Reintroducing Selfie Nation To Truth

Printed from:

The Age of Selfies:  Reasoning About Rights When the Stakes Are Personal
By Adam J. MacLeod
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
168 pages


We live in an age of ideological civil war. And as in most wars, both sides think that the outcome is vital for our nation. The differences between the worldviews of the left and right, secular and Christian, and socialist and capitalist are broad and stark. Worst of all, opposing sides in these struggles ascribe evil intentions to their opponents. Our arguments are good and just; the other side’s beliefs are unfair and even wicked. Even worse, if one holds an opposing view, one is seen as hateful, bigoted, and shameful. Compromise appears impossible. The result is a toxic and broken culture which threatens the very body politic of America.

Adam MacLeod’s new book, The Age of Selfies, is an attempt to show us how to disagree about the great moral issues of the day without rancor and malice. A law professor at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama, MacLeod received his law degree at Notre Dame Law School – the last great law school that teaches that natural law philosophy is the keystone of American jurisprudence. MacLeod is influenced by the teaching of the intellectual giant John Finnis on natural law, and was mentored by Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and currently perhaps the leading Christian voice in the public square.

MacLeod has written elsewhere about law and moral truth.  The Age of Selfies attempts to find a way through stormy waters where the very concept of truth is up for grabs. Committed to reason and civil discourse, Professor MacLeod shows the reader how to disagree kindly, as he argues for a pluralistic society which allows for differences in political and moral issues where difference is possible and understanding where it is not.

Intellectually rigorous, the book takes us through key principles of moral philosophy, natural law, and Christian theology. But it is well worth the effort. One of the most trenchant parts of The Age of Selfies is the chapter on undergraduate and graduate students – members of the so-called Gen Z and Millennial generations. Unlike Americans of previous eras who believed that truth is determined by looking to nature and to objective standards, truth for these students (nicknamed “selfies” in the book) is seen as personal. Truth evolves from how a selfie feels and believes. And furthermore, one may not judge a selfie nor a selfie’s concept of truth and a selfie’s beliefs of what is right and wrong. “Judgmentalism” is seen as intolerance and, as such, is one of the worst sins for a Millennial. Those who appeal to objective standards of reason such as human nature and divine law come in for the harshest condemnation for their discrimination and judging. Of course, if all truth depends on how we feel about something, bitter disagreements about good and evil and right and wrong are inevitable.

In The Age of Selfies, Professor MacLeod takes us through some of the means that he employs to encourage his students to see that basic human rights do not come from personal feelings but rather from truths about human beings. Those truths were taught in previous centuries by the great Greek and Roman philosophers as well as by Jewish and Christian figures such as Moses, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. He takes the reader through human rights and how rights demand correlative duties. And he shows how our rhetoric about rights has gone wrong, using modern day examples of “rights” to prostitution and human trafficking and the “inalienable right” of every individual to have access to the Internet. He also focuses on the right that we all have not to be defamed (as happens so frequently now on social media by groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center which puts certain people such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali or organizations such as the Family Research Center on its “hate list”).

One of the most fundamental differences between the worldview of great leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. and selfies has to do with the formers’ willingness to pay the price for contravening an unjust law or breaking a rule or regulation. Selfies are not willing to bear the cost. MacLeod gives the example of a Native American student who demanded the right to wear a feather at his college graduation ceremony despite strict rules against wearing decorations on graduation regalia. The college had established the rule in order to avoid symbols and statements that would distract from the ceremony. When the president of the college refused to allow the student to wear a feather to display his cultural heritage, the student threatened to contact the media. In keeping with times, the president relented, and the student was allowed to wear the feather, which “didn’t harm anyone” and made him feel good. In previous times, great leaders like Gandhi and King understood that breaking a law, even an unjust law or rule, required paying a penalty – even of imprisonment. Another famous case of civil disobedience is Thoreau’s willingness to be jailed in Concord, Massachusetts for refusing to pay his taxes in protest against the Mexican-American War.

In showing the reader how to disagree well in today’s fractious culture, MacLeod emphasizes the importance of pluralism. Unlike countries that are ruled by a dictator, as in Syria, or a Communist government, as in China, Cuba, or North Korea, we live in a democratic and pluralistic society which can tolerate widely different worldviews and approaches to life. MacLeod describes two hypothetical colleges – Virtue College and Authenticity College – both institutions dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge. Authenticity College’s mission is to acquire knowledge of oneself, reflecting its commitment to personal authenticity above all else. Rather than challenging students’ assumptions or convictions, the faculty affirms the beliefs of each student. When a student performs some act that calls into question another student’s authenticity, other students and faculty condemn and even shun the offending student.

On the other hand, Virtue College considers the acquisition of knowledge and the search for truth as its cardinal mission. The faculty is not interested in the opinion of the students except insofar as those ideas and opinions conform to what is excellent and true. There is a rigorous core curriculum that encompasses the great classics – both of the West and other cultures. There are also strict rules of behavior against cheating and anti-social or debauched behavior.

Although there are enormous differences in the way these two colleges approach education, there is indeed room for both in America. These hypothetical colleges will surely produce different graduates, but they all can be valuable members of society. In like fashion, MacLeod pleads for our country to allow for the “plural domains” of our society – what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of community and faith groups, charities and private companies – to do their work. We need to lower the stakes of our public controversies and avoid zero-sum contests in contentious moral issues. If we can lower the temperature of our civic course, we can perhaps begin to live up to our country’s great motto:  E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.


Andrew Beckwith is the President of the Massachusetts Family Institute.