just individually but in community: a “chosen people,” “a royal priesthood.” Christianity adds to this, affirming that man is social because he is made in God’s image and likeness.

Modern thought—which is extremely formative of American and particularly elite American thought—would have none of this. Whether it be Thomas Hobbes seeing human beings as wolves ready to devour each other in pursuit of self-interest but for an absolute sovereign stopping them from doing so, or the more “benign” thinkers like John Locke who were also social contractarians; whether it be Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of the “noble savage” giving intellectual ammunition to everything from “peaceful indigenous Aztecs” to lone Marlboro Men, or even René Descartes thinking reality is constituted in his mind; whether it be John Mills or John Rawls, both allergic to thick societal common values, or Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that somehow magically advances beneficial social gain even as one relentlessly focuses on his own commercial profit; there is one common thread—relationship is, to a greater or lesser degree, alienating to “real” personhood.

The apogee of such individualism found voice in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, still lauded by some (though rightly derided by others), in the claim that “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

We need to overcome these puerile, callow understandings of freedom. As long as we afford them credence, natural relationships will always be under threat. 

No one picks his parents (though Big Fertility is increasingly letting parents pick their baby). No one picks his family. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for functional or dysfunctional, your parents are your parents. And that relationship—absent some egregious wrong—establishes two-way obligations, of parents towards children and children towards parents.

No one picks the time or place of his birth (though surrogacy increasingly enables parents even to game immigration benefits through picking the time of their child’s birth). You were born in California or Chengdu, in America or Mauritania. And that fact normally establishes a relationship to the place of one’s origins.

That’s not so true today. I subscribe to The New York Times, not because I agree with its editorial positions but because it gives reliable insight into elite opinion. In the past few months I’ve read a feature bemoaning a poor woman who had to put her career on hold to care for her elderly but somewhat irresponsible father [referenced here] and the equivalent of an Ann Landers’ column advice to an only child who doesn’t like his surviving parent and wonders what duties he has regarding the parent’s funeral when he dies. (The advice was: do it private and cheap, e.g., cremate). I’ve also followed a debate in the commentary section of the Times about patriotism. I’d argue that, while patriotism may take different forms, one has some obligation of love towards country. But commentators denied any such thing, insisting any sort of expectation of patriotism was somehow alien to “American values.” I found that, frankly, bizarre.

Because we are contingent beings born in a thick web of relationships with other people (whether we pretend they matter or don’t), those relationships have some normative value. “Honor your father and mother” was not considered, until our day, discretionary. Neither was “love your country” (without necessarily always agreeing with it).

One cannot talk “fidelity” unless one first talks relationship, and one cannot talk relationship until we first disabuse ourselves of the intellectual ballast—heavy on both the right and left—that relationships are not natural, normal, and normative, that not every duty that devolves on a person comes from freely assumed choices.

No one should imagine this will be an easy task: Half a century of bad philosophy stands behind it. But until we do, fidelity will always have to compete with those who chafe under its demands, be it from erroneous thought or self-interested guile.

“We are in this together” cannot be just an empty slogan. Until we recognize that we are in it together—and “it is good that we are here”—fidelity will always have to cope with the corrosive planning of an atomized individualism.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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