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  • Reply to Brand and Lenzner
  • Mark Blitz (bio)

Let me turn first to Mr. Lenzner's questions. My argument is that our government works best when it employs the responsibility it is designed to promote. Responsibility is the chief liberal virtue, the central element of the character that we need to exercise our natural rights well. This does not mean that we always exercise responsibility as we should, however, because of natural weakness, the excesses to which liberalism is prone, and poor education. Responsibility and other liberal virtues, moreover, impressive as they sometimes are, do not entirely constitute virtue, let alone the human good. These limits also affect responsibility's sway. I explored some of these issues in the sections on law, journalism, philanthropy, liberal education, and technology that followed my political discussions. As I also suggested, moreover, our responsibilities are unequal: the most responsible men come close to Aristotelian greatness of soul, but the rest of us do not.

Congress surely could have acted more responsibly in considering the Clark amendment. But the outcome was not undesirable because Congress did not have the only or most significant word, and the President was more responsible. Furthermore, informed citizens (especially those in think tanks) also considered the issue, and were the chief source of Congressional staff 's impetus to act. Not only the debilities I mentioned but also this clash and diffusion of responsibilities helps explain our government's combination of inattention, messy involvement, and sometimes bold and prudent action. Even bold action is restrained, however, because of the usually limited goals that devotion to natural rights and liberal character serve. Constitutional government's is not so far from its ought , given the limits of limited government.

This also means that no one simply determines who should prevail, and no one prevails forever. Or, if one likes, the Constitution and Declaration prevail, as long as enough of us, especially the most responsible, exercise our responsibilities for intelligent ends. I also tried in the chapters following the political ones to point to some current dangers that face the potentially most responsible, and ways to ameliorate them.

This further suggests that responsible citizens are not identical to responsible legislators, not only because government also involves executives and judges, but also because our public life is not identical to our government actions. I therefore devoted only a few chapters directly to government in a book about "responsibility and American public life."

As for Mr. Lenzner's deeper questions, the simplest answer is that because form and end differ they always conflict in practice to some degree. Forms take on lives of their own and ends outstrip their forms. Mindlessly followed laws, for example, begin to separate from the purpose they once energized. Rigid ritual or procedure replaces active effort. But no law or set of laws can achieve perfectly just distribution in any event. One of America's strengths, as I suggested, is how much our public actions use, depend on, and remain energized by the responsible exercise of the rights that they promote. The flatness of goods that we with equal right seek to enjoy is well coordinated with the formal or institutional ways we pursue them and the character we develop so we may continue to pursue them. We are more able than most regimes to remain young, but nonetheless, always suffer from some degree of unearned equality, ossified privilege, and imprudence. Responsibility, moreover, is too varied or voluntary in the positions to which it attaches and intelligence it exercises to be fully contained in any practice, and too narrow an end to encompass the human good in any event. I tried to suggest this in the chapters in which I discussed the challenge to what is good that biotechnology poses, and the power and limits of Locke's political philosophy.

Mr. Brand is concerned that I underestimate how much the movement of thought away from Locke in historicist and nihilistic directions affects our institutions and practices. I do take up the effects of these (and other) movements, however, in the sections on law, journalism, and liberal education that follow my discussion of government. I suggest there how responsibility continues to be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 69-70
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-23
Open Access
No
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