Theology, Morality, and Public Life
Conference will take place Wed and Thurs, Feb 26-27
University of Chicago Divinity School
Professor Elshtain: Good afternoon, I want to welcome you to this conference, to this event and to the Divinity School and to Swift Hall at the University of Chicago. I want first to acknowledge the PEW Forum Staff which is co-sponsoring this event. I don’t know where everyone is at this point, but there we go…John Carlson, and Mieke Holkeboer and Liz Bucar and Barbra Barnett. If you need or want anything that they can help you with, please ask them. They will be happy to instruct you about where you need to go in order to find what, in this building or nearby.
I also want to acknowledge the contributions of Ken Grasso, who is a member of the PEW Christian Scholars political science team and he is the person who helped me enormously in putting together this program and also helping to organize our meetings. This is a group that has met with special guests, that you will hear from today, over the last couple years to discuss some very important themes including the theme of the Nature of the Human Person that I’ll say a few brief words about.
I also want to bring you greetings from Dean Richard Rosengarten, the Dean of the Divinity School. He is unable to be here at this moment, but I believe he will greet us later. And, I want to welcome Wisconsin Public Radio here today to do some taping. I am sorry, Minnesota. Forgive me folks. It’s not that they all blur together in my mind. I understand the distinction. Minnesota Public Radio is here and we especially welcome Krista Tippett, from Minnesota Public Radio who has taken a special interest in the programs of the PEW Forum on Religion and Political Life and on this program co-sponsored by the Forum and the PEW Christian Scholars program.
I want to introduce now for a few words, Kurt Berends, from the PEW Charitable Trust who will give you just a sense of the PEW’s Christian Scholars program that is responsible for most of the personnel you’ll be meeting, people you will be hearing from, but also has put together this program. So Kurt…
Kurt Berends: Thank you. On behalf of the Christian Scholars program at the University of Notre Dame and the PEW Charitable Trust, I would like to add our welcome and I am glad that you have found time to come to what I think will be an excellent program these next few days and I’d like to thank our panelists and Professor Wolterstorff getting us off to what I think will be an excellent start. This is part of a larger project we are running through the Christian Scholars program that explores how Christian perspectives on the Nature of the Human Person might enrich or contribute in certain ways to current academic conversations going on in the academy today and there are eight different teams, of which the political theory team is one, asking a variety of questions and engaging in a variety of studies and research programs seeking to explore, raise questions, challenge the academy to consider how Christian perspectives might shape ongoing conversations within the academy and most of these program’s research teams are meeting in private. There will be next year a capstone conference coming out of this in Washington, D.C., which will bring the teams together for a kind of public presentation. You are getting here, I think, a foretaste of the work that is being done through the political science team and, just again, want to thank you for coming and trust you enjoy the coming events today and tomorrow.
Professor Elshtain: Thank you very much Kurt. Kurt has already informed you about the theme of this program. The theme that the team has been exploring over the last couple of years, and that is a question about the human person, the nature of the human person assumed in the works of, the multiple works that constitute the tradition of political theory, historically and what difference it would make if the understandings of the human person derive from religion and religious discourse, in fact, were brought to bear on this enterprise overall. So, you will be hearing something of that theme echoed in the discussion that will dominate our overarching project for the next couple of days and that is the role of religion and moral discourse in the public realm. I don’t want to take much more time with the preliminaries because we have a very rich program.
Let me just tell you before I introduce our first speaker that Professor Wolterstorff’s name was misspelled in the program. We are very sorry about that. There is an extra “r” that was put in that none of us caught. It is Wolterstorff, not Wolterstrorff. So, please make that correction and profuse apologies. You hadn’t noticed it…Well, I should never have mentioned it in that case, but…and with that let me move directly to introduce Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff who is the Emeritus Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at the Yale University Divinity School. In addition to teaching at Yale, he taught for 30 years at Calvin College, which is also where he did his undergraduate work. Many important and intriguing books. They include just a few titles for you on Universals is one, John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, another, Faith and Rationality, and Until Justice and Peace Embrace. He has given a series of distinguished lectures including the Wilde Lectures at Oxford University and in 1995, he gave the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University and these have now been published under the title, Thomas Reed and the Story of Epistemology. He has also served as the President of the American Philosophical Association and the Society of Christian Philosophers. So with that, let me introduce Professor Wolterstorff who will speak to us today on the topic “For the Authorities are God’s Servants: Is a Theological Account of Political Authority Viable?”
Professor Wolterstorff: Thank you Jean. It’s a delight to be here. I am glad that you invited me and that I have the good sense to accept. To see a good many old friends, friends of longstanding here and in this elegant, old, elegant, apparently old room. Jean Elshtain is responsible for this paper. When I was in perplexity as to what to do for this conference, I had more or less accepted…Jean said, “well, why don’t you explore what scripture has to say about political authority.” So, its existence is entirely due to her for good or ill, you’ll have to decide that for yourself. Jean, as some of you will know, is a very difficult person to say no to.
My question is then, what accounts for the authority of the State. The anarchist holds that there is no way of accounting for it and the conclusion that he draws from that conviction is not that the authority of the State is basic, something not to be accounted for by something yet more fundamental, but just that the State lacks authority. I agree with the assumption behind the anarchist’s inference and I think so does everybody else. If the State has authority it has it by virtue of something or other, so that will be my question. What is it that we are trying to account for when we try to account for the authority of the State? If the State does have authority, in what does that authority consist? Or, if the anarchist is right in his claim that the State lacks authority, what is it that the State lacks? Let me say here at the beginning that, though, I am going to speak on this occasion exclusively of the State, I do mean what I say to hold for political government generally whether or not it takes the form of the State, which it never really did before the modern period and now in almost all cases, probably in all cases, does.
Though traditional explanations of what constitutes the authority of the State differs somewhat in their details, the core of those traditional explanations has always been that the authority of the State consists in its right to issue dictates to its subjects and in its right to compel obedience to those dictates with force. Some regimes issue dictates to their subjects and compels obedience without having the right to do so, so those are illegitimate regimes, usurpers. They lack authority. On the traditional way of thinking what differentiates the legitimate from the illegitimate regime is precisely that the former has the right to issue dictates and compel obedience whereas the latter, the illegitimate regime has no such right. And the counterpart of the State’s right to issue dictates to its subjects and to compel obedience is the obligation of those subjects to obey those directives. No doubt, all extant States have the right to issue directives of such a sort that subjects are not under obligation to obey. The advisory bulletins issued periodically by the U.S. Government recently for example, security bulletins and warnings, probably roughly speaking it makes good sense to obey those. We are well advised, but we are not under obligation to do so.
Our word obligation comes from the Latin word for binding, so it’s binding directives that we are talking about and I am simply going to call binding directives on this occasion, “dictates.” It is important to add here that we talking about moral obligations, albeit, prima facie moral obligations because the anarchist does not dispute that the citizens of a legitimate State are under a legal obligation to obey its laws. Simple inspection of the legal code is enough to establish that. What the anarchist disputes is that the citizens are under a moral obligation to do so. Anarchists of all stripes hold that for particular laws of particular states, it is prudent for the citizens to obey those laws and it is even open to anarchists to say for particular laws of particular states, that it is not mere prudence, but that it is a morally good thing for the citizens to obey. But anarchists, as the term is used in political theory, need not be trying to undermine some government. It has acquired two connotations since the early 20th century, I suppose. Anarchists may, in fact, be eminently law abiding citizens. The anarchist’s claim is that the directives of the State do not place citizens under moral obligations to obey those directives, not even prima facie moral obligations. If you want to keep your head on your neck it makes good sense, but it is not a moral obligation.
Now, while staying close to the core of the traditional idea of political authority sketched out just above, it is going to be important for my subsequent purposes to get at that idea from a somewhat different angle and to elaborate it a little bit, I mean this business of the right to issue directives and compel obedience. A fundamental feature of our human social existence, striking, if it were not so common, is that human persons and institutions are capable of generating the obligation in another human being to do something. One of the ways in which such generation of obligations is accomplished, though, by no means, the only way, is by issuing a binding directive to the other person, a command, a request, an order, something of that sort. For example, by issuing orders to the troops under his command the military officer generates in them the obligation to obey him by doing the thing ordered. Let it be noted that the officer cannot thus generate in those not under his command the obligation to do what he orders and that there are many things that he cannot even place his troops under obligation to do by ordering them to do those things. Human authority is always limited in its range and its range of persons to whom it applies and the scope of the things that he may order. Now I come to think that it is helpful at this point to borrow the old Latin concept of a potestas, to be distinguished from the Latin concept of a potentia. A potentia is a causal power. A potestas is what might be called a normative power. The military officer has the potestas, the normative power to generate obligations in the troops under his command by issuing orders to them. He does not have the power, thus, to generate obligations in those of us not under his command. It is not that he has the power to issue directives to us, but not the right to do so. He cannot issue genuine orders to us. He lacks the potestas to do so. It is by virtue of his station or office of commander of these troops that he has the power, the potestas, to generate in them the obligation to do certain sorts of things by issuing orders to them. The power, the potestas, comes with the office.
Now I propose that we use the same conceptuality for thinking about the State and its authority. By virtue of a regime’s having the station, the status, the office, of being the legitimate government of certain people and a certain territory, it has the potestas, the power, to generate obligations in its citizens and in those living or traveling in its territory by issuing dictates to them. It also has the right to do so, but the more fundamental thing to notice is that it has the power, the potestas, to do so. If it did not have the status of being the legitimate government of these people in this territory, it could not place its citizens and those non-citizens who dwell or travel in its territory, under obligation to do certain things, by directing that they do those things.
Okay, those comments about potestas power amount to a refinement, as I see it, and qualification of the traditional understanding of State authority as consisting in the right of the State to command obedience of its subjects. I want to say that it is the potestas and the right. There is another respect in which I have come to think we must go beyond the traditional understanding. By virtue of a regime having the status of being the legitimate government of certain people and a certain territory that regime has the power, the potestas, to make what I shall now call “judicial declarations.”
Contrast that with directives. Judicial declarations of certain sorts concerning its citizens and those who dwell or travel in its territory. It has the power specifically to declare people innocent or guilty of the accusation of having committed some crime, the power to declare that a certain person is to be incarcerated, the power to acquire title to certain land by declaration of eminent domain and so forth. You and I, as private citizens, simply cannot make such declarations. We don’t have the potestas to do so. We can judge that someone is innocent or guilty, worthy of imprisonment and so forth, but that is different from declaring the person to be that. We lack the power to make such declarations and, of course, you and I lack the power to acquire title to land by declaration of eminent domain. That is just not one of the ways in which we can get title to some piece of land. An indispensable component of the authority of the State, as I understand it, is then the power to make judicial declarations. And lastly, an indispensable component of the authority of the State is the right to use force to secure compliance with its binding directives and its judicial declarations.
No doubt, the State must not only have the right, but the power, potentia now, to compel compliance with the bulk of its binding directives and judicial declarations. Such power is not strictly speaking an aspect of its authority, but simply of its being a regime, effective regime, governing this people and this territory. To be a regime at all, legitimate or illegitimate, genuine or usurpers got to have that, potentia to compel obedience. So, in summary, as I see it, the authority of the State consists in its power to generate prima facie moral obligations in its citizens and those non-citizens living or dwelling in its territory, by issuing binding directives to them, secondly, the power to make judicial declarations which are binding for these people and thirdly, the right to use force to compel compliance with these dictates and declarations.
Now, a number of writers in recent years have adopted a very different approach to explaining what constitutes authority, from both the traditional approach and that adaptation of the traditional approach which I have sketched out just above. Initiated by H.L.A. Hart and Joseph Raz, this approach seeks to explain authority not in terms of powers and obligations, rights and so forth, but rather to explain authority in terms of its role in practical reasoning. A peculiar role, a sort of surrender of judgment. I discussed that, but I am going to skip what I have to say about that. It strikes me that this definition is, rather than getting at the essence of authority, it tries to specify a certain consequence of that. But, given time limitations, I am going to skip all of that.
Most pre-modern attempts to account for the authority of government or attempts to derive authority from above. The authority of the government was seen as derived in one way or another from God. In the modern period from Hobbes and Locke onwards, almost all influential attempts to account for State authority had been attempts to derive it from below. The State was thought to have authority by virtue of its relation to one and another human phenomenon.
Now, before I sketch out what a theological account of the authority of the State might look like, I would like to take a moment to assess the current state of this attempt in the modern period to derive State authority from below. Now, as fortune would have it, rather than having had to canvass this terrain for myself, I can make use of a really excellent book by Leslie Green, The Authority of the State, in which he does exactly this, this canvas of the state of the discussion in humanist attempts. Green devotes two chapters in this book, to what I judged to be a definitive discussion and critique, of attempts to ground the authority of the State and what is required for establishing and securing one and another form of valuable social order. You pick out some valuable type of social order and then the argument is that authority has to be seen as a prerequisite of the State securing that kind of social order. Conventionalism, as Green calls it and is typical, conventionalism focuses on the value of there being various conventions to which we each conform on the condition that others can be expected to conform as well and it then argues that State authority is required for securing and establishing that form of social order, conventions. Contractarianism focuses on the importance of coercion for insuring the performance of mutually beneficial actions when adequate internal motivation is lacking in one or more parties and the contractarian then goes on to argue that State authority is required for securing and establishing that kind or that form, or that dimension of social order, coercion.
Now Green offers a variety of forceful arguments against each of these theories, pointed toward each of the theories, but he has a fundamental argument against both of them and that’s this. The ability of the State to establish and secure one or the other of those two social goods, conventions or coercion, the ability of the State to establish and secure the social good in question does not require that its valid dictates be seen as placing its subjects under obligation to obey those dictates. It is sufficient for the social order to be secure by the State, that the subjects of the State seek conformity to those dictates either as in the rational self-interest or as a morally good thing, but they don’t have to regard it as something that is obligatory for them. And this argument strikes me as decisively correct so far as I can see, it’s well, decisively correct. I think, as does Green, that attempts to ground the authority of the State in the requirements of social order have failed. So the theory which Green, himself, embraces is a version of the only remaining type of humanist theory, namely, the classical consent theory. The thought is this, that a person becomes obligated to obey the valid directives of some State by virtue of consenting to obey those directives and as the consequence of this consent, the valid directives of that State become authoritative for that person. They become dictates. The State by issuing some directive to the consenting person generates in that person the obligation to do the thing directed. Now consent must, of course, be understood here as promising or pledging. Nothing less than that is going to work. Consenting to conform to the dictates of my State, the directives of my State, because I judge it to be the morally good thing to do or in my rational self-interest, does not make me obligated to obey those directives and hence, does not give the State authority over me, but, if I promise to obey the directives of the State, then per force, I am under obligation to do what the State asks, when in fact it asks me to do something.
Now the next step is this, Green acknowledges that for any State in the modern world, many if not most of those who are its subjects have never done any such thing as promise to obey its directives. He is dismissive and I think rightly so, of that last resort of the classical consent theorists, namely, tacit consent. Depending on the particular wording of the oaths they take, office holders in some states and probably naturalized citizens in almost all states will have promised obedience. I did not have time to actually look up what the naturalized citizen has to swear, but I would suspect that it is promising to obey and the president has to promise to uphold the law, so there are some people. So it’s some office holders, naturalized citizens and that’s about it. I don’t think I have ever promised to obey the U.S. Government or the government of Connecticut or the State of Michigan. So here is Green’s own summary of his conclusions: “Neither the power of government to create conventions concerning the common good nor its capacity to solve certain problems of collected action, when people aren’t motivated, warrants citizens taking the State’s directives as binding. These are, indeed, among important functions of government and they do contribute to the value of government, but they don’t justify authority. To do that, we must find principles which recommend regarding the State as a duty imposer, as having the power to create binding consent independent reasons to act. The traditional theory of consent succeeds here,” this is still Green, “but is equally true,” he goes on to say, “that the scope of consent is very limited. Not many of us have, in fact, consented. So, it follows, that the State has legitimate authority over only some of its citizens.”
Let us be clear about the structure of Green’s theory. Assume for a moment that the States of the contemporary world do have authority. Then one of the ways in which a person becomes a subject of a particular state, one of the ways, when previously she was not a subject of that particular state, is by explicitly placing herself under its authority, the accepting of its authority. Somebody becomes under the authority of the U.S. government by explicitly accepting the authority of the U.S. government. Transfers from Dutch sovereignty to American sovereignty, let’s say. But, you can’t derive a theory of authority from that. So, no matter what your theory of state authority, of course, you are going to acknowledge that this is one way in the contemporary world in which people shift their state authority under which they are subject. So Green’s theory must really be seen as a variant on the traditional attempt to account for the authority of the State by treating as a voluntary organization. One of the ways in which authority gets generated is by a group of people getting together, setting up an organization with some officers and some bylaws, promising to obey directives which are validly issued by an officer to the members and making provisions for other people to become members by similarly pledging obedience. We establish a little chess club or soccer club…whatever. The authority of the officers is grounded entirely in the promises of the members. Validly issued directives generate obligations in the members simply by virtue of the fact that the members have promised to obey such directives.
Now what I like about Green is that he is under no illusion that the states of the contemporary world are, in fact, voluntary organizations. His thought is rather this, that within the State there is, as it were, a little mini-state and this mini-state is a voluntary organization. Its members being that small group of the State’s subjects who have promised to obey the valid directives of the State and from whom, accordingly, those directives are binding and hence, authoritative. Well, on my view, the authority of the State on this view has become, so it seems to me, an altogether quirky and pointless thing. Why would anybody ever bother joining this mini-state within the State? Or, if you were forced to…if governments, you know, impose that on you, if you want to hold office or whatever, why would governments bother to do that? Why shouldn’t governments be perfectly contented to have anarchists in office as long as they, you know, obey the laws? What difference does it make to the government that you promise?
Well, with this background at how things stand, in the attempt of the modern period to account for the authority of the State from below, what I now want to do is present the outline of an account from above. It is going to be no more than outline on this occasion. It will be a Christian account in that it will articulate the account implicit in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. I doubt that a Jewish account would be different on any of the issues that I am going to raise, but that’s not for me to say. On certain issues that I won’t have time on this occasion to raise, a Jewish account definitely would be different. So what has always functioned as one of the central biblical passages, probably the central biblical passage for a Christian account of the authority of the State. It occurs in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome at the end of the 12th chapter and the beginning of the 13th. I had considered here saying you will all be familiar with it, but, that’s maybe not true. It goes like this: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God for it is written vengeance is mine I will repay says the Lord.” Now, again a quotation from the Old Testament Hebrew Bible: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him drink, for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Paul once again, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment. For rules are not a terror to good conduct but to bad. Would you have no fear of Him who is in authority? Then do what is good and you will receive His approval. Free as God’s servant for your good. But, if you do wrong be afraid for he does not bear the sword in vain. He is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoing.” That will echo the beginning of the passage.
Therefore, one must be subject not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience, for the same reason you pay taxes. For the authorities are ministers of God attending to the various things. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Almost every word in this passage, have been argued over at enormous length. It is my own judgment that many of these controversies are resolved by not treating the passages of both out of the blue, but rather as advice given to the Roman Christians by someone steeped in rabbinic Judaism. Apparently it was by no means obvious to the early Christians what their attitudes should be to the Roman imperium. The advice Paul gives them not only quotes directly twice over from the Old Testament, but more importantly, makes use of two lines of thought which are prominent in the Old Testament. God is over and over presented in the Old Testament as doing justice and rendering judgment.
In a good deal of Christianity it has been assumed that God renders that judgment only at the end of this present age in the eschaton. The Old Testament writers clearly assume that God also renders His judgment in this present age. So prominent is this theme in the Old Testament that it is redundant to cite passages. And secondly, the earthly king in the Old Testament is regularly described as commissioned to mediate God’s justice to the people. There were other modes of mediation, prophetic modes, but the king’s mode was prominent. You will find that in the locus classicus for the description of the good king at the opening of Psalm 72, which I will assume you all are familiar with. Now, I submit that in the advice that he gives to the Roman Christian concerning their relationship to the Roman imperium, Paul is simply applying these lines of thought to the case at hand.
Throughout the Old Testament it is assumed that everybody is called to imitate God with respect to God’s love for justice by themselves doing justice. Individuals, however, are not to execute vengeance on the wrongdoer. In the hyperbolic words of the psalmist they are not to crush the oppressor, vengeance, which I take to be coercive retribution, is reserved for God alone. God’s execution of judgment on the wrongdoer is mediated to us through the governing authorities. They are servants of God for the execution of God’s wrath on the wrongdoer instituted and appointed for that purpose. Though Paul happens not to mention it here, their performance of that function of executing wrath attributed to punishment, obviously presupposes that they are also to judge cases. Vindicating, to use a favorite word of the Old Testament writers, the innocent and judging the wrongdoer.
Now, if we are to wrap our minds around this account of the authority of the State, we cannot just take over from the humanist tradition its understanding of authority, and then try to think through what accounting for it from above instead of from below looks like, we have to understand State authority, itself, differently. In my opening discussion of the authority of the State, I suggested that State authority has three distinct dimensions: the potestas to issue binding directives, the potestas to make judicial declarations and the right to coerce compliance with these directives and declarations. The power, the potentia to coerce compliance being assumed. The humanist tradition has focused entirely on the first and third of these, the directives and the coercions. The Biblical understanding of State authority which comes to expression in Paul, focuses on the second, the judicial declarations and the third, the compliance–the power to make judicial declarations and the right to compel compliance.
Now the question that comes immediately to mind when you think along those lines is this…well, if that’s true do not most of the State’s actions fall outside the purview of this way of thinking of it, in which he gives centrality to judicial declarations. My answer is…not at all.
If we reject the view all too prevalent nowadays, that government at bottom is nothing else than the playing out of self-interested power relationships and if we instead embrace the traditional view that the goal of government is to secure justice and the common good, then I think it is clear that the judiciary is not unique among the branches of government, when we distinguish branches, in rendering judgments about justice. Most legislation presupposes judgments about justice. The legislation usually being a remedy for some supposed injustice, albeit, a remedy of a different sort from a judicially mandated punishment and so, I think, the executive has the mandate then to implement two sorts of remedies for prior judgments about injustice. The remedy which takes the form of legislation and the remedy which takes the form of punishment for infractions. So the ruler, says Paul, is a servant. He has a striking word in Greek, a diakonos, a deacon, a minister, a leitourgos, a liturgeat. The rulers are deacons and liturgeats of God for this purpose. How are we to interpret those words. I think the thought, quite clearly, is that the power and the right of the State to render judgment in the legislative form or in the judicial form has been transmitted to it from God so that among the ways in which a theistic account of political authority is distinct from all others is that it regards the authority of the State to do certain things as transmitted to it from someone or something which already has that very same authority. Now, I say can we be more precise about the form of this transmittal? Jean, I suppose, I am going to have to obey your injunctions?
Jean Elshtain: I think you can have 5 more minutes.
Professor Wolterstorff: Yup. I suggest that there are two ways in which we can understand that transmittal of political authority from God to political authorities. Two models is maybe a better word. One way is this, the deputy model. One thing that happens in human affairs is that one person acts on behalf of another person. When you hire an attorney, the attorney has power to sign certain papers and when the attorney’s initials go those papers you have, in fact, committed yourself to buy that piece of property or whatever. Before email and before electronic and electrical modes of transmission, ambassadors were sent off on ships and long voyages and commissioned to speak on behalf of their heads of State. Nowadays, one gets the impression that the ambassadors just sort of quote their heads of State, come into the presence of the Putin with email in hand and says let me read you what Bush said, but before that ambassadors were commissioned on behalf of them.
So that is one way of understanding political authority on this account and it is quite clearly the way John Calvin understood it. He uses the language of deputy and so forth. There is something bright and promising about that way of thinking of it. No human being inherently has authority, political authority, over any other. It belongs solely to God, but there is also something menacing about it. When the State says, hey look, I am speaking on behalf of God, I need not develop the menace. One model is in the deputy model. The other model for thinking of it is the delegation model in the organization. The head of the organization delegates to the heads of various departments authority to do various things in their departments. The heads of the departments don’t strictly speaking, speak on behalf of the head of State, they speak in their own voice and it is open to the head of the organization to say about the decision of some department head, “look, I gave you authority within that domain, so it’s a valid directive, but I happen to disagree with it…it’s not my view…and so forth.” I think that the second, the delegation model is the much more promising than the deputy model for understanding the relation of political authority to God’s authority. So, let me bring it to a conclusion.
This is far from a fully articulated account of the authority of the State and what I presented to you is even only a sketch of the sketch that I have got in this paper here. But, I trust that enough has been said to indicate that it really is possible to give a theistic account of the authority of the State and that, a section that I skipped, and that account by no means implies that all dictates and declarations issued by the State to which one is subject are to be viewed as issued on behalf of or in the name of God.
So pulling together the various parts of my discussion, here it seems to me is how things stand today. There are just two ways of accounting for the authority of the State. One, as we saw earlier, is the consent theory. This being the only tenable theory that has been produced by the humanist tradition. The other is the theistic account. If one holds that the State does have authority, i.e., if one does not go for the anarchist option, those appear to me to be the options one has to choose between. But, as we also saw, the consent theory implies that the State has authority over no more than a few of its citizens, specifically, over those that have promised to comply with its dictates and declarations. It is hard to see, however, why anybody would bother to make such a promise unless it were a requirement set by the State for enjoying one or another status or privilege, but then it is hard in turn to see why the State would bother to set such a requirement. So that’s how things stand after three and a half intense centuries of discussion. If not anarchism, then neither a theistic account of State authority or an account which carries the implication that the State has authority over very few of its citizens and which leaves it obscure, why it would bother having authority even over them.
Jean Elshtain: Thank you Nick, for such a challenging paper. We now have three very capable discussants. I am going to introduce all three of them now and I will introduce them in the order in which they will respond and I would just ask that the discussants use the microphone on the table. We are a bit cramped up here and it will take up precious time for people to scoot back chairs and maneuver their way in and out, so, I think we will just do it from a seated position and the first respondent will be Professor Jay Budziszewski, who is Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. Professor Budziszewski is an authority on natural law. He has written on the problem of tolerance, on protestant political thought and he focuses on, in his work, on the repression of moral knowledge, that is to say, the pathologies that flow from trying to convince ourselves that we don’t know what, in fact, we really do know. His most recent book is What We Can’t Not Know, a Guide.
Jeanne Heffernan is an assistant Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University. She holds a research fellowship this year in Washington, D.C., at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She is writing a primer on Catholic Moral and Social Thought and she has published articles on contemporary Christian political thought and our third respondent is Professor Joshua Mitchell.
Professor Mitchell is at present the Chair of the Department of Government at Georgetown University where he is an Associate Professor. His research interests lie in the relationship between political thought and theology in the West. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and he has published two books, Now by Reason Alone and the Fragility of Freedom, the title of the second. He has a third book, Plato’s Fable Under Review and his next project is a book length manuscript on Reinhold Niebuhr, entitled, the Politics of Hope. So with that, we will begin with Professor Budziszewski.
Professor Budziszewski: I think probably I am one of the few people in this room who actually has made some sort of an explicit promise of obedience to authority when I was a teaching assistant getting my Master’s Degree. At that time, I was at the University of Florida, I had to sign an oath that I would not fail to support the constitution of the State or of the United States and I wouldn’t make a revolution. Otherwise, they wouldn’t give me my paycheck. So, I signed. I did make this promise. And, in fact, I have upheld the constitution of the State of Florida ever since.
I don’t think that Professor Wolterstorff will mind me saying that his argument takes me back to the scholastic natural law philosophers and theologians especially Thomas Aquinas. In his Summa Theologica, first part of the second part questions 90 and 96, and Thomas explains that unless an edict satisfies certain conditions it is not truly a law and does not, as he puts it, bind the subject in conscience. Which means that it does not generate an obligation to obey. On the other hand, if the edict does satisfy these conditions, then it is truly a law and does generate and obligation to obey. One of these conditions is that the edict must have been made by someone [with proper authority] and it must be promulgated rather than kept secret.
Now if we turn this around so that instead of answering the question: When is an edict a true law that binds in conscience? We are, instead, answering the question: In what does authority consist? We get this. Suppose that a particular edict really is a rule of reason, ordained to the common good and made known. Authority is that which goes further and makes a genuine law by investing it with obligation and that is precisely the Wolterstorff doctrine. In passing, St. Thomas notices that even if the edict has been promulgated without proper authority or is unjust in some other way, even if it, as he puts it, is an act of violence rather than a true law, there might still be a moral duty.
There could still be, in some cases, a moral duty to comply with it because it could be the case that non-compliance would itself injure the common good even more than compliance would and, again, Wolterstorff concurs, but he makes two further observations. His first and here Thomas would agree, is that this kind of duty is merely incidental to our topic. It arises in that case not from the moral power of authority to generate new obligation but from certain preexisting obligations such as the obligation to be prudent in circumstances which happen to make it prudent to obey. Such a duty even some anarchists might acknowledge. It is simply beside the point.
Wolterstorff’s second observation is that surprisingly this beside the point duty is precisely the one that theorists like H.L.A. Hart, Joseph Raz and Leslie Green, focus upon and just because Hart, and Raz and Green analyze certain moral reasons to comply with an official edict, they think that they have explained authority. In fact, the absence of authority leaves the particular moral reasons that they are talking about completely unimpaired. It turns out then, that Hart, Raz and Green are analyzing the wrong duty. The right duty, the duty that is generated specifically by authority and cannot exist without it, they either don’t examine or they confuse with the other one. Their account of authority, in fact, cannot distinguish the moral duty generated by authority from the moral duty that is occasioned as Professor Wolterstorff points out by a threat. In the final analysis then, their account cannot be distinguished from an anarchist account, in which there is no authority, but nevertheless, they may be good and moral reasons for compliance with the edicts of the State.
Now, I think that Professor Wolterstorff is right about all of this. Considering that I view his theory of authority as implicit in St. Thomas, you may think that I will next chide him for re-inventing the wheel…far from it. Although, Wolterstorff borrows the scholastic term potestas, for a moral power, the place from which he actually takes his theory of authority is the Bible. His achievement then, is to take the ideas about judgment, authority and the transmittal of authority which are implicit in Romans 12 and 13 and some other Biblical passages, and make them explicit. The significance of this achievement, in my view, is that it makes it possible to reunite the biblical account of authority with the account of authority that is found in the tradition of natural law. That, is an achievement.
Now, I’d better explain why these two accounts need reuniting. It’s not as though the natural lawyers themselves had sundered them. St. Thomas plainly regarded the Bible and natural law as complementary and not as in competition with each other. The former, the Bible, is God’s direct revelation through words, the latter, the natural law is indirect revelation through the rationally evident order of creation, including the design of our human moral intellect. Each illuminates the other. But, although, Thomas takes the correspondence of these two modes of revelation for granted, you know he doesn’t always talk about it and that can create a misunderstanding.
In later times through, I would suggest through careless reading of both the natural law tradition and scripture itself, many thinkers have assumed that the natural law tradition is somehow un-biblical. Now at least with respect to the doctrine of authority, what Wolterstorff does, then, is to make that mistake impossible. Let’s now consider matters of lesser moment, concerning the theory of Hart, Raz and Green, it is certainly sufficient for Wolterstorff to have shown that they misunderstand what authority is all about, that does do away with them. But, if he wishes to put some gravy on the potatoes, he might also observe that they also misunderstand something else about authority. According to Green, the reason which authoritative commands give for performing the action that is commanded is “content independent.” But in Professor Wolterstorff’s paraphrase, it is open-ended. But, this is not true of authority. The State is not in charge of everything. Neither are any other authorities, such as…non-state authorities such as parents, for instance. Authority depends not only on who is commanding whom, but it depends also on what is commanded and this in itself, works to make the view of authority as requiring the surrender of judgment on the part of the citizens, which Hart, Raz and Green seem to employ impossible. In particular, the State has no authority to command what is unjust.
Now, I hope I don’t sound like a broken record, but here again, I think St. Thomas is helpful. According to his analysis, an edict is unjust when it’s contrary to either our eternal or our this worldly well-being. The former case arises when the edict opposes the divine law, the commands of God. The latter case arises when it’s defective with respect to either it’s purpose, because it has to aim only at the common good, its form, because it must not distribute benefits or burdens disproportionately, or its author. The last point, deficiency with respect to author, is the one that concerns us especially. To each author, each authority, each potestas, certain responsibilities are committed and certain other responsibilities are not committed and presumably this point applies not only to the various and differentiated authorities within the State, but to the authority of the State as such. If the State or an authority within the State commands me to do something which falls outside of its purview, then its edict does not generate obligation. It does not “bind in conscience.” We see here, by the way, an anticipation of the doctrine, which Catholics embrace under the name of subsidiarity. Neo-Calvinists embrace it under the name severe sovereignty and contemporary liberals reject.
Another question addressed by Wolterstorff is where the State’s authority comes from? Green thinks that it comes from consent, from promising, as Professor Wolterstorff has pointed out. This happens whenever a group of people form a voluntary association, appoint officers, and pledge obedience to their commands. Now can the State then, itself, be viewed as a voluntary association? Professor Wolterstorff says, “no.” The difficulty, as he sees it, is that very few students, you see I am used to teaching…very few citizens actually do make promises to obey, very few students do either, for that matter… LAUGHTER…This is a point which Green concedes, so that at best, the consent theory accounts for the authority of the State over just those few. Well, perhaps the State then could extend its authority by requiring all of the citizens to pledge allegiance, but in this case Wolterstorff wants to know why the State would make such a requirement considering that on Green’s theory citizens may have good and moral reasons to conform with the State’s edicts even if they do not believe that the State has authority, which is a moral power to generate obligation.
Then Wolterstorff asks, “Isn’t conformity enough. Why would the State insist that conformity be out of duty?” Well, I think that this part of Wolterstorff’s argument moves a little bit too fast. It is true that Green thinks that citizens may have good and moral reasons to conform. It is not clear, however, whether he thinks that they would still have such reasons apart from their promise and, in fact, since he does drag in the promise, presumably he doesn’t think so. This tends to deprive ‘isn’t conformity enough’ critique of its force. So that the State might very well be motivated to require promises of obedience.
My guess is that this is exactly what the early modern consent theorist, like John Locke, had in mind. He doesn’t say so, but I think that he does. Those who were content with the status of resident aliens could remain in that status even if native born and anyone who wanted the additional benefits of citizenship would have to take on additional burdens too, including the burden of the oath of obedience. The demonstration of why this approach is wrong would gain from a little more development. I am not suggesting that Wolterstorff is wrong about this, but I think that the reasons why the opposing account is wrong need to be spelled out a little more carefully. Now to be sure, Wolterstorff has other problems with Locke too.
I confess that I am putting you at a bit of a disadvantage in that I have read his full account and you have only heard a condensed version of his account, but he speaks about Locke as well as Calvin and a number of other figures in some detail. As Wolterstorff reads John Locke’s second treatise, the problem is that instead of regarding authority as transmitted from God to the State, Locke regards authority as transmitted from individuals to the State, you know, they make a contract. Though I have my own problems with Locke, I suggest that on this point Locke is probably innocent. It seems that Locke’s view of the matter isn’t either or, either God transmits authority to the State or the individuals transmit authority to the State. Rather, Locke’s view of the matter is both and. True. Locke thinks that in the State of nature, the executive power of the law of nature is possessed by individuals who then transmit it to the State, but where does Locke think that those individuals get this power in the first place? From the only place that they could, the same place that they get the rest of their moral dignity. It is transmitted to them by God. I am not just imaging that this is what Locke thinks. He writes and I quote, “Men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker, all the servants of one sovereign Master sent into the world by His order and about His business. They are His property, his workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure. And, being furnished with like faculties sharing all in one community of nature there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy one another as if we were made for one another’s uses as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours.” In other words, it is not the case, according to Locke, that some of us are made for the purposes of the others. Here a class of natural masters, there a class of natural slaves. We are equal because equally made for the purposes of God.
Now, the law of our creation, the natural law, which expresses the implications of this fact must be enforced, Locke says. However, being equal in all other moral prerogatives, so too, we must be equal in the power of enforcement itself. Had God transmitted authority directly to the rulers, he could have made this clearer, Locke thinks, only by making the created nature of the rulers distinct in kind from the created nature of the subjects, like the difference between the queen bee and all the other bees, or the queen ant and all the other ants and that’s not the way the difference between us and our rulers works. Plainly he has not done this and Locke’s theory is at least a plausible alternative. Authority in his theory is transmitted directly from God to individuals, directly from individuals to the State, which is the same as to say that it is transmitted from God to the State, but indirectly.
Now Wolterstorff does not mention the possibility of indirect transmittal. It may seem, though, that he should have embraced it, at least it may seem at first that he should have. Certainly, it sits well with his view that God delegates rather than deputizing authority. Certainly it also rests easily with his view that not everyone who holds an office in the State has been appointed to that office by God.
On the other hand, direct transmittal does have an advantage over indirect transmittal. Direct transmittal explains something, something that Professor Wolterstorff thinks very important to explain, which indirect transmittal cannot explain, can never explain. Wolterstorff takes as a given that the authority of the State extends to all of the citizens without exception. In his view this is part of the data which any theory of authority must explain. Consider it this way, the cardinal flaw of theories like Locke’s is that they cannot account for the authority of the State over citizens who have not consented, who have not made their promise. But suppose that instead God transmits authority of the commonwealth directly in a single step. The majority of the citizens may give consent, it may be important that they do so. In view of the dignity of the human person made in the image of God, it may even be mandatory that their consent be obtained. However, just what the act of consent accomplishes is different in this view than in the former view, the indirect transmittal view. Rather than affecting the transmittal of authority by individuals, consent provides the occasion for the transmission of authority by God.
In this case, there is no reason to think that the authority of the State would fail to cover everyone, majority and minority alike, so the cardinal flaw is avoided and yet we can still ask, even here, we can ask of Professor Wolterstorff just what he asks of Green. Why authority? Why does God think he needs authority? Isn’t conformity enough for God? If not, why not? Professor Wolterstorff has given a persuasive explanation of why secular accounts of political authority inevitably miss the point for those accept his assessment of this, as I do. The task now lies in choosing among theistic accounts and showing how their own problems can be solved. As the proverb has it, “the devil is in the details” or he will be.
Jean Elshtain: Professor Heffernan.
Professor Heffernan: At the mid point of the last century, Hannah Arendt observed that we had such trouble understanding autonomy partly because we lacked an adequate understanding of authority. The problem she identified then yet lingers and the particular political dimension of the problem of authority treated by Professor Wolterstorff, or at Chicago, Mr. Wolterstorff or at this conference, Mr. Wolterstrorff [Laughter], namely the question of what accounts for the authority of the State is timely still.
In his wrestling with this question Nick correctly identifies problems in the approaches of various camps that attempt to account for the authority of the State. From practical reasoning approach to that purposed by the conventionalists and the contractarians, each fails to provide an adequate understanding of the nature of political authority and its capacity to generate obligations. Even the consent theory espoused by Leslie Green, which Wolterstorff sees as the leading humanists contender for a plausible account of political obligation, fails since the stringency of its requirements make it unworkably limited in application. It’s thus an implausible ground of political authority. A more plausible case, he argues, is found in a theistic account of State authority. Wolterstorff’s specific proposal consists in a philosophical elaboration of key Biblical tenets from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike on the origin and nature of governmental power. He adopts a theistic account of political authority and argues that it is distinct from rival humanist theories insofar as it “regards the authority of the State to do certain things as transmitted to it from someone or something which already has that very authority.” That someone, of course, is God. It seems to me that Wolterstorff rightly attempts to specify what this transmittal of authority consists in and he rightly attempts to distinguish between a deputy and delegate model of transmission and furthermore rightly raises the problem of legitimacy in the holding of political office.
These are strengths in his proposal. I do find some weaknesses there too, however. Now I am aware that when I say this, whatever problems I point out may be obviated by a fuller description of his position than was provided in the paper. In that case, the problem with the present articulation would be one of incompleteness. One weakness, however, in the argument as it stands is the fact that Wolterstorff fails to show how the transmission theory, in contrast to its rivals, obligates. He does not adequately specify what it is exactly about the divine origin of State power that obliges. He notes that in the theistic account “God’s rules for the behavior of those to whom he has delegated political responsibility and authority are the moral rules.” And he continues, “from the moral legitimacy of the issuing of a directive it follows that compliance is a prima facie obligation. It does not follow, however, that the content of the directive is morally correct.” Furthermore, he says, “I may be obligated morally and legally alike to obey even a morally illegitimate directive.”
Now it is not clear to me, at least, how the origin of the authority in question relates to the moral legitimacy of the issuing of a directive. What is it about the distinctive origin of the State in this schema, that yields an obligation of obedience as distinct, say, from a rationally self-interested motivation for obedience or the recognition that even an anarchist might make, namely, that it is a morally good thing for citizens to obey the law. This is a critical point. Since the burden of Wolterstorff’s argument is to show that a theistic foundation of the State provides a superior account of political obligations.
A second problem that I perceive with the account that Wolterstorff provides is that it centers largely on the negative function of the State. Recall his emphasis upon the State’s correction of injustice and its coercive power, though, I am aware that some of that was emphasized later in the paper and Nick didn’t have a chance to read that to you. Insofar as it does this, it seems to me to fail to penetrate to the heart of political authority.
Now I am distinctly influenced here by the work of the political philosopher, Yves Simon, who in the early 1950s delivered the Walgreen lectures right here at the U of C where he was on the faculty. These lectures would become his major treatise on political authority, called the Philosophy of Democratic Government and I commend it to you. In this work Simon persuasively argues that political authority is not per se a consequence of sin. It is not fundamentally a remedy for human deficiency. Its correction of injustice and its coercive power, those dimensions emphasized by Wolterstorff, reflect an important, but importantly secondary function that is remedial of sin.
Its essential function, however, is rooted, as my Pepperdine friends would say, in the creation order in its integrity. The essential function of political authority, its raison d’être, according to Simon, is to coordinate the common good. Selecting the means to the common good when those means are not univocal, which given the nature of practical reason would be often. Even in a perfect world, in an Edenic state, the intellect could perceive a multiplicity of means to the achievement of the same end.
Think, for instance, about how to design a beautiful building. The truly informed architect knows a whole variety of styles, but the owner must exercise authority in choosing one over another. This is why Simon argues that the basic function of political authority springs from human plenitude. Incidentally, this is also why Aquinas contends that political authority would have been necessary even before the fall. The practical intellect and the will for Simon are not uniquely determined with respect to particular goods and this is a perfection since, as he puts it, “The more a being is elevated in the ontological hierarchy, the more it is self-sufficient and independent of the particular means in the achievement of its perfection.”
Now in the context of political society, when common public action is required, the authoritative judgment of political authority is necessary to choose from among a multiplicity of genuine means to a given end. This positive account of the origin and nature of political authority, I would suggest, is a more adequate way of accounting for what Wolterstorff calls the normative power, the potestas of the State than transmission theories that regard the State fundamentally as a dispensation for human sinfulness and, clearly, I am implying here that Nick’s account does that or partakes of this kind of tradition– very strongly in the Lutheran tradition and very strongly in the Reform tradition. If a citizen, especially a Christian citizen, understands that political authority is not incidental to God’s creation, is not simply a temporal remedy for human faults that will pass away in the eschaton, but is rather a constitutive dimension of social life, then it would seem to command a different kind of obligation and merit a different kind of attention. Making this case persuasively would be no small achievement, given the perennial temptation to quietism that Christian believers face in every age.
Jean Elshtain: Our final respondent, Professor Mitchell.
Professor Mitchell: Let me begin with a confession of sorts made necessary because of the analytic character of a large portion of this paper and that’s namely, that Nick Wolterstorff most certainly scored higher on the analytical portion of the GRE than did I. LAUGHTER
Whatever competence I do have will have to be brought to bear, therefore, not on the nuances of the argument he considers early in the paper but rather on the categories that he provides on the alternative spaces within which the arguments take place. In a footnote to his conclusion, Professor Wolterstorff tells us that his analysis will be more philosophical than theological. Mine will be more historical than philosophical and, I hope, adequate to the theological issues at hand.
Let me begin with his conclusion that you heard. There are just two ways of accounting for the authority of the State–one, as we saw earlier, is the consent theory. This being the only tenable theory produced by the humanist tradition. The other is the theistic account. If one holds that the State does have authority that is, if one does not go for the anarchist option, those are the options one has to choose between. The alternatives, then, are either a bottom-up humanistic account or a top-down theistic account of the authority of the State. The humanistic consent-based account fails, Professor Wolterstorff argues, which leaves us with the need to recur to a theistic account. With respect to the latter, the two alternatives are either a quasi Calvinist account in which the State acts on behalf of God with all that that might entail in the way of abuse. Let’s call this the deputy theory, as he does. Or an account in which the State is a delegate in the name of God. Here in this latter alternative the holders of the various offices of the State are culpable actors who maintain their office insofar as they are deemed morally legitimate by the citizens of the State. Unlike a Calvinist account, in which the inscrutability of God’s justice comes perilously close to being a warrant for the inscrutability of the justice of his deputies, the delegate theory insists upon a kind of transparency or perhaps translucence, but at any rate, not opacity when it comes to matters of justice and morality.
Theologically speaking humanistic consent-based theories leave us where man is always left when he abandons God, in that nether region of promised coherence that, upon inspection, lacks any foundation and spins endlessly inward upon itself. The deputy theory saves the majesty and inscrutability of God–where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? But at the cost and debt is the right metaphor here of the withering way of human kind. The delegate theory of the authority of the State purports to find that always elusive middle ground in Christian theology, which holds together the majesty and inscrutability of God on the one hand, and the moral dignity and free will of man on the other. A paradox so acute, insolvable and yet so necessary that Augustine in the City of God, Book 5, Chapter 10, said that, “we must hold to the one for the purpose of right teaching and the other for the purpose of right living.”
I do not know if Professor Wolterstorff was self-consciously aiming to balance this paradox, but in my view, that is what his proposal really amounts to. Perhaps the delegate theory of the State does, in fact, find the necessary difficult middle ground so elusive within Christianity. I cannot say. There is more that would have to be said about it first. Are there specific forms of government that emerge through such a theory? Are others precluded? Does such an understanding give rise to checks and balances necessarily? Does direct democracy accord with it? Representative government? How about Federalism? There are a host of questions that arise all of which boil down to this. Does the delegate theory of the State authority provide a purchase, so to speak, on States as we have them now and as they have developed here and there in history or to invoke the inimitable phrase, by which Hegel sought to critique Kant, after all is said and done, does the delegate theory of State authority, with the delegate theory of State authority, will we find ourselves “in that night in which all cows are black?” That is, theologically adequate though it may be, what bearing does it have on the extant historically contingent forms to which we have been witness in the West and elsewhere? Moreover, and perhaps most of the point, how should we move forward with the assistance of this insight? These are difficult questions, for which I am in no position to provide answers.
So let me introduce a new line of inquiry. In keeping with the spirit, but not with the letter of Professor Wolterstorff’s paper. I mentioned a moment ago that Christian theology is involved in a delicate and in some sense impossible balancing act that maintains both the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. Emphasize the former and you get Calvin, emphasize the latter, well, what do you get? To be sure, while there are other sources of the idea of the autonomous self besides Christianity, Renaissance humanism, for example, it is also the case that the idea of the sovereign self, the autonomous consenting self emerged out of Christianity. Hegel and Nietzsche are rarely allies, but on this matter they surely agree. Should this be the case then the sovereign self, the self that consents, cannot properly speaking, be set against the religious account of man, rather, consent has to be understood as one motif among many upon which Christian political thought can and has grown.
Now, it would be ridiculous to claim that contemporary theories of consent are religious. They are highly analytical and without apparent religious content. Yet, it is worth noting that efforts on the part of contemporary consent theorists to comprehend Hobbes and Locke, the two great originaries of the idea of consent in the modern world, seem woefully impoverished and unable to do anything more than steal crumbs from the feast. This is so, I suggest, because they ignore the ground on which their, Hobbes and Locke, respective arguments in favor of consent really rest, namely, a theological understanding of the human situation. For Hobbes, the situation in the state of nature corresponds, which he makes clear in part 3 of the Leviathan, to the Hebrews at the base of Mt. Sinai without Moses, their Leviathan, there can be only death. When Moses, the personator of God, returns from the summit, the Hebrews consent to let him rule because they know that without his personator, without this personator of God, they will surely die. If one wants to see Hobbes as a consent theorist of the secular sort, then so be it, but at least be consistent and claim that Exodus 32 likewise offers a theory of consent.
Locke’s theory of consent seems on the face of it to be so different from that of Hobbes, yet the two accord in the following decisive respect. The situation of man, within which consent occurs, is decisively theological or to be more precise, the narrative situation within which consent occurs is embedded in Biblical narrative. For Locke, consent means nothing without reason, that candle of the Lord granted to Adam so that he may have dominion over the earth, not to exploit it, but to be its steward. Reason, the faculty that all human kind shares by virtue of its common inheritance in Adam. Here the accidents of history, of birth and of blood can be nothing in the face of the primordial fact of our unity in Adam. Consent can be nothing without a mechanism by which the accidents of history, blood and birth are discounted. For Locke, Adam provided just this. Augustine in the City of God says the same thing.
We moderns, of course, find this very naïve, but we have not escaped the need to found a theory of consent on a mechanism that discounts the forces that make up our identity and we have found just such a mechanism in Rawls, whose veil of ignorance strips us away of the accidents of history, birth and blood in a manner that only an American can find credible or alternatively, we have done so through the pure speculations of a philosophical enterprise that has become quite dissevered from “that real question before us,” as Socrates said to Glaucon in the Republic, “namely, how it is we shall best live.”
Grant then, that the rudiments of early modern consent theory were suffused with religious overtones and, to put the matter even more strongly, achieved a measure of coherence that they did precisely within such a tonal structure. So what? The consent is now understood to be essentially, or at least, originally theological rather than secular. What implications does this have? Aside, that is, from disturbing the antinomy setup by Professor Wolterstorff’s paper. The answer lays in the reason consent was set forward in the first place, namely, because of the dawn of modernity. In the Anglo-American world people were groping for a political theory of representation. Now this is curious in itself. Why representation? Why not a tribal formulation of politics on the basis of which the winner takes all. Or why not say a model of democracy that the Athenians had, namely, democracy by lot. Here I think religion matters a great deal. And by this I do not mean that religion matters with respect to the relationship between consent and the authority of the State, for in our contemporary world Professor Wolterstorff is surely right in saying that it does not, but rather, that the problem for which consent is a solution, namely, representation has its roots in Biblical religion. Are there Biblical texts that underwrite this claim? Here, I think that St. Paul is helpful again, though, not the Paul of Romans, not Romans 13, but rather Romans 5, 18 and 19 and 1st Corinthians as well. From Corinthians, “for since by man came death, by man also came resurrection of the dead, for as in Adam all die even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” What Adam is the occasion for, Christ is the solution to. Adam is initiative, Christ is transformative. Adam stands for, represents human kind and all that follow him, inherit from him. Christ stands in for, represents human kind before God. This sublime standing for and standing in for, patiently pondered and worked through for more than 1000 years, eventually becomes not just an object of thought but a category within which thought does its work. Thus, during the crisis political, religious, social and economic of the reformation, is it any wonder that politics is thought through in terms of consent in relationship to representation as Hobbes, Locke and, strangely, even as Rousseau do.
A civilization constituted and sustained by the sublime mystery of representation is bound to think through the crisis it faces in terms of its deepest and most durable categories. So, I am not prepared to cede the territory of consent too quickly to the humanists. The fact of the matter is that early modern consent theory was thought through in terms of religion as anything more than a rough perusal of Hobbes and Locke will show, moreover, I think it a grave error to consider this merely a scholarly manner, for it seems to me that we in the West take for granted that the authority of the State has very much to do with consent and representation, however, much many now fervently hope that these things can be grounded in secular terms, which accounts for certain incredulity on our part. When we look elsewhere around the globe and wonder why certain peoples with non-Jewish or non-Christian traditions are seemingly unconcerned with consent and representation. I am thinking here of the recent elections in Iraq where one gets 99 percent of the vote.
In a word, paying attention to the religious roots of consent in the West alert us to the fact, that it is in fact, a provincial development, not necessarily universalizable. Rendering it as a category appropriate to a non-religious world tacitly supposes that it is philosophical and that by virtue of the fact that reason is a universal attribute of humanity, a consent theory of the authority of the State can obtain in a world in which religion has no place. This is, I believe, an empirical question, which the evidence of the century struggles may well confirm or deny. My second concern is sociological. For too long theologians have ceded the territory that really is theirs to legitimately consider. There are new winds blowing through Divinity Schools around the country and it is refreshing to see political theory taken up without regard to the ossified categories that now pervade the academic discipline of political theory. It may well be that Professor Wolterstorff’s delegate theory of the State authority, can provide a new way of understanding the bearing of religion on the State. If that turns out to be the case, I would hope that its happy success does not involve the dismissal of consent theories, which, while appearing to be wholly humanist in character, are at root, deeply theological.
Jean Elshtain: Thank you very much for a challenging paper and three equally challenging responses. In the interest of time, Professor Wolterstorff has divested himself of his right to respond to the immediate commentaries and we will simply open the floor for questions. He has alienated his right, even though, Locke will not permit you to do that…alienate your freedom…you’re not permitted, but that’s okay. Locke’s not here. So…yes, if you have a question, please come to the microphone in the center and direct it to either Professor Wolterstorff or anyone in general. Chuck.
Chuck Matthews: Yes, Chuck Matthews, University of Virginia. This is directed to everybody, because I think everybody kind of touched on it. It is remarkable that in a conference on politics in Chicago, after a paper by a Calvinist, it took to the second respondent to start talking about sin in politics. And I really want to kind of introduce the “f” word here, the Fall, in a way to followup with the Jeanne Heffernan, in what she was saying. I take it from the opposite direction, that is Augustinian. I am quite excited by the idea that politics is really institution after the Fall. It is a post-lapserian reality about humanity. And the reason I want to suggest and urge people to respond to this in some way, the danger, it seems to me, of too thoroughly naturalizing politics is, the same danger we get with some secular accounts of politics, which is that it too eminently seals stuff off from transcendent critique in certain ways. The nice thing, the attractive thing, about religious conceptions of authority, it’s always seemed to me, is that they provide always a kind of perforation to a better recognition of something higher and better. They provide a way of recognizing the tragic character of politics in a way that it seems to me in accounts from Rawls through Hobbes. Tragedy is in some weird way ruled out. We can respect the mournfulness of things much more safely it seems to me if, in fact, we recognize a kind of corruption inherent in the necessity to go to politics and also a theological account it seems to me, especially if one’s built on sin, rather than an endorsement of natural law, which I think is problematic for several reasons. That account it seems to me provides a way of talking about the inevitable corruptions that are attendant upon political authority given its kind of too long existence in one particular constellation. So, I would just suggest that I would like to hear further on the debate about whether or not politics is something that happens after the Fall or before. Precisely because this will qualify the character of the endorsement theologians or theologically minded people would say the tradition gives to political authority as well as qualifying the kind of authority that that qualified endorsement endorses.
Jean Elshtain: The gauntlet has been thrown down. Professor Wolterstorff would you care to take…make the first cut into this question?
Professor Wolterstorff: Yes, that’s also the question that Professor Heffernan was pressing, Jean. Well, it seems to me that the states that we actually know, as I said in the section of the paper that I probably skipped, the states that we actually know do more than render…do more than try to vindicate the innocent, do more than try to cope with injustice. There is certainly that coordination function that Jeanne talked about, absolutely. And, theologically that emerges from a doctrine of creation, rather than a doctrine of fall. So, I think Jeanne is right about that. What’s not clear to me in that issue is whether that…whatever we call that…let’s just call it the coordination function. It’s more than that, but that’s going to be central to it. It is not clear to me, Jeanne, exactly how that fits with authority in the full sense. I mean, there it seems to me that the sorts of arguments that Green gives apply. It is not clear that an organization which serves a coordination function has to be viewed as having authority in this sense. It just makes…it is just a prudential…it is in everybody’s self-interest. It is a matter of prudence. Sometimes more than prudence. I guess it was a point that Jay was making of a moral obligations, but a prior moral obligation to do what this coordinating power says. So, the question whose answer I don’t know at this point is whether those two fundamental functions of the State, the coordination function and the rendering of justice function should be seen in one completely unified account as requiring authority in the full-blown sense. I am not sure. I just don’t at this point know the answer to it. So, such a way to answer your question too. Yah…LAUGHTER Augustine also thought that there was authority in the church of course. To haul Augustine into this, is to get into a lot of complications. There are plenty passages…well, here I go into them. There are plenty passages in which Augustine seems to identify the state as the polity of the mutatis mundi and I don’t regard the State as the polity of the mutatis mundi. I regard the American state as the polity of everybody living here, both those who are members of the mutatis dei and the mutatis mundi. So, how exactly we apply the Augustinian themes, well, the application is not so smooth, it seems to me given the two cities doctrine of Augustine and the particular way in which he works it out, mainly, the State is the other people’s polity and the church, the official church is our polity.
Jean Elshtain: Before I turn to Jeanne Heffernan, I want to make sure, Nick, that I understand a distinction that you are making or appear to be making because it strikes me that there is a tacit distinction. I know you don’t like tacit consent, but maybe a tacit distinction is okay. Tacit distinction between an act of obedience and obligation to obey and simply sort of accepting what the State is doing, so that the act of obedience…it seems that you are tying together specific requirements of authority and specific acts of obedience and that is different from my simply accepting or acquiescing to what the State is doing and that area that you called its coordination function. Am I…Is that?
Professor Wolterstorff: I don’t know exactly what the right word is. It’s not full blown obedience. It’s accepting because…I mean…for one reason you’d be mighty dumb if you disobeyed. You’d wind up in jail or whatever and who wants to wind up in jail? So, you know, it is just prudence which…if you take obedience as the counterpart, as I was doing, to authentic authority, then the anarchist is perfectly willing to stay out of jail, most of them, but he doesn’t see what he is doing as obedience.
Jean Elshtain: Jeanne Heffernan.
Jeanne Heffernan: Okay. Briefly here. It is interesting to note that within the Christian tradition, broadly speaking, you have very different accounts of where Augustine actually falls on this question. And that complicates matters further, right. So, for instance, in precisely the location in the Summa where Aquinas makes the argument that political authority is natural, he appeals to Augustine as his authority and I can think of various passages both in the City of God book 19 and in Augustine’s commentary on the literal meaning of Genesis, for instance, where he seems to assimilate political authority to something like the family…for instance…in the commentary on Genesis, he says…he includes the governing of societies among those tasks that are given to man by nature. So that is a complicated business. To get to Chuck’s more particular point, it doesn’t seem to me that natural goods, like political authority, can’t at one and the same time be related to and constrained by transcendent ends. I think the family is an instance of that. I don’t think politics is qualitatively different here. And, let me say a quick word by way of a conclusion to Chuck’s point, why I think this is so important. Why I raised it, because it seems to me that when a Christian looks at what is the origin of political authority that will decisively shape the way in which he is disposed toward it and I can think of no greater or more vivid example than of reading the Anabaptists. It is precisely the way they see the origin of political authority, not only its functions, but its origin. That shapes the way they are disposed toward the political community and to the State. And to Nick’s question, very briefly, how does the authority question relate to obligation.
It seems to me that obedience, one could argue, is required by the very nature of the necessity of political authority and it doesn’t seem to me that obedience or obligation would require right disposition, let’s say. For instance, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. You might obey the dictates of the Lord initially out of fearfulness, out of a certain kind of calculus even, about punishments and rewards and so forth. That would be obedience, it wouldn’t be true piety, but I think it would have the character of heeding an obligation.
Jean Elshtain: J. and then Josh, J. Budziszewski I am identifying you for the radio purposes. I am sorry to sound like a talk show host, but, just want to make sure who’s talking. Okay.
Prof. Budziszewski: This is a secondary point, but I think it is always important to correct misconceptions. There was the remark at the end of our questioner’s statement about natural law somehow being involved in this matter of ignoring the importance of human sin. That is a very common misunderstanding of natural law. Natural law does not deny the fallenness of man. Sin does not extricate the human design after all, what is does is twist it. A crushed foot is still a foot, human nature crushed by sin is still human nature, a man who evades his conscience is not the same thing as a man who has none.
Jean Elshtain: Josh Mitchell.
Josh Mitchell: I am going to try something a bit bold here. One way of doing this is in Trinitarian terms and what struck me by your comments and the comments around here is that, in effect, we are arguing what moment of the Trinity really bears on politics and Jeanne, you got me started on this when you talked about Simon thinking that politics has to do with the creation order. Well, that is the first moment of the Trinity. Chuck you come in and you say, well wait a moment, what about sin and tragedy. Well this is obviously the second moment of the Trinity, yes, and then lurking in your question was, could one from considerations of the second moment of the Trinity, issues of redemption etc., build some positive vision of politics, because you are suspicious that any vision of politics comes out of first moment Trinitarianism. Yes. Yes. Okay, but here is the thing. All you have to do is look to history and there is actually the third moment Trinitarians. Who am I talking about? The Calvinists. I mean these are the ones who have built the city on the hill. This is America right now, so ironically out of this concern for sin and tragedy, you get this third moment Trinitarianism of Calvinism where you rebuild the world. The world is not resanctified. So, it is this unintended consequence.
Prof. Wolterstorff: One more thing in response to the question and in response to Jeanne. So, my view is that the State does, as a matter of fact, properly belong both to the order of the Fall and Providence. It’s part of God’s providential care for humanity and redemptive care and to the order of creation. But what gets these things blurred, it seems to me and makes it complex is this, whereas the psalmist in that classical passage about the king at the opening of psalm 72 says that the king is responsible for vindicating the innocent and so forth. Prosperity comes from the hills. So the king…unlike how we think of our administrations, you know…if we have a recession it is the fault of Washington and so forth. The ancient Hebrews thought…prosperity or the lack of what came from the hills. That is a metaphor, of course, for God, but they didn’t think of the king as having all that much…and maybe we should probably not think of the king as having all that much to do with prosperity and recession either. Anyway, but what blurs the issue it seems to me, Jeanne, is that when regulatory function fails and all too typically, if not invariably, we have injustice on our hands and so, and so it’s been typical of Thomistic tradition and what’s typical of the Calvinist tradition sort of meet. I mean, you can’t keep them apart. If the Federal Reserve Board doesn’t do a good job of regulating somebody is going to get burned in the business. Injustice will be rendered.
Jean Elshtain: There is coffee ready downstairs. If someone has a pithy question and wants to present it at this time, we will take very quickly one more question and it should be directed at Professor Wolterstorff. We can’t it open it up again to the whole panel, but if not, we have coffee in the common room downstairs on the first floor. We started a bit late with the actual panel. We have run just a bit late, so, let me suggest to you that you be back here at 3:35. I will give you an extra five minutes difference from the starting time of 3:30 on the program. So, see you at 3:35 back here. Let’s thank the panel.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Thank you for returning. I hope that you are now re-energized with your good coffee that comes courtesy of the very famous Divinity School Coffee Shop. We are now ready to begin our second panel in this conference. Before I introduce our speakers, let me just indicate that there are some fliers out there, perhaps, you have already discovered them as you come into this room, one of them announcing an upcoming lecture in the series that the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has been running under the rubric, “Does Human Rights Need God?” We have had two very interesting lectures; a third is going to be delivered by the Czech Ambassador to the United States. His Excellency, Martin Palouš, who is a political philosopher, will be lecturing here on Wednesday, April 9th at 4:00 p.m., so please pick up a flier and spread the word on that forthcoming event. I know Ambassador Palouš rather well and he is an engaging speaker. His English is very good, so I would encourage you to come to that. All right, we are ready for our second panel and we are fortunate, indeed, to have as our paper presenter and our lead speaker, Professor Jean Porter, who is the Reverend John A. O’Brien Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame where she has taught since 1990. Before coming to Notre Dame, Professor Porter taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School, which is where I got to know her. She also taught at Vassar College and she is a specialist in Christian Ethics and Moral Theology. Let me just give you the titles of a couple of her books. Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics, and Moral Action and Christian Ethics. She is also on the editorial boards of a number of journals and she is an advisor to various important organizations devoted to the themes of ethics, especially theological ethics. So with that, let me ask Professor Porter to come up to the podium and speak to you on moral traditions. Jean.
Jean Porter: Note: This is a revised version of a paper delivered at a Pew Forum Conference on Theology, Morality, and Public Life held at the University of Chicago, February 25-27, 2003. I am very grateful for the helpful comments of the respondents and other participants offered at that time. I also want to express my thanks to Professor Alasdair MacIntyre for illuminating comments on the earlier draft of the paper, and to say that where we still disagree, that may well be due to my continued obtuseness.
About three years ago, I was asked to contribute an essay on MacIntyre’s account of tradition to a forthcoming volume of essays on his philosophical thought. In the process of working through that account, I was struck – not for the first time, but with new force – by just how powerful and fruitful that account is. But I also found myself frustrated by what appeared to me to be its limitations and failures. Eventually, I concluded that my admiration and my frustration were intertwined – that MacIntyre’s account of traditions is especially suggestive and potentially fruitful at the point at which it is least successful as it stands, namely, in its application to the problem of moral pluralism.
The following paper represents a further attempt to think through the issues raised by MacIntyre’s account of rationality as a tradition-based inquiry, seen specifically in the context of moral traditions. I am afraid that this will be one of those papers that is mostly devoted to clarifying and formulating a problem. However, in the final section I will set forth what seem to me to be main lines of a possible solution. Throughout this paper, I will be engaging MacIntyre’s discussions of tradition, particularly in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, and in a manner of speaking, trying to think through this problem with MacIntyre. I should therefore make it clear that the assessments and conclusions are my own, and come with no presumption that MacIntyre himself would endorse them.
This paper is divided into four sections. In the first, I summarize the problem that MacIntyre identifies with contemporary moral reflection, and in the second, I briefly sketch his solution to that problem. In the third section, I indicate why I do not consider MacIntyre’s proposed solution to be adequate as it stands, and in the last section I offer some suggestions for further developing his account of traditions to address the problems of morality specifically.
The problem: Since I focus in this paper on MacIntyre’s account of rationality as tradition-guided inquiry as developed in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Three Rival Versions, let me begin by briefly examining the problem he sets out to address through that account, as he poses it in WJWR. In the opening paragraph of this book we read:
Begin by considering the intimidating range of questions about what justice requires and permits, to which alternative and incompatible answers are offered by contending individuals and groups within contemporary societies. Does justice permit gross inequality of income and ownership? Does justice require compensatory action to remedy inequalities which are the result of past injustice, even if those who pay the costs of such compensation had no part in that injustice? Does justice permit or require the imposition of the death penalty and, if so, for what offences? Is it just to permit legalized abortion? When is it just to go to war? The list of such questions is a long one.
As MacIntyre goes on to note, this depiction of the modern predicament is similar to that offered in After Virtue: we are the (mostly unwitting) heirs of a congeries of fragmented moral traditions, which offer us inconsistent and competing standards for moral judgments. Naturally, we cannot resolve our disagreements in any satisfactory way under these circumstances, and what is worse, we cannot understand why we cannot do so. Under these circumstances, the methodologies of rational argument and persuasion are transformed into expressions of attitudes and techniques for manipulation. There can be no genuine reasoned argument without broad agreement on reasons, and that is precisely what we do not have and cannot have in our present situation.
At this point, however, we come to the specific concern of this book. As MacIntyre notes, he focuses on justice rather than on morality in general, precisely because there is a long-standing connection between theories of justice and appeals to reason as a foundational standard for moral judgment: “It would be natural enough to attempt to reply to this question [that is, how to decide among rival accounts of justice] by asking which systematic account of justice we would accept if the standards by which our actions were guided were the standards of rationality.” But this approach cannot work, because the standards of rationality are themselves contested: “disputes about the nature of rationality in general and about practical rationality in particular are apparently as manifold and as intractable as disputes about justice.” These disputes, in turn, offer a particularly pointed and significant illustration of what MacIntyre describes elsewhere as the failure of the Enlightenment project – the attempt, that is to say, to develop or uncover standards of reasonableness which are both perspicuous and compelling to any rational human being, and substantive enough to resolve specific theoretical and moral disagreements.
Hence, the problem of moral pluralism, as MacIntyre sees it, does not consist simply in widespread, acrimonious disagreements. These disagreements are a symptom of a deeper problem, namely, that our moral reflections are informed by traditions which are not only at odds, but incommensurably at odds – that is to say, the interlocutors cannot even agree on the fundamental procedures for resolving the debates, or the criteria in terms of which proposed solutions might be evaluated. The Enlightenment approach to such disputes would be to uncover the foundational starting points on which all participants would (or at least, should) agree, and to develop one’s arguments accordingly. But when the very criteria for rationality are in question, reasoned argument in this mode cannot be expected to get us very far.
It is important to realize that MacIntyre does not deny that there are some cross-culturally valid standards of rationality, for example, the fundamental laws of logic, nor does he say that there can be no shared cross-cultural agreements concerning our basic descriptions of the observed world. On the contrary, as we will see it is essential to his proposed solution that cross-cultural agreements on some criteria for rationality and some shared descriptions of the world are possible. Nonetheless, on his view these agreed-upon criteria and descriptions are not comprehensive, nor are they sufficient by themselves to resolve the kinds of substantive theoretical and practical conflicts that we hope to resolve. Nor, much less, does MacIntyre endorse a version of relativism, on any plausible interpretation of that notoriously slippery term. The main point of WJWR is to defend the possibility of genuine knowledge and meaningful speech, over against those whose disillusionment with the Enlightenment project has led them to some version of relativism or other.
In fact, MacIntyre’s diagnosis of our problem traces it precisely to the effects of disillusionment with Enlightenment foundationalism:[It might be said that] if the only available standards of rationality are those made available by and within traditions, then no issue between contending traditions is rationally decidable…There can be no rationality as such. Every set of standards, every tradition incorporating a set of standards, has as much and as little claim to our allegiance as any other. Let us call this the relativist challenge, as contrasted with a second type of challenge, that which we may call the perspectivist …the perspectivist challenge puts in question the possibility of making truth claims from within any one tradition.
The problem, in short, amounts to an assertion of tertium non datur; we must choose between a foundationalist account of truth and rationality in the Enlightenment mode, or else we must resign ourselves to a more or less thorough-going skepticism. In contrast, MacIntyre defends the possibility of a third option; he contends that it is possible to arrive at a kind of rationality which allows for genuine comparisons and assessments of competing traditions, and to make truth claims which amount to something more than warranted assertability relative to the framework of a given tradition. In order to do so, he argues, we need to recover an earlier approach to rational inquiry: “What the Enlightenment made us for the most part blind to and what we now need to recover is, so I shall argue, a conception of rational enquiry as embodied in a tradition, a conception according to which the standards of rational justification themselves emerge from and are part of a history in which they are vindicated by the way in which they transcend the limitations of and provide remedies for the defects of their predecessors within the history of that same tradition.”
This brings us to MacIntyre’s proposed solution to the problem of moral pluralism – a solution which proceeds by arguing that even though rational inquiry is always located within the framework of some tradition or other, it can still be genuinely rational, in such a way as to offer a way out of parochialism and mutual incomprehension. We now turn to a closer examination of this proposal.
The solution: As an alternative to Enlightenment foundationalism on the one hand, and different versions of relativism and perspectivism on the other, MacIntyre offers an account of the mode of rationality embedded in the development of a tradition. This account traces the way in which the very process of the development of traditions, internally and through encounter with competing traditions, presupposes standards of rationality and truth which cannot simply be equated with the criteria for justification and assertability accepted within the tradition at a given point in time. This does not mean that traditions are informed, even implicitly, by criteria which transcend any particular tradition. Rather, the very processes of internal development and encounter with rivals will themselves provide the proponents of a tradition with alternative perspectives, taken from comparisons with their own history of inquiry and with the different points of view offered by other traditions.
“The rationality of a tradition-constituted and tradition-constitutive enquiry is in key and essential part a matter of the kind of progress which it makes through a number of well-defined types of stage. Every such form of enquiry begins in and from some condition of pure historical contingency, from the beliefs, institutions and practices of some particular community which constitute a given.” As this remark suggests, traditions take their starting points from beliefs and practices which are initially taken to be authoritative, in such a way as to be placed beyond systematic questioning. But matters cannot rest there. Any tradition rich enough to provide a framework for inquiry and practice will also inevitably give rise to divergent interpretations and even internal contradictions and irresolvable questions. In order to continue to make progress on their own terms, proponents of the tradition must reformulate it, to some degree at least, in such a way as to preserve its consistency, adequacy, and relevance to changing circumstances.
If the proponents of a tradition succeed in this reformulation, they will then be in a position to compare its earlier, less satisfactory version with its later, more successful reformulation – indeed, the reformulation will be defended precisely in terms of its greater success in addressing traditional problems. But by what criterion will the proponents of the tradition judge that its reformulation is in fact more successful than the earlier version? Whatever the specifics of the answer may be, it will imply that the reformulation is more adequate because it provides a better framework for grasping the realities toward which inquiry within the tradition is directed. Once this possibility is acknowledged, however, it implies that the present stage of one’s tradition may similarly be inadequate in some yet to be discovered way. Recognizing this fact marks an important intellectual advance, because at this point, it is no longer possible simply to equate the truth of a given claim with warranted assertability, that is to say, with adequacy by the best standards of one’s tradition as it exists at any given point.
Even if we grant that it is possible to adjudicate between earlier and later stages of a tradition in this way, however, it might still seem that MacIntyre cannot account for the possibility of rationally adjudicating between two disparate and rival traditions. In order to do so, he goes on to consider a further (possible) stage in the evolution of a tradition, which he describes as an “epistemological crisis.” In this unhappy situation, the proponents of a tradition are forced to acknowledge that it cannot resolve centrally important difficulties or questions, in such a way as to secure general acceptance. It is at this point that encounters with rival traditions become not only genuinely possible, but potentially fruitful.
In order for such an encounter to take place, two rival traditions must first of all be brought into genuine contact. This presupposes that some proponents of each tradition are in sustained contact with the other, and that they are willing seriously to consider the claims of the rival tradition. More fundamentally, this encounter presupposes that they are able to see that the alternative represents a genuine rival, that is to say, a distinct and incompatible account of the same realities with which them themselves are concerned. Thus, the differences between the two traditions cannot be so great that their proponents are unable to agree on at least a partially shared description of the world; otherwise, communication and translation of rival claims between them would be impossible. At the same time, however, MacIntyre insists, contrary to Donald Davidson, that agreement at this level does not preclude genuine logical incommensurability between the two traditions. These kinds of agreements are not sufficient to resolve the differences between the two traditions, because in addition their proponents bring radically different standards of judgement to their evaluation of whatever it is that they recognize in common.
At any rate, this level of agreement comprises only a necessary condition for a genuine encounter between rival traditions. In order for a genuine encounter to take place, some proponents of each tradition must also be able to enter imaginatively into the central beliefs and commitments of the other. This process involves taking on the perspectives of the rival tradition in such a way as to adopt its standards of judgement, at least provisionally, as if they were one’s own. Someone who is able in this way to move between two competing sets of judgements and (correlatively) theoretical claims is thereby placed in a position to see that the rival tradition offers conceptual possibilities which his or her native tradition does not provide. From this vantage point, it may appear that the problems which have arisen, and appear to be insoluble, within the first tradition can be resolved from within the second tradition. And if this is indeed the case, then it is rational for the proponents of the first tradition to acknowledge that the second tradition offers the possibility of a more adequate grasp of reality in some respect than does their own tradition. They will thus have made a rational choice between traditions, without at any point needing to adopt a standpoint outside of any tradition whatever. In this way, their rationality will be developed and expressed through their inquiries as participants in a tradition, or (at some points) in two traditions at once – it will be, in other words, a display of rationality as tradition-guided inquiry.
In this way, MacIntyre attempts to address the problems of a-rational pluralism and interminable argument posed in the opening pages of WJWR, and even more starkly in After Virtue. And yet, when we compare the details of his account of rationality as tradition-guided inquiry with those initial descriptions of the problem, we see that there has been at least a change of emphasis. In After Virtue, the idea of tradition was closely linked to moral concerns by way of the motif of the virtues, and throughout most of WJWR it is developed through close attention to differing accounts of justice. But by the time we have worked through the last chapters of the latter book, tradition appears to be regarded primarily as an epistemic and linguistic notion, which plays a central role a realist account of truth and rationality.
I have argued elsewhere that on this latter view, MacIntyre treats a tradition in good order as an incipient stage in the development of an Aristotelian/Thomistic science, that is to say, a set of propositions perspicuously derived from first principles, in such a way as to set forth an adequate and comprehensive account of some object of inquiry. This may seem very far indeed from his account of rationality as a tradition-guided inquiry, but in my view, the ideal of a perfected science serves as a kind of normative and regulative ideal, towards which traditions in good order evolve and in terms of which they are evaluated. By the same token, a developing science, as MacIntyre elsewhere describes it, sounds a great deal like an evolving tradition as described in WJWR. It begins from contingent starting points; it develops through ongoing self-correction and expansion, until it reaches a point at which it can fruitfully engage with alternative approaches to the same objects of inquiry; and it is vindicated through ongoing encounters with its rivals, in such a way that proponents of these rivals can themselves acknowledge its superiority.
On this view, the paradigm of a tradition in good order would be some kind of speculative inquiry, including (but not limited to) scientific inquiry in the modern sense. Hence, we can speak – perhaps loosely, but intelligibly – in terms of the object or subject-matter of the tradition, what it is “about,” in such a way as to imply evaluation in terms of accuracy and completeness in rendering that subject-matter. For example, we might regard Aristotelian, Newtonian, and Einsteinian physics as three rival traditions of inquiry into the general laws of motion, each of which is more adequate than its predecessors.
It would take us far beyond the scope of this paper to enter into an assessment of MacIntyre’s account of rationality as a tradition-guided inquiry. Let me therefore simply assert that in my view, this account works, considered as an account of speculative inquiry. MacIntyre has provided an elegant and persuasive account of rationality and truth which does justice to the contingent starting points and historical development of all inquiry, without giving up on robust accounts of rationality and truth.
The problem, revisited: However, it is not so clear that MacIntyre’s defense of the rationality of tradition-guided inquiry can be translated straightforwardly into a defense of moral rationality, or more specifically, that it resolves the problem of moral pluralism that he raises in the opening chapters of WJWR. MacIntyre does not advert to this possibility, except to claim that the rationality exhibited in scientific disputes is no different from the rationality exhibited by moral disputes. Yet this is not evident.
I have already indicated that I consider MacIntyre’s account of the rational development and encounter of traditions to be successful with respect to rival scientific traditions, understanding “scientific” broadly to include any kind of inquiry which would fall under the ambit of what Aquinas called the speculative intellect. When these sorts of traditions break down or come into conflict, the resultant inquiries and debates are conducted in a context of observations about, and active engagement with, the natural world. (This is so even in the case of metaphysical disputes, since even these will be grounded, more or less remotely, in reflection on our experiences of the natural world.) It is of course true that disagreements between incommensurable traditions cannot be resolved simply by appeals to observation, since the terms in which proponents of rival traditions describe their observations are themselves in dispute. Nonetheless, as noted above, there must be some level, however rudimentary, at which shared description is possible, or there could be no encounter between rival traditions at all. Correlatively, as conflicts between rival traditions are resolved, the parties to the conflict will find themselves increasingly converging on shared descriptions of, or theories about the observed world.
Yet as a number of moral philosophers have argued, moral claims cannot be placed on a par with scientific or observational claims, because they depend (in some way) on our own collective commitments and decisions. We ourselves are collectively the originators of the practices and institutions, and correlatively the moral concepts that structure our lives. This view might be considered to be an expression of a modern division between facts and values which MacIntyre wants to repudiate. Yet MacIntyre himself agrees that moral claims are at least partially grounded in our collective commitments. In commenting on the influence of Vico on his own work, MacIntyre remarks that Vico was the first to emphasize:
…the importance of the undeniable fact, which it is becoming tedious to reiterate, that the subject matters of moral philosophy at least – the evaluative and normative concepts, maxims, arguments and judgments about which the moral philosopher enquires – are nowhere to be found except as embodied in the historical lives of particular social groups and so possessing the distinctive characteristics of historical existence: both identity and change through time, expression in institutionalized practice as well as in discourse, interaction and interrelationship with a variety of forms of activity. Morality which is no particular society’s morality is to be found nowhere.
If this understanding of moral claims is correct (as I believe it to be), it is not clear how the rival claims of disparate moral traditions could be adjudicated through an encounter of rival traditions. It is not even clear that moralities can come into conflict, in such a way that we can plausibly regard them as rival traditions. You, collectively, arrange your lives in one way, we arrange our lives in a different way. Is it clear that we even disagree? Even if we do, what would count as resolving our disagreements, since there is no question here of coming to agree on a description of anything? Certainly, we might come to agree on the best way to arrange our lives, but that would represent a change in mores, and not a convergence of thinking about a shared object of enquiry. We do not necessarily need to conclude that moral traditions are a-rational. Nonetheless, it does appear that MacIntyre’s account of rationality as tradition-based inquiry is not sufficient, taken by itself, to resolve the issues raised by contemporary moral pluralism and the interminable character of moral disputes.
How might MacIntyre respond to this claim? In more than one way, no doubt, but let me focus here on what strikes me as one obvious and fruitful rejoinder. That is to say, he might reply by calling attention once again to the fundamental continuities between speculative and practical inquiry. While it is true that a scientific theory is not, in and of itself, equivalent to a moral tradition, nonetheless speculative traditions do have practical implications. Indeed, one of the most distinctive elements of the moral tradition of Thomism, which MacIntyre defends in WJWR and even more forcefully in TRV, lies in the claim that moral norms flow from and express aspects of our shared nature and circumstances. And these starting points for morality can be progressively uncovered through speculative inquiries into ourselves, considered as biological kinds, as social creatures, and as rational agents. Admittedly, the MacIntyre who wrote AV would not have made such a claim, but in his most recent writings, MacIntyre has admitted the necessity of some kind of “metaphysical biology” for ethical inquiry, and has begun to explore what that might mean. So this general approach would not seem to be antithetical to MacIntyre’s most recent views. If that is so, it would seem to provide him with a way to answer the challenge that moral traditions are dissimilar in critical ways to speculative traditions.
I am prepared to grant everything in the preceding paragraph – moral norms do stem from and express aspects of a species-specific human nature, which we can progressively uncover through rational inquiry. And yet, even granting this, there is still a problem. That is, even if it is the case that moral norms are grounded in human nature (or – to change the theoretical assumptions – the exigencies of reason, or metaphysical constraints, or our intuitive grasp of the Good), it will also be the case that any moral norm which is substantive enough to be put into practice will also be a construct, most probably an unconscious construct, but a construct nonetheless. In other words, even if our morality expresses our nature, that nature under-determines any system of moral norms expressing it, and does so in such a way as to leave room for an ineradicable element of contingency and choice in the development of moralities.
If this is so, then moral pluralism would seem to be an ineradicable part of our world, and of any other human world. What is more, the interminable character of moral disagreements would appear to be an inevitable feature of the internal development of moral traditions. Correlatively, the disputes MacIntyre describes in WJWR, and even more vividly in AV, may not be expressions of competing fragmentary traditions, but the inevitable indeterminancy of moral claims, given greater salience by the complexity and rapid social changes characterizing contemporary society.
And this is not, in itself, a bad thing. Nonetheless, every community needs to find some way to resolve its moral disputes in a way that is at least broadly satisfactory, even if not compelling – life in society demands some level of consensus, if it is not to be intolerably contentious or oppressive. And we do not need to be reminded of the urgent need, in this increasingly interconnected world, to find a modus vivendi with those whose values and ways of life are very different indeed from our own. Even if we grant that moral consensus cannot be established in such a way as to be rationally compelling to all, can we at least hope to find ways of resolving moral questions that will be perceived as, and actually will be, reasonable?
The solution, revisited: It would take us well beyond the scope of a single paper to attempt to address this problem in any detail. Nonetheless, we can at least identify some of the key points that an attempted solution might incorporate.
Firstly, acknowledging the ineradicable contingency of moral traditions need not commit us to the view that traditions are contingent all the way through. It may well be the case – in fact, as noted above I believe it is the case – that socially embodied moralities express certain broad, species-specific patterns of behavior, which we can come to recognize as such. Of course, even if they exist, these characteristic patterns of behavior can be expressed in an indefinite variety of ways, and so this fact by itself does not eliminate all contingency and pluralism. However, it does at least provide a framework within which we can identify different moralities as variant forms of what is broadly the same kind of phenomenon, namely, the expression of behavioral patterns proper to our kind of creature. I say perhaps, because it is still not clear to me, for the reasons already mentioned, that we could get enough purchase on a shared framework of similarities to make this kind of comparative assessment feasible – it may be that the best we can hope for is the shared recognition that divergent ways of life are expressions, albeit incommensurable expressions, of a common humanity. At any rate, this kind of encounter cannot generate a decisive vindication of one tradition over against the other. And yet, it may provide a context within which conversion from one tradition to another can take place, and be informed by something other than sheer arbitrary choice. And the recognition that another’s mores are a defensible construal of our natural ways of behaving, even if not our construal, may at least promote the kind of informed tolerance of difference that represents the best of the liberalism that flourished in the middle of the last century.
MacIntyre suggests a further way of responding to the specific issues raised by moral pluralism in his Gifford Lectures, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. We have already noted that MacIntyre’s analysis of rationality as tradition-based inquiry depends, to a large degree at least, on the open-ended character of tradition-based inquiry and the place of internal and external conflict in moving it forward. In TRV, however, he balances this account by giving more attention to the essential role played by authority in tradition-based enquiry. Early in this book, he states that the dichotomy between encyclopedia and genealogy conceals “a third possibility, the possibility that reason can only move towards being genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disinterested, that membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded, is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry.”
Of course, this is not altogether a new claim. In WJWR, MacIntyre noted that all traditions begin from contingent beliefs and practices which are perforce given normative status. However, this kind of authority is necessarily provisional, since as the tradition develops, these starting points will inevitably be called into question. By the same token, in TRV he observes that initiation into a tradition will be similar to initiation into the practice of a craft, insofar as it will require initial submission to the authoritative guidance of a more experienced and adept practitioner. But this kind of authority, too, would seem to be provisional, since apprentices eventually become masters themselves, in addition it would seem to be limited in scope, since it is located within a particular relationship.
In addition to these two forms of authority, however, in TRV MacIntyre asserts the need for a third kind of authoritative presence which can oversee the development of a tradition as a whole. Furthermore, he claims that acceptance of this sort of authority is implicit in the other two forms discussed above:
So continuous authority receives its justification as indispensable to a continuing progress, the narrative of which we first learned how to recount from that authority and the truth of which is confirmed by our own further progress, including that progress made by means of dialectical enquiry. The practice of specifically Augustinian dialectic and the belief of the Augustinian dialectician that this practice is a movement towards a truth never as yet wholly grasped thus presupposes the guidance of authority. Hence when the very same authority places restrictions upon dialectic enquiry, it would be unreasonable not to submit.
This paragraph illustrates why MacIntyre has sometimes been dismissed as a defender of unreason over against the forces of liberalism and rationality and all things good. I hope it will be apparent by now that I do not share this perspective. MacIntyre sets out to defend the possibility of reasoned judgment and discourse (if not liberalism), and I believe that he succeeds in doing so. Furthermore, when we place his endorsement of authority in the context of his overall project, we can more easily see why he regards the exercise of some forms of authority to be a necessary component of rational inquiry.
Nonetheless, MacIntyre’s account of authority as developed in TRV does raise fundamental questions for his account of rationality as tradition-guided inquiry. Rationality, so understood, can only be exhibited in an open-ended process of inquiry, in which even the most basic commitments of a tradition can be called into question through the processes of internal development or response to external challenges. This, at least, is MacIntyre’s own view of rationality as developed in WJWR, and to a considerable degree it is also the view we find in TRV. Within this process, the exercise of the provisional forms of authority mentioned above would seem to be benign, and indeed necessary. But the exercise of an external authority, functioning in such a way as to exclude fundamental dissent, is quite another matter. If the processes of rational inquiry are functioning in good order within a developing tradition, what need is there for an external authority to place boundaries on these processes? Would there not be some danger that this authority, rather than safeguarding inquiry, would in fact operate in such a way as to stifle it?
This, at least, would seem to be the case with respect to speculative inquiry. But if the analysis of the preceding section is correct, then moral inquiry is different from speculative inquiry in critical ways – most fundamentally, in the fact that speculative inquiry at its best operates within parameters set by the realities towards which it is directed, whereas moral inquiry incorporates ineliminable elements of construction and contingency. For this reason, it makes sense to say that authoritative resolution plays a stronger role in moral, than in speculative inquiry. After all, if moral inquiry can only progress through the application of indeterminate moral concepts, a process which by its very nature can reasonably develop in more than one way, then some agency has to decide which way it is going to go. This agency need not be a formal authority, and probably will not be in most cases – rather, the community itself, acting through the imperceptible processes of shared deliberation and custom, will resolve most open moral questions. But at least authority has a legitimate role to play in this process, and in complex societies it will probably be necessary.
It is one thing, however, to acknowledge that authority has a legitimate and probably indispensable role to play in the development of moral traditions – it is something else to offer a satisfactory account of what that role is. The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate authority is intuitively plausible, and in order to develop a workable theory of authority and its role in moral inquiry, we would need to say much more about what that distinction involves, and what the limits and scope of authority properly are. Moreover, this account would have to be developed with reference to our own moral tradition – we should not expect to develop a tradition -independent, universally valid account of authority, any more than we can develop such an account for any other moral concept. That being said, however, MacIntyre’s account of rationality as tradition-guided inquiry provides us with a most valuable starting point for developing such an account. He shows that authority need not be regarded as heteronomous to morality – if, indeed, we have any reason to retain the autonomous/heteronomous distinction at all. For this very reason, he opens up the possibility of developing an account of authority which takes it seriously as one component of our moral reflection, which is not opaque to moral considerations but can on the contrary be understood, and placed within proper limits, through such considerations.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Thank you very much Professor Porter. We now turn to our three distinguished respondents. Once again, I will introduce each one in turn and they will speak in the order in which I am introducing them. We will begin with Christopher Beem, who received his Ph.D. in Ethics from the Divinity School here in 1994. He is the author of a book The Necessity of Politics, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1999, a very well reviewed book. I should add and he directs the Democracy and Community Program for the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin. Let me also add that Chris was the staff administrator of the Council on Civil Society Project that I chaired and that issued a call to society in 1998, that was much discussed. Peter Berkowitz, our second respondent teaches at the George Mason University School of Law. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the author of two books, Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism and his first book, Nietsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist. And, Peter Berkowitz, as I am sure many of you know, publishes widely in journals of civic opinion, including the New Republic, where he is a fellow contributing editor and he has written for many others. You will have found his byline in the Atlantic Monthly, The London Review of Books, The Times, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, The Wilson Quarterly, The Public Interest, and on and on. He is also serving as a senior consultant to the President’s Council on Bioethics and is a founding co-director of the Jerusalem Program on Constitutional Government. Our third and final respondent is Professor Eloise Buker. She is a professor of political science and director of the Women’s Studies Program at St. Louis University. Her name is spelled correctly in the program unlike Professor Wolterstorff, but she is located in the program as teaching at Denison College. That was her previous post and she has since moved to St. Louis University. Her most recent book is a book called Talking Feminine Politics and this book examines the legal, scientific and post-modern issues of gender justice. Her interests include the interpretation of Hermeneutics and post-structuralism of political leadership. She is currently working on a book, which we all eagerly await it: A political analysis of the life and work of Sister Anna McInanney, who is a Marinole sister who was a peace and social justice activist in Hawaii from 1930 to 1995. So with that, we begin with Christopher Beem. Again, I will ask our respondents to just sit at tables so we don’t have the clutter and noise and time taken up with shifting to the podium. Chris.
Christopher Beem: Well, I have been re-writing this and re-thinking this over the past couple days and there’s all these scratches and notes and arrows and so if I seem lost at some point, it’s only because I am. But anyway, I am going to try and get through this. Professor Porter says that she is trying to think through this problem with MacIntyre and I think that effort was very successful, so I am going to try and continue that process. I have to confess that it has been a long time since I have read MacIntyre and it was in these hallowed halls that I did and that was getting longer and longer ago as time marches on. In any case, the one thing that I remember is that MacIntyre is not a big fan of liberalism and tends to elides liberalism in the enlightenment, but as I was going through this a series of questions occurred to me. Namely that his strategy may be more amenable to liberalism than he might like or might allow. In any case, you have this effort of trying to find this third way between relativism and enlightenment foundationalism and the strategy in a few sentences is to try to develop this idea of maybe intra-tradition rationality: The compulsion to make one’s tradition cohere better with itself, to respond better to new circumstances, to respond better to outside critiques or challenges and especially when you talk about these speculative accounts there, I was repeatedly reminded of Kuhn’s talk about scientific revolutions and all. There are differences certainly and it seems to me that one of the main differences is that MacIntyre appears to be a little bit more hopeful, a little bit more realist about the ability of science to kind of come to terms with the way things really are. In any case, with that kind of broad account, here are the questions I want to raise to kind of speak up for liberalism. Professor Porter says that one of the main points of MacIntyre’s recent work is to defend the possibility of genuine knowledge and meaningful speech regarding moral disagreements over and against some kind of relativism. But, then, almost at that same point, there is this idea that for MacIntyre, logic and other criteria of rationality and shared judgment are real and meaningful, but they are not enough to enable us to resolve the conflicts we hope to resolve. And what I want to argue or suggest is that those are not necessarily the same or even commensurate goals. In other words, I think you can have the former without the latter. That more pluralism is irreducible, but that doesn’t mean that moral decision making about moral questions is impossible. It means that such decisions are going to be radically contingent and have to consider merely or to a large degree the facts that are before you, but that doesn’t mean that the conversation is by any means irrational or can’t even come to some kind of decision that we can regard as true. If we are going to try and decide how to organize our moral lives, then what ought to be our objectives for moral argument? To speak in any way of resolving moral problems, I would submit, is to adopt an extremely lofty standard and much of human history stands as a counter argument to that and I wonder if the liberal standard that Berlin lays out is not more commensurate with the facts of the matter and more realistic in terms of a set of objectives? MacIntyre says for his strategy to work he wants, even needs, someone who is willing to imaginatively enter into another tradition. All right, let’s grant that. What kind of person, what kind of life history, what kind of values, what kind of tradition is going to best be able to make that move, to be willing and able to consider another way of looking at the world? My suspicion is that someone who has learned to be tolerant, someone for whom tolerance is understood to be part of his or her tradition. Now, G.K. Chesterson said that “tolerance is a virtue for people who don’t believe in anything” and he certainly didn’t mean that as a compliment, but the point is that for MacIntyre, this ability strikes me as fairly essential and it would appear to me that liberals are better able to pull this off, pull off this kind of moral imagination. Another related point. There seems to me to be a possible irony and if it’s there, it is a pretty significant one. For I wonder if the price for admission to this possible path beyond relativism isn’t the ability to at least provisionally relativize one’s own tradition? The question or this issue brought to my mind the fact that there are theists in the world who have adopted postmodern epistemological critiques for the sole purpose of allowing themselves to quarter off any criticism of their own tradition. So, there is this acceptance of relativism as a price of preserving their own orthodoxy and that’s the price they are willing to pay. I’m shooting from the hip here. But in any case, it does seem to me that once again, liberals are more disposed to take up the kind of challenge MacIntyre lays down. Another advantage or another take on this advantage, this kind of MacIntyre/Porter position, says that proponents of one tradition can acknowledge that other traditions by their own criteria can offer a more adequate opinion of reality at least in some aspects and I think that the last part of that phrase is what I want to consider. The question that comes to my mind is if this is a kind of moral cherry-picking of other traditions and if that is a fair description. I actually think this kind of thing goes on all the time and I tried to come up with an example and this is the one I came up with. So bear with me. When my children were infants I remember reading about the reaction of African tribes to our practice of putting infants down to sleep in their own beds. They think it is barbaric, they think it is cruel, they think it is unnatural. I don’t think it is possible let alone a wise idea for me to try become an African, but as I was, you know, dealing with issue in a very concrete way, I did think long and hard about this. I mean, I never really thought of getting my babies to sleep through the first night as an epistemological crisis, but in some sense that’s what it was because I really had to think about whether or not this was the right and moral thing to do. And my point is that if you really are talking about some aspects of a tradition, you know, it may not require some kind of heroic moral imagination to get you there if you already understand that your tradition works rather well and it’s appropriate for the kind of circumstances in which you live, but you know it can always be made better and you know that it can always be tinkered with. Matter of fact, tinkering with it is part of the tradition, so here again, I think liberals are already in a position to do the kind of things that MacIntyre is looking for.
Okay, I just have one more comment. This issue about authority is obviously one of the things that liberals find the most distasteful or most problematic with MacIntyre’s account and you know, I think its certainly one thing to say authority plays a legitimate and even indispensable role in developing a moral tradition, but it’s quite another thing to argue that because of the indispensability any revolt or any objection to those restrictions is inherently less reasonable that strict obedience. Listening to Jean’s comments, now maybe this is overstated, but it does sound to me like that or something close to that is what MacIntyre is saying and this is what liberals don’t like. I mean, if liberals are too slow to acknowledge the necessity of authority and I think they are, I think non-liberals are too quick to gloss over the almost inevitable misuse of that authority. Now, if one were to ask whether there were institutional arrangements that one could design that would best accommodate both of these concerns, what would that look like? I think it would almost necessarily involve something like a separation of powers and almost necessarily involve some kind of notion of subsidiarity, i.e., giving those who are affected by a problem some control over the solution. Here again, you see the point. These are elements that a liberal democratic society already possess and it seems to me that they are better off than a number of other traditions to address these kinds of issues. So, in summary, I think that liberalism comes off better in this account than MacIntyre might like, but my point is, that as far as I can see, this conclusion results from the kind of terms that MacIntyre himself lays out. Professor Porter in her paper says at one point that “that MacIntyre uses a very unpragmatic argument to make a pragmatic point” and I want to suggest that you might be able to do the same thing with MacIntyre and liberalism. At any rate, those are the sorts of questions that are looming in my reading the paper. Thank you.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Professor Berkowitz.
Peter Berkowitz: The new title of my remarks is taking up where Chris left off. Laughter. Professor Porter has produced a richly textured account of MacIntyre’s analysis of rationality, as tradition-guided inquiry. I want to suggest that her moral predicament is not quite as grave or at least not grave in the same way as MacIntyre takes it to be. The problem in MacIntyre’s analysis, however, is not that he takes the idea of a moral tradition too seriously, but at least with reference to situation in the United States, our situation, perhaps throughout the Western world, he doesn’t really take it seriously enough. Before I proceed, I want to say that MacIntyre is one of my oldest intellectual heroes and what I say in disagreement with him or departing from him owes a lot to what I learned from him. So, contrary to MacIntyre, we or most of us do not inhabit a moral tradition defined essentially by the enlightenment project. That’s to over-intellectualize matters. I can’t think of a better term to describe the moral tradition that we do inhabit than the liberal tradition. It is connected to the enlightenment project, but it is much larger. It is not constituted, as MacIntyre tells us by a particular form of moral philosophy, say, deriving abstract rules of right conduct from un-assailable premises. Rather, it is grounded in a specific moral premise. That moral premise is the natural freedom and equality of all. As MacIntyre suggests, by understanding better the contours of our moral tradition we understand better the real character of the debates that we have about moral and political life. Accordingly, what I propose to do in the next nine minutes is suggest a better understanding of our moral tradition, the moral tradition that we inhabit and which inhabits us. Never before has a people enjoyed a greater range of individual rights or be more jealous of their freedoms or be more convinced that the liberty that they prize is good not only for themselves but for other peoples than we do in the United States today. This represents the triumph of liberalism, the tradition of thought and politics stretching back at least to the 17th century England. Its fundamental premise, as I said, is the natural freedom and equality of all. Its governing theme has been the challenge of securing in political life equality and freedom. To see how this tradition constitutes us it is first necessary to correct an unfortunate confusion of terms. In the United States liberal commonly denotes left wing of the Democratic Party as a result of bruising post-1960s political battles. Many on the left have disavowed the term, choosing instead the label progressive. This is, in fact, a more apt designation for their outlook. But liberal still has a distinctive meaning in our political lexicon: A progressive meaning that’s inseparably connected to a particular interpretation of the political meaning of the primacy of individual freedom. To be a liberal in the progressive sense is to see inequality as the chief menace to freedom. It’s to stand for government that energetically seeks to care for the interests of the poor and disadvantaged, stand for government today that aggressively protects abortion rights and affirmative action, for government that regards its moral obligation, the expanding of the range and reach of international institutions. Many of the policies and political predilections for which liberals understood as progressives stand, seem to involve a curtailment of freedom. Explicitly or implicitly, however, progressive liberals justify this loss in freedom by the anticipated gain in equality. Whose spread, they also hold, is itself an imperative of freedom. But perhaps, some will say it would be more accurate to think of libertarians as the true liberals. They certainly put freedom first. For them, though, it is not inequality, but government that is the chief menace to freedom. Libertarians tend to be skeptical of government regulation on principle and down the line. Most libertarians, of course, recognize an indispensable role for government enforcing contracts, securing basic rights, providing for the common defense. But, they are also convinced that with few exceptions the government discharges inefficiently and in some cases unconstitutionally many responsibilities in the area of social and economic life that it has assumed in the 20th century. These could be more effectively and constitutionally dealt with, libertarians contend, if left to markets and private initiative. Some libertarians may embrace traditional moral values, but as libertarians they oppose government efforts to promote or regulate them. And while they may see themselves as authentic heirs of 19th century or classic liberalism, most libertarians today think of themselves and tend to be thought of as conservatives. To compound the confusion in terms, when one takes the longer view and examines the matters from the point of view of modern thinking about politics or from the liberal tradition we inhabit, most conservatives today come into focus as liberals. While differing with progressives and sometimes with libertarians too about how to secure it, they too, at least as a political matter, put freedom first. This is true of traditional conservatives who are often religious and who see the benefit of putting freedom first as the conserving of inherited authorities and time-tested practice’s institutions. It is true, as well, of neo-conservatives who believe that a government that puts freedom first is critically in need of the sorts of citizens who have been molded by inherited authorities and time-tested practices and institutions. Both traditional conservatives and neo-conservatives believe that it is an excess of freedom, especially moral life, or an excess of equality mandated by government that is the chief menace of freedom, because they never let us share with libertarian conservatives the conviction that a powerful government is a major threat to individual rights, traditional conservatives and neo-conservatives champion limited government. They certainly seek to abolish laws that weaken institutions that they believe form the character necessary to self government. Foremost among these institutions, most conservatives agree are the family and religion. Serious differences between traditional conservatives and neo-conservatives are most likely to emerge on questions of foreign affairs, both distrust encroachments on American sovereignty by international institutions, liberal internationalism, but traditional conservatives are more inclined to believe that the U.S.’s national security issues are best served by significantly restricting America’s role abroad. Neo-conservatives generally think that the United States has a moral obligation to promote democracy around the world and that this moral obligation is consistent with, though, limited by national security interests.
It is not foreordained that liberal would become synonymous with progressive politics as it has in the United States. Witness the career of determined Europe where it has come to designate something much closer to libertarian conservatism. Yet, in neither case is the equation of liberalism with progressivism an accident. For there is a powerful progressive thrust adhering in our tradition, the liberal tradition. When it arose in the 17th century before it acquired its name, liberalism, particularly that of Locke, sought to limit the claims of religious authorities in politics and the claims of political authorities in religious matters. As these ideas took root, the result was greater space for individual freedom, and a shift in power away from those who had long held it. When it came to its own in the 19th century, liberalism, particularly that of Locke, sought to limit the role in politics of state as wealth and sex. As this understanding spread, the result was a substantial increase in the number of individuals who are included in the enjoyment of individual freedom and so another substantial shift in power to the people. When in the United States in the last 3rd of the 20th century liberal became synonymous with the left wing of the democratic party, liberalism sought to limit the role in politics of sickness, old-age and poverty by guaranteeing to all individuals a sort of minimum level of material goods. Yet, there is more to the defense of freedom than progress and equality, as John Stuart Mills stressed, because moving ahead requires holding something still, because freedoms won must be preserved and because both its preservation and its improvement depend upon citizens with particular skills, knowledge and qualities of mind and character. A free society always requires a party of order as well as a party of progress. Where the right in American politics today differs with the left, and this is a better way, I think, to understanding our moral debates and political debates, is not on the primacy of personal freedom but on the primacy of the priority of competing policies. That is on which goods, those related to progress or those related to order are most urgently in need of protection to best secure freedom. A liberal spirit conduces to the task of maintaining free institutions. Such a spirit is tolerant of opposing opinions and choices, which actually means that it is prepared to respect rights of individuals with whom it disagrees. It is generous both in seeking to understand what is true in other people’s beliefs and in seeing the shared humanity in their diverse and, indeed, divergent strivings and is capable of restraining immediate desire in the interest of satisfying higher or more comprehensive desires. The exercise of these virtues enables fellow citizens to ease the friction, take advantage of opportunities and handle responsibilities that arise amidst the frenetic motion in a free society.
Where do the virtues that compose such a spirit come from? Well, on the one hand free institutions tend to teach toleration, generosity and the understanding of others and self-restraint in the short term for the sake of long-term self interest. But, and this is not a breakdown in our ability to debate. This is something else. Too much toleration metamorphisizes into neutrality between opinions and good. What Chesterton doesn’t like is when the generosity in the understanding of others grows into the conviction that one has understood other people’s beliefs and needs better than they have and that one should legislate so as to bring other people’s conduct in line with their true interests. An excessive concern with calculating the best means for the satisfaction of desire crowds out calculations about the satisfactions connected to fulfilling one’s duty and eventually renders invisible the claims of duty that transcend calculation.
So, in conclusion, why does the liberal spirit overreach? In part, because to overreach is human and in part because of the common belief that freedom is made more secure by acquiring more of it and in part because the enjoyment of freedom pushes against and wears down not just the claims of this authority or that authority but the claims of all authority. Say, perhaps that of the freely choosing individual. What is to be done? Well, we have to bring our appetite for freedom under control and discipline it to advance our ends. To do this we must understand liberal teachings about the nature of freedom, the moral and political preconditions of freedom. Then, and here MacIntyre helps us immensely, we must go beyond our liberal tradition to think about what freedom is good for.
Jean Elshtain: Professor Buker.
Eloise Buker: I want to raise a few questions that might invite you to go beyond MacIntyre, because I think the project you have in mind is very engaging and perhaps will make a richer story out of liberalism than we presently encounter. My first question would be to reflect on the issue of what counts as a tradition? How do we know when we are inhabiting a tradition and how do we know where it begins and ends and another tradition intersects with it? In an everyday sense we use that word a lot and we often think that we understand it, but when you live in a multicultural society as I did in Hawaii and when you have experience of not knowing which tradition the other is coming from, you start to ask the question what counts as tradition and who speaks for it and how can we stabilize it. When I think about the Catholic Church and the kind of struggles that go on even at St. Louis University, the conflict about what counts as part of the Catholic tradition is also at issue. So we have this notion that tradition and certainly tradition-based inquiry is attractive and reasonable, but what happens when we are not sure what that tradition is and if there is an inquiry that is not tradition-based? Is there some kind of inquiry outside of tradition? In this sense what I am suggesting is perhaps that we have been a little too generous to our scientific colleagues who would suggest that something goes beyond tradition and that once they are within their scientific tradition they are also partaking of some other traditions. So, what’s a tradition and how do we know when we’ve got one. I think that our tradition, right now, is in somewhat of a crisis about the moral pluralism because we are not sure what to do next in terms of war. I see three problems identified. The first being the problem of epistemology, that is how do we know what we know? How do we explain it to someone else in a persuasive way? How do we communicate that and how do we be sure that it’s the Shaman or the physician, or the Shaman in conversation with the physician, who can heal a society? The next problem I see identified is the problem of meanings and concepts and you speak in your paper about the classical and the use and it is seems to me the use concept is one that comes from the post-modern influence. You carefully distinguish between contingency and it’s not contingency all the way down or all the way through, and I would like to hear more about how we distinguish or how we get to or how we might have a conversation about where that contingency ends and the commonality begins. Or is that in the process of communication or in the process of conflicting interpretations? Is it something that we do ad hoc to each situation or is there something that goes beyond that to guide us or I might say is it something like faith, that we simply have faith in one another, faith in our own tradition and faith in the tradition of another that enables us to encounter the other and that would lead to some kind of understanding or some kind of resolution of a moral problem that had to be resolved between those two traditions? So, where does the question of faith come in there? And when I think about the notion of faith, it seems to me also that there is a kind of thin liberalism and a thick liberalism and that thinner notion of it seems to be built on this idea of reason and I have this image of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and that Blake notion and that implicit in the conversation that you are inviting us in to is something that goes beyond reason to ritual, to emotion, to other kinds of characteristics that might be flushed out in thinking about how it is that we might come to this commonality that would allow us to at least recognize or appreciate or live with or tolerate the decisions that the community makes. So, my basic question is, I want to be guided by a tradition, but I am not sure how I might go about being guided by it. I am sure it is guiding me all the time. I’d like to be more conscious of how, so that I can pick and choose maybe as Chris suggested.
In closing, I might look again at what is called the problem of moral relativism or the problem of moral diversity. Certainly, in the contemporary situation, the situation of war, that is a problem, but I think in some other parts of our lives and in other moments in our lives, the problem of moral relativism or even the problem of diversity is also a solution. That is, one finds in another culture, in another tradition, the solution to what one can’t solve within one’s own and, therefore, the culture becomes fluid and changes over time rather than being static and fixed, which is, of course, a different sort of problem. I think Chris’s notion about the baby and how do we deal with the baby, borrowing from another culture might be a way to solve those kind of problems and challenge us to re-think our own fixed nature that might not be in accordance with a common good that goes beyond our own tradition.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Professor Porter has agreed to forego an immediate response to the commentators and commentaries in the interest of opening it up to all of you. So, if you have a question, once again we would ask you to come to the microphone in the center stage here. Anyone prepared for a question? Ken Grasso.
Ken Grasso: Well, since nobody else volunteered, I guess I’ll take a crack at one and I actually have several questions percolating around my mind at the moment and it is difficult to decide which way to go with it, but Peter is smiling and I think he knows that I won’t be able to resist the temptation to move it to MacIntyre and liberalism so I think I will move it in that direction. I think even without your smile I would have decided that at the last second, but in any case, you attempt to sever this connection that MacIntyre makes between the enlightenment and liberalism and you interpret liberalism as the tradition of natural freedom and natural equality that emerges in the 17th century. When you look at the major early theoreticians of liberalism, that doesn’t become all that easy to do. If you look at folks like Hobbs, Locke and even later figures like Kant. They understand their political theories as being connected up in some way with a broader metaphysics, with a broader model of mind, a broader model of reality and when one looks at the unfolding of the history of liberal political theory, I think a strong argument could be made that epistemological issues have paid a pivotal role in its unfolding. If liberalism, as Michael Walzer suggests, veers over time towards a progressively deeper individualism, if it becomes a self-subverting tradition, the reason is, as Thomas Spragen and others have argued, that the crisis of enlightenment reason impacts in important ways on the liberal tradition because that’s the horizon in which these thinkers move. If we need to address the question of what freedom is for, which liberalism has trouble addressing, the reason liberalism may have trouble addressing it. Rather these metaphysical commitments lie in its corpus, particularly the notion of reason what makes it difficult to attribute any sort of finality.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: I am going to ask for comments on that point. Comments on this point? Jean Porter, or anyone else?
Jean Porter: Let me just start, although, I think this is probably directed more towards Peter than towards me, because it does get at something that came into my own mind in response to your comments. Let me say first of all, that I appreciated all these comments very much and there is a not a lot here that I would take serious issue with. I do think two things about MacIntyre and liberalism. One is, I have dared even to say in print that I think MacIntyre has more affinities with different aspects of liberalism, whatever we take liberalism to be than he, himself, always recognizes. I mean, that is a risky thing to say, especially if you teach with MacIntyre, but I really do agree with that. Where, I think, MacIntyre does have an issue, however, is not so much with the substantive claim, what you take to be the moral core of liberalism, the natural freedom and equality of all, but with the further claim that this ought to be something that will be recognized by all rational people of good will and there, I think, he does have a point. There I think he has got an argument and even though I take your point, Peter, that MacIntyre over-intellectualizes what he thinks is going wrong and confuses breakdowns in philosophical theory with breakdowns in morality. Still, I do think he has a point that not just at the level of theory but across a whole culture that we still make very broad assumptions about what’s reasonable and persuasive and what everyone is going to agree to and there I think he’s got a case. There I think he has identified a real problem.
Jean Elshtain: Peter, do you want to do a followup?
Peter Berkowitz: Only briefly and I agree with what you’ve said. I also wouldn’t want to confuse, wouldn’t want to deny what I briefly eluded to, that is that liberalism’s tendency to overreach or the connections between the enlightenment project and the liberal tradition, but the liberal tradition seems to me is much broader and a great deal rests on where you locate its center, its organizing principle. If you locate its organizing principle as the effort to provide rational foundations for the universal objective and necessary laws, you are going to miss a great deal of the unity of the debates we actually have in our societies, It seems to me if you locate it, rather, on this moral premise you understand a great deal more about what actually divides people in our debates and you can understand the underlying unity in all the debates, welfare reform, affirmative action, abortion It’s almost always one interpretation of freedom and equality versus another. It’s not quite as incommensurable as MacIntyre implies it to be.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: The general point that I hear everyone in here in their own way making is that MacIntyre’s account of a tradition narrows that account to a set of epistemological categories when, in fact, our ways of life or traditions deal with a much richer set of concepts and realities than he makes provision for.
Peter Berkowitz: A followup suggestion, maybe if you want to define a tradition you should to get to the core, go to its conception of the human person.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: To give people a project. Yes. Nick Wolterstorff.
Nick Wolterstorff: On that same issue of the narrative of liberalism, it seems to me that it is important that we distinguish a certain social structure, the liberal society, from theories about that social structure and attempts to under-gird that social structure and legitimate it and ask what constitutes the essence of it and so forth and then if we talk about the former, the emergence of society with a certain schedule of liberties and so forth. Then it seems to me, it’s enormously important to see that in some respects it emerged from the seed-bed of Christendom. It was not some enlightenment rationalists and so forth. For example, if you read what the state constitutions formulated in the late 1760s and 1770s and the early 1780s, the U.S. State constitutions, specifically what they say about religious freedom, with the exception of the constitution of New York which does some blather about the wicked priests and so forth, but all the others, absolutely all the others argue like this: God has given us the right, sometimes they will say the duty, right and/or duty. We have the right and/or duty from God to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience. That’s a natural right. Hence, there ought to be a society in which makes it possible for us to worship God according to the dictates of own conscience. Now that is one indication. I mean this emerges, as I say, from the seed-bed of Christendom, reflections about how God is properly to be worshiped and wants to be worshiped and so forth. It is not rationality and so forth. One could give lots of other examples. So, I think, the narrative of the emergence of the liberal society must not be identified in MacIntyre’s sort of blurred way as I read it with these awful rationalists, you know, Locke and Hobbs and so forth.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: And Nick, your point about the state constitutions worship according to the dictates of conscience speaks in turn to the fact that human beings are gifted with free will which speaks to their status as creatures of a certain kind which gestures to the Creator. So, similar to the genealogy or the trajectory that Peter suggested a moment ago, that you can’t deal with traditions without thinking about the human person. It can’t simply be an epistemological account. You can’t just deal with what’s known, but also the nature of the knower. This is what I understand the thrust of your comments to be. Anyone else on the panel like to leap in at this point.
Chris Beem: One quick remark about those unlovely rationalists. Just at the beginning of the tradition of their rationalism, it seems to me, can be overblown. After all, when Hobbs tries to give an account of the essential human condition, there is some rationalist coverings, but he makes clear that his account of what human beings really are, in the state of nature, is in inference drawn from the passions. Locke does so much in the same way and his understanding. It seems to me that the human person as a creature, let’s say their pride and passion as you suggest, owes a lot to the Christian background against which he is writing and in which he is thinking.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Jonathan Chaplin and then Peter. Jonathan.
Jonathan Chaplin: I am also a great admirer of MacIntyre, but one who finds his politics very frustrating. So, I have a political question primarily for Jean Porter. You have commented in your paper on how his recent work addresses, well or badly, the issue of ecclesial pluralism and dissent and moral pluralism taking place within the church. How does his approach guide us in any way, or does it guide us in any way in dealing with the problem of moral cultural religious pluralism politically? That is, what states, what political communities should do about this kind of plurality and does he, at the end of the day, offer us anything other than the advice to go on waiting in the wings for St. Benedict and if St. Benedict shows up what would St. Benedict do?
Jean Bethke Elshtain: What would St. Benedict do?
Jean Porter: What would St. Benedict do? I have an opinion on that, but I’m not going to tell you. The short answer to your question is I think not much. I mean, that’s also my frustration with MacIntyre. This is sort of reading MacIntyre in terms of implicit rather than explicit, which is always tricky. I do think that there is a distinction which MacIntyre himself has not fully grappled with between speculative and moral inquiry. Forget tradition. I think Eloise is quite right. I don’t think we really know what a tradition is unless we sort of tell a very careful story. Okay. I think that because his concern is really moral traditions, MacIntyre comes in and makes a very strong affirmation of authority in Three Rival Versions because, in fact, in my view and now this is me and not MacIntyre, some kind of authority at some point is going to play a role in moral inquiry that it isn’t going play or at least it is not going to play in the same way in speculative inquiry, but I think the problem is that MacIntyre, he sees this. I mean the sort of the logic of the development of his own thought brings him to articulate it, but that is about as far as he gets. He doesn’t go to the next stage, which I agree is the stage you got to go to, of saying, all right, what counts as legitimate authority? What are the parameters within which authority can operate? What are differences among authorities? I was thinking of all this before I heard Nick’s very fine paper, but I think that raises some of the same kind of questions. Once you’ve got an account of authority on the ground and you have an idea of why you need it, then you’ve got a whole other task of figuring out how it is structured and what you are going to do with it. I think some of Peter’s comments, especially, were very helpful in pointing the way we might go, but I think that’s about all that I, myself, would feel comfortable saying at this point. I mean, I am working on this, what can I say, but at this point I wouldn’t want to try to sketch out a whole theory of authority and I don’t think MacIntyre gives us one.
Peter Berkowitz: I want to ask this question with the qualification that it may simply be my lack of sleep and so if I am not clueing in, I apologize. I want to isolate what you take to be the problem at stake, because I get the sense not only from the paper, but from the responses, that there is something very important going on here regarding how we should understand the role of religion within a democracy, within a liberal society and what exactly is the problem that we are confronting. Is it that people come at public issues, whether to raise taxes, whether to go to war from different religious traditions and when push comes to shove, it is finally a matter of numbers. Is it that these people from the different religious traditions cannot argue with each other because they are unwilling to expose the premises of their position to public argumentation? Is it that rationality is just not going to let this happen? I understand the issue of authority in morals as distinct from authority in speculative philosophy, but it seems to me simply a placeholder at a stage of conversation, rather than analysis of what the conversation can and cannot be. So, just a little bit on exactly the problem that you see at stake here would be very helpful to me.
Jean Porter: Well, I think that that’s a very good question. It is not just sleep deprivation and the problem, if I may, in answering it, is that I think there is more than one thing going on here. I mean, why do we all care about this practically? Well, I think we care about it practically for a couple different reasons. One reason is that we look into our society and we see things happening that we consider to be appalling. At dinner last night Jean brought up the case of the young woman arguing with Peter Singer over whether she should have been killed at birth, you know, we are appalled and we say how could this happen. Something is wrong. We should be able to persuade our fellow citizens that this is terrible and why can’t we and that is one kind of a problem. Another kind of problem is there are bad actors out there who want to kill us and maybe the problem is not just that they are bad actors, maybe if we could talk about this long enough we could find a way of living together where we wouldn’t actually be at each other’s throats and that is another kind of problem. It is a problem of how you find a way of living together that is something better than then sheer state of the war of all against all. When you cannot appeal, again, and here I think the issue of authorities is precisely the issue, when you cannot appeal to any kind of shared authority, whether legal, moral or any other kind of authority, that would in some way provide a stopper for your conflict. Now, those are the two kinds of practical problems that I think give MacIntyre’s project is salient and, you know, put After Virtue on the bestseller list for an academic book and so on. Now, I think MacIntyre focuses on a more specific theoretical problem and the problem is this. We’ve got these issues of pluralism and disagreement which are serious practical problems of various kinds. We have intellectual resources for dealing with these problems, having to do with and then you sort of fill in your sort of foundationalistic accounts of moral truth and then the successors to that and so on and so forth. None of these work. We are just going from bad to worse. So, that’s the theoretical problem that MacIntyre is after and the solution he gives is to tell a story about how you can reject, what he agrees, is a bankrupt foundationalism and still tell–I don’t want to say tell a story, he develops a theory of what rationality looks like without foundations. I agree with MacIntyre all the way up to the point at which he says, okay, now I have got a theory of rationality and I think this solves the moral as well as the speculative issues. I think he solved some speculative issues. I think the sucker works. I am referring to the theory, not MacIntyre himself. I think this probably works as a theory of rationality in truth. I mean, God knows I am not a professional philosopher but it works for me. I do not think it works to do the job he thinks we need to do as a theory of moral discourse. Now, you may respond to that by saying, yes, I think our respondents have more or less said we do not need any such theory anyway so there is not a problem. And that is a response. And I think that it has a lot of merit and attractiveness to it. I myself do think there is still a problem, but that is another story and I have talked too long.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: I am sorry but I think we are going to have to stop here. May I invite you to put the question at the reception? I know that they are prepared in a common room on the first floor with all the necessary elements of a reception for all of you. So I would invite you all to journey down there and to enjoy the reception. Thank you very much. And please turn up tomorrow when we will begin once again. Tomorrow we will have the pleasure of listening to Robin Lovin and commentators and Charles Taylor and commentators. Thank you all very much.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Good morning. I am pleased to welcome you to the second day of our conference on Theology, Morality and Public Life, cosponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Christian Scholars Program, specifically, the Political Science Team of the Pew Christian Scholars Program, which has been working for two years on a series of projects and discussions on the nature of the human person and our understanding of the human person in thinking about political life. Those of you who were not here yesterday will know that the overall theme for this conference is the role of religious and moral discourse in the public realm. And we are fortunate, indeed, to have as our opening speaker today Professor Robin Lovin, known to many of you. He once taught here at the University of Chicago. He is now the McGuire University Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University. He has been the Dean at Perkins School of Theology at SMU and the Theology School of Drew University, has taught at Emory as well as here. And his writings include two major studies of 20th century Christian social ethics, the first, Christian Faith and Public Choices: The Social Ethics of Bart, Brunner and Bonhoeffer; and a second work is one, as I have told Professor Lovin, that I use every time I teach a course called Political Realism, a wonderful book on Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. He is also author of Christian Ethics: An Essential Guide, and he was president of the Society for Christian Ethics in 1999-2000. And his topic for this morning is Consensus and Commitment: Religious Reasons, Real People, and Public Discourse. Professor Lovin.
Robin Lovin: Our topic for these two days is theology, morality, and public life. A great deal has been written on the interaction of those three elements in recent years – and in the interest of time, I shall assume, like the other speakers, that you have read and understood all of it.
What I want to focus on this morning is the role of religious ideas in public discourse. But I do not want to do this as much of the literature has done, from a standpoint that asks whether religious reasons can be public, and whether religious arguments can be admitted into public discourse on the same terms that liberal politics sets for other ideas and arguments. My concern is rather with how this question looks from the side of the religious community: not whether the introduction of religious reasons is permitted by the rules of public discourse, but whether people of faith should want to introduce them, and how they should go about doing it, and what they should expect from their efforts. My question, to put it briefly, is not what role the rules of public discourse permit religion to play in a liberal democracy, but what religion requires from a political system in order to play the role its religious commitments demand.
I think we can begin to organize this discussion by identifying Each has its own set of expectations, and each makes its distinctive demands on the political system. Let me for our purposes identify them as 1)the post-liberal witness, 2)the traditional realist, and 3)the transformational realist – or perhaps we could borrow a title from Douglas Ottati and call this third approach the hopeful realist.
The perspective I am calling the post-liberal witness is a good place to begin this survey, because it is the most direct response to the increasing pluralism of our recent history. For this position, the public role of religion is shaped by the loss of all the easy connections we once made between religion and public life. Whatever public, political dimension our religious life has must be lived with this awareness that the liberal political and theological program has run its course. We can no longer identify a widely shared way of life that also meets the requirements of faith. We can only offer a witness to religious truth left suddenly aware of its lack of a home in the world.
In recent Christian ethics, Stanley Hauerwas best represents the position of the post-liberal witness, and he is particularly clear about how his theological views shape his understanding of limitations of public life. Following Hauerwas’ thought may make explicit some of the inchoate disillusionment with liberal democracy that is widely felt among religious people today.
Liberal democracy has failed not simply because increasing religious pluralism has overwhelmed its search for an American consensus, but for the more fundamental reason that liberal democracy lacks a narrative strong enough to sustain a community and form a virtuous people. What Christian people learn from their faith, Hauerwas says, is the importance of this narrated truth, which shapes our self-understanding and brings our interests and commitments into judgment. To follow the crucified and risen Christ demands disciplines of patience and forgiveness that do not come naturally to us, but arise from living in a community that hears that narrative and accepts its judgment on their lives.
The post-liberal account of politics makes politics something of a negative image of religion. Political community, to be a community, requires a narrative just as the church requires its narrative. As a result, any political community that is successful will be imperialistic and idolatrous, turning its political narrative into a religious one that usurps the place of the religious narrative that has the power to relate us truly to God.
One should ask whether this disillusionment is a necessary feature of politics, or whether it perhaps results from describing the political order as though it were a failed church. There are other religious ways of thinking about politics.
Before we turn to them, however, we need to take a further look at how the post-liberal witness relates to politics in practical terms. What, exactly, are these disillusioned liberals supposed to do? The short answer is that they are to live their faith in community with one another and as a witness to the world. The truths provided by the religious narrative are enacted in community. “The first task of Christian social ethics,” for Hauerwas, “is not to make the ‘world’ better or more just, but to help Christian people form their community consistent with their conviction that the story of Christ is a truthful account of our existence.” Becoming that kind of community is not simply a preliminary exercise before tackling the questions of justice and peace in the world. Indeed, becoming that kind of community may be about all that Christians can accomplish in the world, given that the world is the kind of place that it is. “Witness,” then, is not a form of exhortation directed to the wider society. Witness is the integrity of the church’s claim to be what it is.
The post-liberal witness thus has low expectations for what can be accomplished in the public square, but the demands it makes on public discourse are correspondingly low. Theorists of “public reason” who have dealings with a post-liberal witness should perhaps be prepared for a certain amount of verbal abuse, but they will not be asked to bend or break any of the requirements that for them structure public discourse. Theorists of public reason become nervous when people start offering religious reasons in public contexts, but if “public reasons” are your primary concern, you have no reason to complain about people who have already decided that they have no religious reasons to offer that anyone else could comprehend.
As long as the religious community does not think that its task is to provide the wider society with a story religious people should get along well with people who want a public discourse based on public reasons. Insofar as post-liberal witnesses do not even think that they could provide society with a story, they ought to get along splendidly.
Hauerwas, however, often writes as if the narrative community of faith were under threat. He seems to believe that the failure of the liberal project has pitched American society into an anxious and potentially idolatrous search for alternative sources of meaning. In that environment, a church that holds back on the margins of the public square will be seen as a threat. “For the idolatry most convenient to us all,” Hauerwas writes, “remains the presumed primacy of the nation-state.”
There are, however, others who believe that liberal democracy is less susceptible to that convenient idolatry, and that brings me to the group I am calling the “traditional realists.”
The traditional realist interprets political problems by reference to a biblical view of human nature and to theological traditions about law and about human community. This longer view effectively resists the panic sometimes induced by novel political problems, and it tames the utopian expectations that lead politicians to think they have overcome the fundamental limitations that human nature imposes on every society. More realistic expectations are less subject to disappointment, and perhaps for that reason less likely to give way to idolatry. Reinhold Niebuhr summed up the general approach in his statement that “a free society prospers best in a cultural, religious and moral atmosphere which encourages neither a too pessimistic nor too optimistic view of human nature.” It is the business of the traditional realist to maintain that balance by close attention to the view of human nature found in the Bible and in the Jewish and Christian views derived from it.
What I am calling traditional realism is, of course, most closely identified with the “Christian realism” of Niebuhr and his colleagues, but it is not exclusively theirs. American Catholic political thought, at least since the time of John Courtney Murray, has used the persistence and relevance of the natural law tradition to similar effect. Rabbi Robert Gordis applied the biblical tradition to American politics in much the same way from a Jewish perspective. If one does associate this traditional realism with Reinhold Niebuhr, one should think of the later Niebuhr, involved like Murray and Gordis in a defense of American democracy against Cold War enemies and cautious about undertaking radical change in a world that is already dangerous enough.
In addition to those identifiable traditional realists who have read their Niebuhr and know how to quote him, there is a vast array of politicians, civil servants, and citizen activists who have been formed in this traditional realism, even though they may not know it. A few of them, mostly the Democrats, will identify Reinhold Niebuhr as their favorite theologian, even though they are vague about exactly what he wrote and thought. All of them, like Niebuhr, keep working tirelessly for incremental gains in justice, despite the fact that they have learned not to expect too much from the political process.
Traditional realists understand immediate political problems in relation to persistent questions that are addressed by the biblical view of human nature. They are, therefore, far more confident than the post-liberal witnesses that their religious ideas can be understood and used in political discussions. This does not mean that they have particularly high expectations for politics, or that they anticipate ready acceptance of their religious arguments. One important political task for religion, in fact, appears to be to keep political expectations appropriately low. The judgment which a religious perspective lays against every political order and system of justice opposes the optimistic illusion that this time we have got it right. The religious view of humanity as fallen, limited, and transitory keeps in check the perennial human tendency to claim too much on behalf of our own interests and achievements. Precisely at those moments when it is most needed, the religious judgment is likely to be rejected. But it is not rejected because it is not understood, as the post-liberal witness suggests. It is rejected because optimistic, ascendant political powers understand its claims about the limits of their achievements and believe those claims to be false. They may sometimes believe them false because they have rejected the religious view of human nature in its entirety, but most often they believe them false because, while they profess continued belief in the truths of religion, they are confident that they have in this case, perhaps just this once and just for the present, escaped the judgments that the religious ideas imply.
Glenn Tinder articulates the traditional realists’ understanding of the limits of politics in his rejection of the ideal of perfect justice.
One reason for the powerful appeal of the ideal of justice lies in the vision it represents — a vision of a perfect worldly order. . . . Even though Christians have shared [that vision], it is essentially Hellenic, depending on the sense that being is primarily order rather than history . . . that understanding the order of being is the proper work of the intellect, and that reconstructing it, in the world around, is within the scope of human powers. These premises are in conflict with the Christian understanding of things.
Far from regarding this public role of religion as a “Constantinian” alliance between political power and a legitmating religion, the traditional realist sees the interaction of religion and politics as a continuing tension, in which religious judgments are always in danger of being dismissed, ridiculed, or even persecuted, but in which religion nevertheless provides the critical self-limitation that keeps a political system from overreaching and overconfidence. Religion persists in public discourse, not because it always triumphs, but because when its critical function fails, the corruption or collapse of the political system itself follows not far behind.
What political arrangements, then, does the traditional realist require for this sort of participation? They are obviously more willing than their post-liberal counterparts to enter into public discussion. Barth’s advice to read with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other is apt to be lived out by today’s traditional realists with a newspaper in one hand, NPR on the radio, and the other hand on a wireless mouse, clicking through some internet database – all of this done with what one hopes is a lively memory of having read the Bible at some point.
So the traditional realist is likely to practice a version of “civic virtue” which as Robert Audi puts it, embodies commitment to “a rational integration between religious deliverances and insights and, on the other hand, secular ethics considerations.” The way that the traditional realist sees the search for religious truth and the wider world of public discourse intertwined makes it unlikely that the traditional realist has any reasons that are exclusively religious to offer.
The traditional realist’s commitment to dialogue rests on a realistic assessment of the political community itself. What the realist finds in modern, pluralistic democracies is not a clear, unifying secular ideology, but an ambiguous mixture of shared commitments and individual ambitions, egalitarian compassion and libertarian self-assertion, scope for creative freedom and the imposed limitations of order. As the post-liberal witness points out, there is no single, shared narrative here, but that is not, from the traditional realist’s point of view, a bad thing.
Recall Glenn Tinder’s assertion that a perfect, rational worldly order is “in conflict with the Christian understanding of things.” There is reason to think that it is also in conflict with liberal democracy’s understanding of things. One need not posit a forced, Constantinian alliance between these religion and politics to recognize this point of agreement between the traditional realist’s understanding of Christianity and liberal democracy’s idea of politics. Liberal democracies encompass differing visions and goals, and they survive by establishing tolerable accommodations between competing interests and by maintaining historical equilibrium between ideals that are polar opposites. Traditional realists make their contribution by drawing on religious insights into this complex, imperfect world of history and human nature, pointing out wise choices among the alternatives that the moment happens to offer. Holding low expectations for politics is itself part of this wisdom that traditional realism has to offer. It involves recognizing that in politics we are dealing with history and not theology. It involves recognizing that the political community is not even trying to be a church. It also involves knowing that it is just this difference between a religious community and a political community that makes religious participation in public life possible.
The biblical understanding of human nature which guides a prudent exploration of political possibilities is not, however, the only way that religion shapes public choices. There is also the prophetic element in religion, the aspect of faith that, as Niebuhr put it, “demands the impossible.” Reinhold Niebuhr’s account of the relevance of prophetic religion helps define the perspective of hopeful realism, but one should think here of the earlier Niebuhr, who was more interested in the possibility of radical social change and put less emphasis on the importance of order in a disorderly world. It speaks to the richness of Niebuhr’s work on religion and politics that he was able to encompass these two rather different ways of thinking, but the Niebuhrian inheritance has in recent years been divided between those whom I have here called the “traditional realists” and another group of heirs whose focus on the margins of contemporary politics leads them to be critical of the traditional realists and, often, to be critical of Niebuhr himself.
Prophetic religion focuses attention on those moments in the moral life when, instead of developing incremental solutions to discrete problems, we envision a fundamental transformation of society. Instead of improving health care and education in the black townships, South African activists begin to think of a democracy based on majority rule. Instead of marginal gains in freedom of the press and cultural expression, dissidents in Eastern Europe see the real possibility of an open society. Instead of extended unemployment benefits and a tighter social “safety net,” the National Conference of Catholic Bishops conceives “a new cultural consensus that the basic economic conditions of human welfare are essential to human dignity and are due persons by right.”
While some fear that these sweeping, prophetic visions distract from real opportunities for more limited change, the hopeful realist finds transformative possibilities relevant precisely at the point that all opportunities within the existing framework seem inadequate. It is the prophetic vision which sustains hope when the alternative would be despairing acquiescence to conditions of life that leave us without real hope for the future.
I noted a moment ago that many leading spokespersons for hopeful realism perspective over the past three decades have been critics of traditional realism. When the civil rights movement was transformed by black theology and black power, and later when feminist and Latin American theologies began to be heard in North America, these new voices charged that traditional realism had grown too close to the centers of power and gave too much weight to the concerns of those in authority. As a result, they said, the traditional realists failed those who most needed justice and became apologists for systems of oppression and exploitation.
It has to be said that these critics were right, but we have to be careful what lessons we draw from that for the future. Many of traditional realists wanted to support the revolutions that others were initiating around them, but they were also alert to the dangers of change that moves too quickly, and they were wary of the backlash that large changes can provoke. As a result, they underestimated what these new movements were in fact able to achieve.
What the traditional realists lacked was precisely the hope that only those who view events from outside the centers of power and security can provide. This hope is not the liberal optimism about the power of moral suasion that the traditional realists had rejected. Hope is not an estimate that change is likely, but the awareness provoked by prophetic religion that something else is, nevertheless, possible. Hope is what sustains those who have no stake in the present, even when they have no good reason to expect anything better in the future.
Persons whose chances are somewhat better, and who therefore have more to lose, are inclined to describe such hope as eschatological or apocalyptic, which is a way of saying that it is unrealistic. Grounds for such hope are absent from the real world in which change must be achieved. To this the hopeful realist replies that hope is, nonetheless, a real part of the human situation, even if it is not supported by existing institutions.
Any assessment that does not take hope into account is unrealistic, and it will eventually experience the disconfirmation that traditional realism warns will come to all unrealistic expectations. Traditional realism is concerned primarily with expectations that are set too high. Hopeful realism reminds us that it is also possible to set our expectations too low.
On what terms, then, do hopeful realists enter into public discussion? Like their traditional realist counterparts, they will insist that the public square be formally open to all, but they will perhaps be more aggressive in ensuring that all voices actually have an opportunity to be heard. But hopeful realists take the traditional realists’ commitment to open discussion in a somewhat different direction. The traditional realist sees a set of public choices offered by the moment and tries to choose the ones that seem more likely to withstand the corruptions of power and self-interest. The traditional realist is suspicious of choices that require a higher level of self-sacrifice than groups and nations usually achieve and cautions against improvements that will be too easily undone by the ironies of history. Above all, the traditional realist argues for public choices with the expectation that the pendulum will swing again. The choice for greater equality that is right for today will be balanced by a demand for greater liberty tomorrow, and the realistic choice must anticipate the movement toward equilibrium in both directions.
The hopeful realist, by contrast, calls for decisive choices. It is the hope for greater justice, rather than the limitations of human nature, by which the religion of the hopeful realist shapes public choices. No doubt this requires a willingness to act on goals that are not yet entirely clear. Perhaps more to the point for the shape of public argument, hopeful realism makes the case that some social relationships and some institutions must be definitively left behind. In a legal system which both holds out the promise of racial and gender equality and supports the rights of private property, the right to use private property as an instrument of discrimination must be given up. In a state which claims both to promote security and to protect freedom, limiting free expression in the interest of state security has to end. In an economic system which supports both human rights and human dignity, rights must be redefined to include the basic material conditions for human dignity. These are not simply policy choices, though policy is, of course, involved. They represent fundamental changes in the terms on which future choices will be made. Future choices may expand or contract the rights of private property, but restrictive racial covenants will not be on the list of options. If we do indeed build a “new cultural consensus” on basic economic rights, as the Catholic bishops propose, some of the economic risks to which persons now are subject will seem as archaic as slavery, and as impossible to re-impose.
Can public arguments be made for such fundamental changes? Or does a new political order require a whole new way of thinking that cannot make sense in a public discourse designed to argue more discriminating choices within the existing framework?
It is at this point that the more theoretical arguments about religious reasons in public discourse begin to be relevant to the religious arguments made by real people. The question whether it is permissible for someone to offer exclusively religious reasons for a specific, limited policy choice is an interesting way to explore the premises of public argument, but it is not something that religious people are actually very likely to do. But a religious argument for fundamental choices about the terms on which a society and its public discourse are organized is not only possible. It has been decisive in important events in recent history. Given the comprehensive nature of the personal and social transformations required by these events, it may be that there are no secular arguments adequate to the task. There is in all such change something like a religious call for conversion – a new set of choices that includes a rejection of the grounds on which one might have chosen otherwise.
It is important to ask whether public discourse can accommodate that argument. However, the question is not whether religious people should make such arguments, as though they might stop if they learned that the rules of public discourse forbid it. The question is whether public discourse itself can be a means for this kind of social transformation. Does it make sense to introduce a prophetic demand for a decisive historical choice into public discussion? Or are the post-liberal witnesses right, after all, that these claims are incomprehensible in public discussion?
Certainly the case for the public role of the hopeful realist is not as clear as the case for the civic virtue of the traditional realist. Traditional realists will find ways to make their case in public terms, reminding their interlocutors of the ambiguities of history and the limitations of human nature, evidence which is available for all to see and the implications of which can be established by analogy.
Whether the religious argument for social transformation has a place in public discourse depends largely on whether the political community is prepared to accept a key point in both the post-liberal witness’ critique and the traditional realist’s public argument. Recall that both the post-liberal witness and the traditional realist assume that the shape of the public discussion is the product of history and not of reason.
For the hopeful realist, it is crucial that the political community understand its public values and commitments as the product of historical development. For if a political community holds the alternative view, that its values and commitments form an ordered moral system in which each element is integral to the whole, that community will never be able to accept the prophetic argument that some parts of its common life must be decisively rejected in order to achieve a higher justice.
The hopeful realist does not hesitate to make use of public arguments where these are available. Martin Luther King, Jr., could speak of his hope that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed–we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” However, there is always a certain disingenuousness in such arguments. Whatever the Declaration of Independence may say, it gave rise to a constitutional system that both promised equal rights and sanctioned racial discrimination. King’s appeal to the “American dream” is a tacit acknowledgement that the argument for segregation had been made in American terms, as well as the argument for equality. King’s argument, rich in religious appeals to prophetic justice, was that the possibilities for discrimination should be dropped from the system and the possibilities for equality should be affirmed.
If the constitutional system is a product of history, then it makes sense to expect that it will contain ambiguities and incorporate the contradictory aims and interests of those who have created it. The hopeful realist can appeal for the lifting up of one of its possibilities and imply the rejection of another, ignoring historical ambiguity, and claiming part of the history for the new idea of justice as though that part were all the history there is. Public discourse can accommodate that rhetoric, even if the decisive element in the call for social transformation is a religious argument.
But if the constitutional system is an ordered whole, then public discourse must receive any call for a definitive rejection of one of its possibilities as an argument against the system as a whole. Public discourse, conceived that way, must reject the hopeful realist as a subversive.
The traditional realist and the hopeful realist join forces at this point to resist the tendency of all societies and institutions to take themselves too seriously and to see their values as more noble and more coherent than they really are. The traditional realist does so primarily because recognizing those limitations in a society makes for better choices among the alternatives under discussion in the public discourse. The hopeful realist does so because some prevailing values are clearly wrong and urgently in need of rejection, and if the society’s values are in fact as coherent as some would like to think, there will be no alternative but to reject the social system as a whole. The hopeful realist maintains a delicate balance here, wanting just enough nobility and virtue in the society’s values to sustain an appeal to its better qualities, yet careful not to awaken such sentiments of loyalty to the existing order that the hopeful realist’s critique will itself be rejected.
It is in the nature of prophetic religion to continue to speak its message, whether or not the message is received. The risks of persecution or of revolution are not sufficient to silence it. What the hopeful realist hopes, among other things, is that it will be possible to accomplish social transformation through the political process and within the framework of political discourse. Whether that is possible turns out to depend largely on how the political system understands itself.
This survey of the terms on which religious people enter the public square suggests interactions between “religious reasons” and “public reasons” that are not apparent in hypothetical cases designed to test the limits of public discourse. Real people not only bring religious arguments into public discourse. They also bring a religious evaluation of the discourse itself. They have religious reasons for public choices, and they have religious ideas about how the public chooses. Those ideas about how the public chooses help them to decide how, and whether, to relate their religious reasons to public reasons.
The post-liberal witness speaks most clearly to our recognition that religion no longer provides a moral consensus to hold the public discussion together, if indeed it ever did. There is a tendency among religious participants to deny this by hunting out religious origins for liberal political values or widely accepted civic virtues. We want to say with Justice Douglas, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” We want to claim that religious voices hold their place in the public discourse by right of inheritance and not as a concession from a secular culture.
There is some point to that exercise. We should be suspicious of any account of American public discourse that makes it too consistently secular – but we should also suspect those accounts that make it too consistently religious. The reality is more complex and ambiguous. Religion is inextricably present, but so is the pursuit of self-interest. There are religious roots to our political ideas which may have been obscured by secular interpretations, and rediscovering those roots may illuminate possibilities for public life today.
What the exploration of religious origins in history will not give us, however, is a public discussion today in which religious convictions can be taken for granted. The post-liberal witnesses remind us of the necessity for a decision about how and whether we will enter into public discussions. No doubt the post-liberal witnesses are also right to warn us, as Hauerwas does, that if religious people want into those discussions too badly they will end up exchanging the Glory of God for the image of an ox. They run the risk of translating their religious convictions into some other ideology, in the interest of making them comprehensible and acceptable.
Where the realists, traditional and hopeful, part company with the post-liberal witnesses is that they see this as a risk, and not as an inevitablity. The prevalence in history of Constantinian regimes that use religious authority to bolster their own legitimacy should make us skeptical of all forms of political organization, but it does not commit us to the post-liberal idea that all regimes must make such claims. On this point, the traditional and the hopeful realist agree.
The traditional realist and the hopeful realist are also linked by their shared need for a political environment that recognizes complexity and ambiguity. The traditional realist exploits complexity and ambiguity to make a case against solutions which are too simple and which overlook inconvenient obstacles, creating a political equilibrium that is stable even when it is not ideal, or perhaps an order that is stable precisely because it is not ideal. The hopeful realist selectively molds an image of a better justice out of elements in the ambiguous mix of social norms and ideals, giving the future a past while ensuring that those who live by hope will have a future. Both kinds of realists draw on the resources that public discussion in a free society offers. Both by their activities, even when they oppose each other, contribute to the complexity, ambiguity, and awareness of history that they each require.
What a realistic approach to religion in public life requires, then, is more than a public square that is formally open to religious arguments and less than a public consensus in which it could take its religious presuppositions for granted. It requires a public square that is not blind and deaf to religious considerations, but more important, it requires a public square that is aware of itself as public and political, and not religious. That is to say, a public square which is conceived as a place where people come together to negotiate the meaning of their commitments for their common life together, and not as a place that has its own ultimate commitments to impose. Its very complexity helps protect it from illusions of religious purity and makes the work of change more difficult, as the traditional realist reminds us. But complexity and the lack of religious purity also, as the hopeful realist insists, make change possible. So both traditional and hopeful realists have good reasons to want the kind of discussions that go on in liberal democracy to continue.
Post-liberal witnesses, of course, will profess that they have no such interest in the public square. They view it as a rather unhealthy place to begin with, and they will warn against the dangers of corruption and idolatry that await when religious people start to concern themselves with the public square as if they had a religious duty to it. Post-liberal witnesses find their duty only in the religious narrative that describes their virtues. Nevertheless, when they start to think in positive terms about how to live with their neighbors, they tend to say, as Stanley Hauerwas does, that:
A people formed by the worship of a crucified God . . . might just be complex enough to engage in the hard work of working out agreements and disagreements with others one step at a time.
Apparently, there is at least something in the narrative of the post-liberal witness that also contributes to complexity and ambiguity and that hopes to find it in the way that others hold their commitments, too.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Thank you. We now have three respondents who will speak in turn, and I will introduce them in the order in which each will respond. And I would ask the respondents, as I did yesterday, to remain at the table so that we do not have a lot of the time taken up by people shuffling in and out of their seats and so forth. The first respondent is Michael Budde, who is a Professor of Political Science and Catholic Studies at DePaul University here in Chicago. His publications include The Magic Kingdom of God: Christianity and Global Culture Industries, and a book called, Christianity Incorporated. He is also the editor of The Church as Counter Culture. Our second respondent is Jonathan Chaplin, who is the Associate Professor of Political Theory at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, which is an affiliate of the Toronto School of Theology. He is a graduate of Oxford, received his doctorate from London School of Economics and Political Science. He has co-edited three books, a range of articles in the area of Christian political thought. He is currently working on a book or completing a book on the Dutch Neo Calvinist political philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd. Did I say that Right? He is a member of the distinguished advisory panel of the Civitas program in Washington, and he is Chair of the Board of Public Justice Resource Center in Toronto. And the third respondent is known to many of you because he received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School, Charles Mathewes, who is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of a very well received book Evil and the Augustinian Tradition. He is the editor of Religion, Law and the Role of Force. And he is the author of a forthcoming book, A Theology of Public Life During the World. He is also a Fellow of the Center of Religion and Democracy at the University of Virginia. So with that we will begin with Professor Budde. Michael?
Michael Budde: Good morning. This paper by Professor Lovin is a forthright attempt to move beyond some fairly unproductive dead ends in discussions about religious discourse in contemporary society. There are, as you already can glean for yourself, a great many interesting and provocative ideas here, but in the interest of time I will limit myself to just a few points upon which I think Professor Lovin’s approach relies in great measure. How we assess these features, I suggest, will largely shape our assessment of his typology and the utility thereof.
First, about the post liberal edifice, I would suggest it is in the construction and rendering of post liberalism that Professor Lovin’s essay rises or falls to a great extent. As the contrast position to the more privileged categories of realism, post liberalism does much of the conceptual work albeit in a negative fashion in this particular paper. Despite its many strengths, there are a few aspects of this rendering of post liberalism that potentially could be problematic. First among them is the suggestion that post liberalism reflects what you might call a “sour grapes” development. Having fallen from a position of influence in capitalist democracies, the resentful post liberals have walked off while muttering, “we did not want to exercise cultural hegemony anyway.” At a minimum, such an argument has little to say regarding comparable currents outside the precincts of white and liberal Protestantism. There are comparable ecclesiacentric movements within Catholicism, Anabaptism, white and non-white Pentacostalism, and other traditions which have never had cultural hegemony and hence have no comparable temptation to compensatory rejection of public engagement. To the extent that one version or another of the from hegemony to opposition story may ring true, it may well be that it applies better to those Christian institutions of higher learning that have attempted to compensate for denominational declines by stocking up on well paid, well provisioned scholars who claim a prophetic privilege by virtue of being a member of an underclass and historically discriminated against demographic, or similarly marginalized social location.
A more serious problem may attend to the degree to which, despite his commitment to realistic appraisals of lived reality, in this paper Professor Lovin seems to hold a fairly innocent picture of the cultural ecology of capitalist democracies. When he says that the public square is “not a place that has its own ultimate commitments to impose,” and that “liberal democracy, after all, presumes that people are trying to live with integrity . . . [We cannot] help wonder whether or why he minimizes the ways in which political and economic liberalism in practice corrodes, refashions, or reconfigures these comprehensive beliefs. This is a problem endemic to more than one sort of theological ethics including those that rely on social theory, for example, built on sphere sovereignty, the work of Abraham Kuyper, systems theories of one sort of another. There is one version that leads from Talcott Parson to Peter Berger to Michael Novak, and some, but not all theories of civil society. What these have in common is the tendency to ignore or minimize the interpenetration of these spheres or systems, which enables one to discuss these as more or less sealed containers, thus protecting one’s privileged categories from the effects of the others. This is the rhetorical and conceptual strategy, for example, of a Michael Novak, for whom a tripartite view of society, political, economic, and moral cultural, allows him to present capitalism as a mechanism that in itself does not cause social problems. Whatever problems attend the capitalist democracies, in Novak’s view, are caused either by the political system, usually in overreaching itself, or the moral cultural system, perpetuating or engendering practices and beliefs at odds with the logic of capital accumulation.
While Professor Lovin does not offer an explicit framework of analysis for political economy in his paper, some version or another of this move seems necessary in order to suggest that liberal democracy does not refashion these comprehensive beliefs that people have before entering the public square of liberal democracy. One could argue, for example, that the reduction of religion to belief itself is both cause and consequence of liberal democracy’s relative intolerance of particular communities that insist on acting rather than merely believing as communities. One can see this dynamic replicated in our own time, for example, in the refashioning of Islam in the United States both by way of impersonal processes and explicit state action designed to privilege belief over action, national loyalties over allegiance to the trans-national umma, then the diminution of Islam’s theological region in-depth in ways that imitate those religions already that have made their peace with the American way of life.
In the longer paper, Professor Lovin has an interesting discussion of Herberg’s notions in the book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, written in 1955. One can think here, for example, in the case of contemporary Islam, of mechanisms that include the federal tax code, participation in pervasive but semi official interfaith public commemorations, and even the public relations initiatives of the US government and Madison Avenue to proclaim abroad through the Office of Public Diplomacy the harmony between US life and American Muslims. It may well be that Professor Lovin’s relative neglect of this dynamic about how capitalist democracy may, in fact, reshape or instrumentalize religious communities, most especially the Christian in North America and Western Europe, forces them to see how Hauerwas is paranoid, “as if the community of faith were under threat.” Hauerwas and others do indeed, I would agree with Professor Lovin, see the idolatry of the nation state as a primary threat to the church. Professor Lovin, for his part, says the traditional realists are, “equally aware of the idolatry of the nation state,” but that the latter believe that, “liberal democracy provides an alternative to it.” I wonder if it does really.
There is no operationalization of the term idolatry in this paper, which is perhaps an unfortunate omission given Professor Lovin’s commitment to pragmatic, practical and lived expressions of religion discourse in public life. Let me provide a suggestion, perhaps, a pragmatic and functional understanding of the idolatry of the nation state. I would suggest that the state is an object of ultimate allegiance to the extent that people are willing to kill for it, die for it, and pay for it. In fact, this tripartite formulation might not be a bad operationalization of idolatry more generally, but the prospect that realism, either of the traditional or the hopeful variety, can identify it much less resist it, strikes some of us as relatively implausible.
With this in mind it seems appropriate to revisit Professor Lovin’s take on post liberals in narrative. I shudder at the thought of an exercise in dueling Hauerwas quotations. I am not sure anyone wins that sort of thing other than Hauerwas. On at least my reading of Hauerwas it maybe more adequate to suggest in distinction with Professor Lovin that Hauerwas and some folks like him object to liberalism not so much because it “lacks a narrative strong enough to sustain a community.” On the contrary, liberal democracy has all sorts of strong narratives and privileges including patriotism, love of country, and sacrifice to the state and nation. The problem is that these are the wrong narratives, at least for Christians, for whom Christian discourse calls for something entirely different. Christian discourse, when not chainsawed into the Procrustean bed of civic utility may, in fact, be more public, more broadly accessible, and less sectarian, at least on a global scale, than the two hundred plus expressions of nationalist discourse that proffer the practical veneration of the national community in our time.
My last observation centers on the very strings of liberalism described by Professor Lovin. He notes that “traditional realism should pose few problems for the public discourse of the liberal democracy,” even on those few occasions when the perspective chooses to offer distinctively religious reasons. It is not a new criticism of this sort of Niebuhrian realism, that what it thinks of as religious reasons does not necessarily strike many other people as being especially religious, at least not Christianly religious. This sort of realism builds a mighty edifice upon a theological anthropology: people are sinners and not much more. Not a lot of Christology, ecclesiology, and definitely no eschatology other than a secularized face in incrementalism in the containment of chaos.
Similarly, Professor Lovin’s hopeful realists lodge their hope in the state rather than in the church, which suggests perhaps an ecclesiology and eschatology more akin to the old style realist from whom he wants some degree of separation. Professor Lovin suggests that his brand of hopeful realism, to be realistic, presupposes that the constitutional system of liberal democracy be open to radical revision and renewal. If it is instead “an ordered whole closed to its own historicity” then hopeful realism presumably is less realistic or more thoroughly subversive. To me the openness of the liberal state to this sort of revision needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed.
One starting point for conversation perhaps might be the declassified document updating US national security doctrine released in December 2002, in which the existing economic and political arrangements of the United States are now seen as a closed subject, opposition to which abroad is seen and identified as a threat to US national security; unstated, but from which presumably one could infer, opposition to which from within might in fact be a variety of subversion.
Finally, Professor Lovin hopes that the traditional realist consumes his or her post modern mix of news with what one hopes is a lively memory of having read the bible at some point. And he is confident that his sort of prophetic realism can proclaim that “some prevailing values are clearly wrong and urgently in need of rejection.” From both, one has to wonder from where do these Christian realists get their Christianity? Absent what Professor Lovin calls the Christian narrative, it is not clear how Christians are to know what prevailing values are clearly wrong or urgently in need of rejection. Without churches capable of forming attitudes, dispositions, and practices, people are largely left with the intellectual affective resources of the culture from which to discern what is wrong and in need of rejection. A far more circumscribed and, in fact, perhaps more consistently conservative field from which to derive prophetic or transformative impulses and visions. I applaud Professor Lovin’s attempt to bring order to what often times seems like an interminable discussion on this topic, but I fear that yet more discussion is probably both unavoidable and necessary.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Jonathan Chaplin.
Jonathan Chaplin: Thank you. I think it is a tribute to Professor Lovin’s paper that my response is going to go in a completely different direction to that of Michael’s. At the start of his fine paper Professor Lovin states that the central question guiding his inquiry is not whether from within terms set by liberal political philosophy religious reasons are formerly admissable in public discourse, but rather, given the commitments that religious citizens inevitably and legitimately bring to such discourse, what liberal democracy needs to look like if it is to accord due respect to such commitments and to reap their benefits. As he puts it, he is asking not what role the rules of public discourse permit religion to play in a liberal democracy, but what religion requires from the political system in order to play the role its religious commitments demand.
Now I think this is an excellent way to pose the question and Professor Lovin addresses it in a salutary way, not by speculating on what he calls the hypothetical cases favored by liberal political philosophers but by attending to how real people, namely real religious citizens, actually engage in public discourse, and how they do so, he explains, depends at least in part on which school of Christian political thought informs their thinking: post-liberal, traditional, realist, hopeful realist, and perhaps some others. Post liberals, he tells us, regard the quest for such public reasons as both impossible and indeed is inherently kowtowing. Now I agree with Lovin’s implied critique of this paralyzing post liberal conclusion and I will not comment further on it here, which is not to say, of course, that post liberalism does not have much to teach us. By contrast, realists of various stripes have demonstrably succeeded, he says, in employing public reasons, in large measure because they recognize how religious discourse in the past has actually shaped the terms of public discourse in the liberal democracy we have inherited. Our public language is even today still laden with meanings originating from religion, so the realist tells us let us make the best use of it possible. Traditional realism makes few specific demands on liberal democracy beyond the requirement of formal openness to all and readily finds public reasons through which to express its religiously motivated concerns.
By contrast, hopeful realism prophetically stretches the current boundaries of formal liberal toleration by insisting on full inclusiveness both as a mandate of justice and also as a condition of long-term political stability. So, making the best use of existing public language for the hopeful realist means validiting its sharpest prophetic potentialities. Hopeful realism will also go beyond traditional realism in requiring openness to the use of explicitly religious reasons, especially for those moments where these alone will bring society to a needed moment of conversion. But, such openness will only be possible if the political community holds a certain view of itself; that is, as an amalgam of diversion to historical forces and moral motivations not held together by a single unifying hegemonic narrative. That is, as he puts it, as a product of history and not of reason. In fact, it shares this expectation with traditional realism.
Thus, Lovin concludes, realism of both kinds requires “a public square which is conceived as a place where a people come together to negotiate the meanings of their common life together and not as a place that has its own ultimate commitments to impose. Now if by this he means that political communities should not constitutionally impose a comprehensive doctrine on their citizens and should allow a plurality of such doctrines to contribute to public discourse, then, I entirely agree. And this is what I take him to mean when he says the political community “is not even trying to be a church,” and when he says that the public square should be aware of itself as public and political and not religious. Now, I would have preferred him to say not confessional, since that allows him also consistently to say, as he does, that public squares are, in fact, and by right, heavily molded by the cumulative influence of religious beliefs of diverse kinds. They are not religiously naked though they are not and should not be confessionally monochrome. So, the possibility of religious citizens finding public reasons depends on political communities being this kind of thing.
Now, I essentially agree with Professor Lovin’s conclusion, but I think there may be something else to be said about the nature of the political community which might complement his own approach, and which, incidentally, seems to me to be passed over in most discussions of the role of religious reasons in public life. Lovin approaches the question of whether religion can and should provide public reasons by asking whether various religious advocates regard themselves as advancing reasons, which are publicly accessible. We might say that he answers the question from the side of the subjective intentions of religion citizens. Publicness, in other words, is defined intersubjectively. And he tells us first, that many such citizens are not content simply to retell their tribal narratives within their own religious communities, but intend to address themselves to the public at large. And second, that for reasons of history they often succeed in being heard by the public at large. But the reasons why they succeed in being heard may not, however, be only historical.
Suppose by contrast we ask the question not what are the subjective intentions of religious citizens as they aspire to discourse publicly or the subjective capacities of their secular fellow citizens to receive their offerings as public, but rather this question, what is the objective structural character of the arena within which such public discourse occurs in the first place? Well, that arena is the political community. But this community is not firstly nor essentially a realm of discourse. It is not firstly or essentially a public square. It is rather a set of institutions and of relationships between institutions and among citizens. This organized ordered cluster of institutions and relationships can, I suggest, be construed as having a defining normative purpose. Now by this let me make clear that I do not mean a single religious narrative, but rather a distinctive structural telos: a rising, I would argue if I had time, from the very constitution of human social nature. Now Christian political thought has long argued over what that purpose is, but for the sake of argument and time, let me just say that it is to establish a public framework of just laws conducive to the common good.
So, when religious citizens, or indeed any citizens for that matter, try to formulate publicly accessible reasons for the policies they favor, one explanation for why such reasons might be recognizable by other citizens as public is that these reasons make reference to the shared structural institutional reality of the political community of which both are members and with which both have to reckon. Such reasons are understandable as reasons for the sorts of things that members of the political community appropriately expect of that community. Things like the correction of public injustices, the formulation of public laws, the prevention of public dangers, and so on. They are recognizable as public reasons because their object is the public good, something that can potentially be discerned, partially be discerned, even by proponents of radically opposed political standpoints, and even let me add, in the light of what Michael has just said, when the political community succumbs, as it indeed does sometimes in some places, to what Michael calls the idolatry of the nation state.
Now, it may be that some non-religious citizens might not be able to recognize certain kinds of reasons as genuinely public reasons in this sense just because they are religiously grounded. Suppose a Christian makes a familiar kind of case for a specific change in abortion law or environmental policy on grounds of their faith, a secular liberal might simply be incapable of regarding such a case as a bona fide public one because of its known origin in religious belief. But while secular liberalism exploits this incapacity on the part of some citizens as an argument for restricting religious reasons, we might with equal justification interpret it simply as a deficiency on the part of the non-religious citizens, an argument that is not for restricting the discursive space of religious citizens but for expanding the constricted horizons of the secular citizen.
Finally, does this imply that anything goes with regard to the use of religious speech in public discourse? Not at all. Religious citizens, indeed any citizens, should respect a variety of restraints on the type of speech they use when they engage in political discourse. But these will be restraints not on religious reasons but restraints on non-political reasons. Reasons tangential to or incompatible with the structure and the requirements of the political community, its normative purpose and powers. The success or failure of the attempts by religious citizens to provide public reasons should then not be made to depend primarily on the contingent subjective capacities of other citizens to recognize them as public, but rather on whether they intentionally pertain to the structural requirements of the political community. Of course, exactly what those structural requirements are or should be will, itself, be a perennial item on the agenda of the very public discourse made possible by that structure. And religious citizens will and should continue to contribute to that discussion drawing on the resources of their own particular religious narratives, such as, for example, the conviction that the particular order is grounded in created order. Thank you.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Chuck Mathewes.
Chuck Mathewes: I want to agree with my other respondents in thanking Robin for his unsurprisingly excellent paper. That was something we have managed to come to expect from the gold standard that Robin Lovin typically is and we have not been surprised today. I have yet larger reasons for being grateful to him, in particular, because he has significantly helped me in both of the books that I have done so far and I hope that in some way I can begin to pay back that debt today by some of the comments I have. I hope something I have to say will be of use to you. I certainly have profited from this paper and I am struggling to say something useful. I want to begin slightly differently, which is the convenience of this panel, I guess, has happily chosen.
I want to suggest that one of the things that is interesting about the paper is its continued resilient belief in the thought that the major interlocutors that religious thinkers or religious speakers have today are secularists. I think this is a big mistake, and let me give you an example of why. There was a wonderful exchange in the Journal of Religion and American Culture in 2000 on the status of public theology in the United States today. Two people, in particular, there are several, but two people, in particular, were really quite interesting. William Dean bemoaned the loss or the collapse of public theology in America and said, you know, where is Reinhold Niebuhr, yada, yada, yada. Mark Noll, following him, said “public theology is better than it has ever been before,” and the most important public theologian out there is James Dobson, who runs Focus on the Family. I want to suggest that there is something very important communicated in the disconnect between these two authors and the kinds of empirical evidence they can or cannot appeal to that we would be very wise to attend to today.
The account Lovin offers is typically and happily lucid, so there is no need to repeat it here. His patient and charitable account of Hauerwas, for example, and here I think I disagree with Professor Budde, is better I think than any account Hauerwas has given of himself as well as revealing the delightful ironies of Hauerwas’ own position. And I say that as someone who I think is more sympathetic to Hauerwas than Robin is. Most importantly, though, I want to endorse his suggestion that along side the vibrant debates about public reason and the propriety of accommodating religious reasons within the public sphere, we should attend directly to the questions of 1) whether religious believers should want to offer such reasons, and 2) the questions of what sort of range of religious reasons and arguments we might see? That is, I want to endorse Robin’s implicit criticism on much of the discussion for missing some very important things.
In fact, I want to do more than endorse it I want to both step back from it and then carry it further. To do that I want to challenge the analytic adequacy and comprehensiveness of the categories Robin employs. I want to suggest that his paper puts asunder what we ought to keep always together. Furthermore, there is an important blind spot in the account caused by an intellectual, I think, and I do not mean this in any smarmy hostile way, but a potential intellectual captivity to a certain hothouse academic debate. We really ought to imagine the three alternatives not as competing forms but as complementary strategies or facets of a single strategy for positioning Christians vis-à-vis the public sphere and others within it.
Now, the crucial argument for Robin is that theorists of public reason have little to fear from post liberals and traditional realists. Although the role of hopeful realists, especially because of their more lively sense of a proleptic eschatology, may seem more troublingly destabilizing, I think, in an interesting way.
And I think especially that this last part about hopeful realism raises interesting questions about the variety of forms and varieties of aims of public discourse, whether one works within the given frame or calls that frame into question. I think that is an interesting question, and I do not think we will get any further in thinking about this, however, until we have a more finely textured account about what the public sphere is and what public discourse is. There is some work being done on this kind of both empirically and theoretically, but we do not really have much access to it typically. I do not have any access to it and I did not pick up much access to it in the paper. We need to get under the hood of this general concept of public discourse or the public sphere and notice the many different kinds of public spheres there are and the many different ways that publics can change over time.
My favorite example of this is actually the debate about isolationism that began in 1939 in the US and went until December 8th I guess, not December 7th, and that debate, I think, actually is an interesting study of the development of a public and the development of reasons on both sides that actually worked very well for specific purposes, and ended up in some ways in a strange ending but it was initially in public. So, I think there are multiple publics and I think we need to think about that in all sorts of interesting ways, and Robin’s paper points us in that direction.
But, I also think that the distinctions Lovin draws are more heuristically useful than functionally necessary. I would rather see these three options as one strategy or as three strategies employable by a single person, and I take it that this is in some way the project of Niebuhr himself. Even in his high sober realist days he emphasized the need for hope. As Robin knows, hope is after all the last word in the book, The Nature and Destiny of Man. Well, on the other side, I would imagine that a hopeful realist remains suspicious in some important ways that were not entirely clear from the paper of the more millenarian trajectories of liberationist theologies. I think that the issue is, something we were talking about at dinner last night, that basically the realist tradition has not only not come to grips with civil rights, not only has it not come to grips with South Africa, it has simply not come to grips with 1989, and what it means, that, in fact, the revolution happened. It was televised, by the way, and we basically sat and watched it happened. That, in fact, people could change the world. That is something that I think realists have always been deeply allergic to saying and I think that we do not really have an account of why that worked. I think it is astonishing to us. So, both these positions can be realist enough to take to heart the post liberal suspicion of abstract and defoliated meta-languages or what purport to be such meta-languages, but which are typically other versions of parochial academic speak, as adequate replacements for first order religious discourse.
But the main point here is that we need the access to all these three styles or positions. And why is that? Because if we do not find a way to get it we are in serious trouble, at least as a political community and potentially also as religious believers. And I worry that the way Robin has set up the discussion and the assumed frame of the discussion actually make it hard for us to feel the urgency I think we ought to feel today.
Let me return to the basic question driving his essay, whether people of faith should want to introduce religious reasons and how they should do so, and what they can expect from such introductions. As I have said, this is a refreshing and important question to ask, but look at what it implies with the word introduce. It implies that there is such a thing as public discourse, which is properly or originally non- or pre-religious that “naked came the public square”. But that is not true historically or in today’s society and I am glad that Robin offered some prophylactic comments about the archival work that we are all tempted to do. But it is closer to the truth to say that the public square was stripped naked in the past half century, and it is even closer to the truth to say that that disrobing was never successfully accomplished at all. I mean, when exactly did this secularization happen? Was it in the 1960’s? The 1960’s seem profoundly religious to me. Was it the 1970’s during the evangelical presidency of Jimmy Carter? The 1980’s? The 1990’s? When did this happen? In fact, certain spheres of life, that we as academics may inhabit, have gone non-religious, but public life is for good and ill not among them.
For good and ill good I say, for the vibrant presence of religious arguments in the public sphere is un-missable once you step outside the frame of philosophical, not political, mind you, but philosophical debates about the proper form of public reason. As Nicholas Wolterstorff said yesterday, there is an important confusion we should resist and free ourselves of, the confusion of liberal political theory and liberal political polities. Liberal political theories are attempts at glossing, and some might say spinning, the institutional structures we inhabit in certain kind of Rawlsian direction. That is not entirely legitimate. It is not obviously legitimate, I think it is obviously not legitimate. But one way or the other the kind of argument you often get, and I have actually had people ask me before when I start complaining about liberal theory they say, what part of a liberal democracy do you not want to live in? I say, it is not a liberal democracy I do not want to live in, it is Rawlsian theory I do not want to live under. That is a different question entirely. Once we have freed ourselves from a Rawlsian or Habermasian over-fastidiousness with epistemological etiquette and actually look around and see, we discover that the real interlocutors with whom we must engage, as regard to religion’s role in public life, are those many people actually making religious arguments in public life, and to my mind, the worry is that they often make bad arguments and they often make them quite badly.
It has always been interesting to me that Hauerwas has never spent much time engaging people who I would think it would be worth his time to engage– people like Michael Novak. It seems to me that it was a very interesting moment when Hauerwas absented himself from the First Things editorial board following the debates over Afghanistan. It is almost as weird that Patrick Buchanan and Lenora Fulani ran for the presidency and vice presidency together that Hauwas and Hadley Arkes were on the same editorial board. There is something weird about Hauerwas own skewed vision of who his real opponents are in some ways.
Now, the real problem then, is that bad theology drives out good. Secularist philosophers see people making what they see as terrifying and bad religious arguments in public life, and those philosophers respond by arguing that such religious arguments are inappropriate in public life, but, the only religious people who heed them are precisely the sorts of religious people who could contest the bad religious arguments which currently occupy so much of the high ground in public life.
Two caveats here. Obviously, I am over drawing the problem but I do think it is a real problem. Secondly, I do not mean to imply here that conservative believers are all bad and liberals are all good. No mainline group could ever have gotten any president to do what the evangelicals…apparently the political science faculty at Wheaton got George Bush to do by committing $15 billion to fighting AIDS in Africa. That is a larger commitment by something like a factor of 50 than the United States government has ever done before, and if you have been following the stuff in the Post and the Times, well, the Post more than the New York Times, it has been a fascinating story of how evangelicals have begun to gain some voice in the debates there. But, I do think that this epistemological fastidiousness seems to affect liberal religionists and especially academic religionists in a way that conservative religionists do not feel affected by it. And if it is true, and I think in important ways it is true that “the pathos of modern theology is its false humility”. This is only true for liberal theology, among whom I include myself, and most post-liberals as well. But this pathos should make all of us sad, for the key issue today and for the foreseeable future is not whether religion should be in public life, but whether there will be enough religion in public life. Whether only the most simplistic and often theologically dubious voices will thrive there or whether others will step up to contest them. Culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum and some theological voice will be heard. The question is which voice or voices will that be? I think Lovin’s paper misses this because he still understands his major conversation to be within academia. That is not an uninteresting conversation, of course, nor is it an unimportant one. That is what we all are after all. But I think it threatens to continue to deflect our attention from real public discourse to academic accounts of it, idealized pictures of it, and for a paper about real people, I think above all we should avoid that. Thank you.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Professor Lovin has agreed to forego the pleasure of an immediate response to his interlocutors in order that we might open it up for questions from you. Jean Porter, the microphones are in the end. Don Browning, I see, so we will get a little queue going here. Yes. Sorry I do not know your name, but after Professor Browning.
Jean Porter: One of these ought to pick up my voice.
Jean Bethke Elshtain : We are hearing you.
Jean Porter: Okay. People usually do. Robin, this is particularly directed to you. It is more a comment than a question but I would like to hear you respond to it. If I understood you correctly, part of your point is that we ought to be concerned to make religious arguments in the public square because only religion can mount the kind of radical change to existing institutions that we need to mount. Now, it strikes me that that is false, and it strikes me that that is false because I can think of a pretty immediate counter example, and that is the very radical rethinking of very fundamental moral intuitions and institutions that is going on right now under the aegis of Peter Singer, Roberto Unger, Shelly Kagan, and then the whole sort of utilitarian crowd. And it strikes me that this is a very good case of a group of people who have for twenty or so years been making a case that we just are wrong on a whole range of issues, that if we were living up to standards of morality we would organize our private and public lives very differently, and all of this is starting to pay off. I mean, they are starting to have real public impact. So, here is an example it seems to me, of precisely what you say we do not have, which is a secular challenge to institutional life at a pretty radical level. But it strikes me further that if this is so it really strengthens the case, in a way, for your larger point, which is the urgent need to develop an alternative to this, which is, I take it, through hopeful realism and an appropriate chastening conversation with old time realism, you are trying to develop.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Robin?
Robin Lovin: Yes. I would agree with that. I certainly did not mean to imply that only religious discourse shaped by this kind of hopeful realism can propose those sort of radical change. What I was trying to suggest is that it is the sort of prevailing way that religion actually does that. And I quite agree with your last comment that it is precisely because other people are figuring out how to make dramatic changes in the prevailing moral climate that we need to think more about how we do that religiously.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: And clearly Jean Porter’s point also is that radical change, which we usually tend to think of in the context of our discussions is something for the better; transforming an institution that is wanting or a set of institutional instruction to something better can in fact be a change for the worse, at least from our perspective and that of any decent human being.
But we are talking about Peter Singer.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: All right. Professor Browning.
Don Browning: Well, it is nice to have you back, Robin, and thank you for admitting you learned so much in this room. I cannot believe that, but then I will take your word for it. I like the typology. I think it is informative. I do think the observation that you may have characterized contemporary political life too much out of the limbs of the theory of liberalism that comes from John Rawls is probably true. I see, at least since Carter, a great deal of the dominance of a particular kind of religiosity in American political life, and here is the way I characterize it, and that might add a bit to your typology– one more type. I even thought about a name for it while I was listening to you, and the name I might recommend is “convictional utilitarianism”.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Convictional?
Don Browning: Convictional.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Yes.
Don Browning: Convictional utilitarianism, which may get to the secret of people like Dobson, Ralph Reed, and other people that are so dominant. There is a vague reference to certain convictions in their rhetoric very seldom developed in theological terms or in any other terms. Then, though, their arguments are almost always utilitarian. These convictions can be seen to be good for us understood in utilitarian terms. That is why they can resonate with certain types of economic conservatives; they can talk to the rational choice people, they may not always agree, but they can talk to them. So I guess that is why…is there such a type as convictional utilitarianism, change the name if you wish, and would your typology need to recognize that why it is successful it does not really say much religiously. It just says I am religious but here is what is good for you and the reasons are basically utilitarian.
Robin Lovin: Once again, I think that is a very good comment and you crystallize a position there in your convictional utilitarianism that I find that very helpful type to explain something that is going on out there. It was reflected also in the comments of some of the other respondents that this is actually a fairly narrow typology. I do not know whether I would describe is as academic. If I were to go to work dissecting these other positions, whether it is convictional utilitarianism or some of the other kinds of religious political arguments, I think what I would do is try to make the case in analytical terms anyway, that they are not, strictly speaking, religious arguments. So, I guess, what I want to do is defend my typology of the genuinely religious arguments that are being made here, but also to say that I think Chuck Mathewes is exactly right that if this is going to be as helpfully realistic and empirical as I claim it to be, it is going to have to explain where a lot of this other discourse which will use religious language and strike a kind of religious resonance in the populace at large where that comes from. I am really making a kind of normative judgment that this does not have to be taken as seriously, religiously or theologically, as these other positions, but it certainly in empirical terms needs to be brought in to our thinking about what is going on out there.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Anyone else? Any of the other respondents want to? Should we go to the next?
Chuck Mathewes: I have one.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Chuck.
Chuck Mathewes: As one of the other faculty at Chicago who is now leaving the room has said in the past, you might want to stay for this one second. Theory, our thinking has to live up to the realities that we are trying to address. And in the past five years, anyway, the realities, the ideological realities in American politics have grown so completely confused that it has left our theories light years behind it, and not just the Buchanan, Lenora Fulani. Think about Bono, Jesse Helms, the evangelicals, the Episcopal Church, and the Roman Catholic Church, and the Lutherans, all of them coming together for the jubilee. Again and again these weird ideological events have happened and there is something about our theories have to acknowledge that these…
Jean Bethke Elshtain: And our political categories too because it makes mincemeat of those, and that rarely gets acknowledged. Question here?
Questioner: Yes. Some of you had mentioned the great transformation in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989, and some would say that communist atheist ideology had made Eastern Europe a moral vacuum, but I think that religion, or should I say the church, was stronger in their communism than now in the transition to democracy and freedom. The model seems to be that because the church was the only institution that was allowed to proffer a world view at odds with the ideology of world communism, the church became the de facto sanctuary for political dissidents, and I am thinking about solidarity in Poland or the evangelical church in Leipzig. But now there are options. There are competing political parties and the church’s spiritual alternative appeal has waned. The church is sort of in a survival mode. It has to fight politically to reclaim its confiscated property for instance. So, in light of the examples of civil society emerging, and we can say that humanism or civil society is simply morality without the stained glass and you know, you see working for the public good both the Catholic Church and Amnesty International opposed the death penalty. How can the church tell its narrative outside times of crisis? In other words, my question is perhaps religion prospers best as the opposition. Any comments on that?
Robin Lovin: Well, I will respond initially. I think everybody would have something to say to that. Certainly it is true that religion has played a unique and I think to many secular observers unexpected role in the transformations that have gone on in Eastern Europe and in Southern Africa. Likewise, I suppose that in that you see a kind of historical turning point. But I think you could see a similar role that religion played in the United States from the early days of the civil rights movement through the Civil Rights Act of 1963. I mean, you know, of course it is not as dramatic as the wall coming down in a matter of hours, but it is a similar kind of social transformation brought about again by that similar kind of prophetic pressure. My own judgment is that these things come along maybe once in a generation in a society and that what the church always has to struggle with after that, there is some reason to argue that liberal Protestantism is still struggling with, you know, so what do we now that the civil rights revolution is over? And likewise the churches of Eastern Europe are going to have to make that same kind of decision about the future. I think that the church is in a substantially better position to have to answer that question in a democratic society that creates some alternatives rather than where it was before.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: If I may, I am going to assume the prerogative of the Chair and say something very briefly about your question as well. It strikes me that one of the reasons that the church, thinking especially of Solidarity was so powerful as a locus of opposition was precisely because of the alternative understanding of the human person that it offered up, offering hope and a sense that you are something more or other than an instrument of production. Because the reigning ideology, as you know, dictated that human beings are just matter, they are basic sort of nothing and they are things, instruments to be used by this State. And to offer an alternative to that obviously was something quite powerful. Now post-1989 there are a variety of appeals to a more transcendent understanding of the human person. The church is not the only one offering that understanding. We might say that we think some of those options offer a kind of false transcendence and not an authentic one, but I think that might help to account for what is happening in this transition period. Nick Wolterstorff, and I think we may have to make this the last question for this session so that we can adjourn for coffee on the first floor and reconvene. Nick?
Professor Wolterstorff: Robin, this is a question for you, and it comes out of ignorance on my part. But your sketch of the traditional realist sounded so purely procedural. I mean, it is just this Christian realist says to the State do not be too grandiose and I guess, but also do not be too modest. But about what? I mean, is that all it has got to say? Just against grandiosity? Do you see what I mean by procedural? What does a Niebuhrian want? What would he like the State to do in a modest but not too modest way?
Robin Lovin: Right. No. It is a very important role, I think, and it relates to something that Michael Budde said that I think is very important, and that is the corruption of public discourse that occurs when political forces start shaping realities beyond the boundaries of problems that they can really solve. Certainly, the respondents have caught the fact that I have truncated realism into a couple of parts for effect, as it were, at this point. But I think that it is an important part of one of the things that Christian realism brings to this discussion. You know, to keep saying that there are limits on what the state can do and they are rooted in human nature, and it is in the nature of politicians to forget those limits and that therefore the church has a kind of continual role of reminding people what those limits are. Now, I do not think, in fact, that is the only thing that the Christian realist has to do, but there was a part of, you know, the later Niebuhr who certainly did become fixated on that as the contribution.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: Anyone else on the panel want to offer a final word?
Questioner: I think Niebuhr did have a Christology. I disagree with Professor Budde, and I think that Robin would agree with this too that Niebuhr had a really good Christology.
Robin Lovin: But, I never tried to explain what it is.
Jean Bethke Elshtain: On that note of demurral, let us adjourn for coffee on the first floor. You are invited to trek down a couple of floors. We will reconvene here and we are ending this session a bit late, so we will start a bit late but not too much too late. So I would advise you to be back here at five minutes past eleven.
[The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life regrets that the paper presented by Professor Charles Taylor is not available for publication] [END OF TRANSCRIPT]