The Priority of the Person is David Walsh’s follow-up to his highly regarded Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being (2016). It is designed to make some of the close reasoning of this earlier book more accessible. Walsh’s thesis is audacious: liberal democracy and human rights are the consummation of Christian revelation, disclosing the transcendent dignity of the human person.
The absolute respect owed the autonomous person is offered as a control on politics at a moment when significant forces are arrayed against liberal democracy. China is a world power and an ethno-state little interested in cultural diversity within its borders or the self-determination of states in its growing sphere of influence. Russian theorist Alexander Dugin draws on the very same existential thinkers cited favourably by Walsh to recommend the strategy of ethnopluralism as a brake on liberal democracy. He argues that liberal democracy is a racist Western export intent on supplanting the value orders of rival civilizations. Michel Houellebecq thinks modern science has torpedoed Western humanism and in gory detail has laid bare our pathologies. Besides probing the significance of transhumanism, he has imagined a scenario in which political Islam will appeal to the utterly demoralized populations of Europe. In America, summer 2020 witnessed an orgy of iconoclasm on the premise that identity is a matter of race and gender and not the work of autonomous persons. Sir Roger Scruton identified this phenomenon in his memorable phrase “the culture of repudiation,” which has long been incubating in our universities.
Walsh is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and is aware many Catholic theorists are no longer convinced liberalism provides any support for human dignity. His thesis threads two alternatives. For decades, the reigning wisdom in Catholicism has been that a neutral, secular state is all the Church requires for her spiritual labors. The age of Catholic states is over, and so long as the Church has the freedom to congregate and teach, all is well. The assumption that liberal democracy provides this neutral framework was voiced most prominently by the enormously influential French Catholic Thomist, Jacques Maritain (1882-1973).
There were always dissenters, but in the last decade leading Catholic intellectuals have become outright dismissive, sure that the assumption is wrong. If the liberal state is in basic harmony with the Church, then why the ever-widening gap on abortion, marriage, transgenderism, and euthanasia? Maritain’s position only holds if the neutral state is at least delivering on the basic holdings of natural law, and increasingly, this is not true. The current arrangement just is not working, and the reaction has set in. In political Catholicism today, all the energy is on the side of integralism: the Church must once more insist on its historic position that states housing Christian peoples be ordered to, and completed by, the papacy. Obviously, much on the ground would need to change, but in the meantime the Church (grace) must adopt an explicitly combative attitude towards the liberal state (sin). It is time for the pews to get a lot more uncomfortable for parishioners living snugly in liberal states.
Escaping the Logic of Instrumentalization
Walsh radicalizes Maritain and thoroughly rejects integralism, contending that the secular state is not merely in harmony with the goals of the Church, its architecture of rights enshrines the core teaching of Christianity: persons are of infinite, unrepeatable, priceless worth. Walsh argues that liberal regimes are so supple and resilient because they are expressive of “visionary maxims.” These maxims have bested monarchies, aristocracies, and totalitarianisms. The magic sauce: “No higher aspiration prevails in the contemporary world than to create a political order that is derived from and ordered toward the preservation of individual dignity and respect.” Liberalism is the political elevation of the person, “the inexhaustible pivot of all things.” “The practical distillation of human rights jurisprudence is the great moral achievement of our world,” and stems from revelation, for “nothing in the world of mundane calculation can explain why human beings alone should escape the logic of instrumentalization.”
Historically, Christianity delivered the revelation, but Walsh argues that it no longer sits in the driver’s seat:
Yet even within the Christian tradition, the liberal elevation of the autonomy of the person can provide an invaluable clarification of the direction in which its own moral and political influence should unfold.
Therefore, the marginalization in our politics of the human as imago Dei is no crisis, for liberalism is, says Walsh:
the realization that even theological justification detracted from the sheer primordiality of the person. Respect for the person is diminished if it is seen merely as a means toward an extraneous other, even when the third party is God. To put it bluntly, persons command our unalloyed respect even if it were to entail the violation of a divine command. Nothing stands higher since unconditional valuation of the person is the condition of all valuation. A God who would command such disvaluation is not worthy of acknowledgement as God.
The contention here is that the Church may still contribute to the formation of conscience of the managers of basically good institutions—Maritain’s position—and, more radically, so long as it is understood that Christianity has been purified by liberalism. If politics relies on grace, it shouldn’t come from Christ, but from human rights.
Walsh acknowledges the tens of thousands of pages written on the incapacity of liberal theorists to actually come up with a compelling account of the principles guiding liberal political order. The reason is partly the very transcendence of the person. Though “the person in every instance exceeds the category of which it is an instance,” personalism is the philosophical effort to convey that each person is a unique, dynamic principle, organized and able to act with intelligence, an agency disclosing identity in free acts and speech. Despite the elusiveness of personal identity, the hard task of description has advanced both with liberal theory and existential philosophy. By far the most compelling effort in recent decades—the most impressive since John Stuart Mill, says Walsh—was made by America’s John Rawls (1921-2002). In his chapter on Rawls, Walsh draws from Rawls’s intense early interest in Christianity and a religious testament he wrote late in life, to claim Rawls as a personalist.
Rawls and the Personalist Denial of Utilitarianism
Baltimorean, Princeton grad, and squaddie, Rawls fought in the Pacific for two years. He spoke about losing his faith during trench warfare with the Japanese. At Harvard, Rawls developed elegant and highly original arguments to shore up the liberal idea that a just state must be neutral towards all particular truth claims about the meaning of a worthy life. He compressed his arguments into the dictum that the right is prior to the good: the right of all to develop their lives according to their own lights trumps any effort by the state to specify what is good for humans. Full of implications, the dictum rejects Mill’s utilitarian “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Utilitarianism makes a mass of persons fit for calculation, but in doing so, argues Rawls, it rides roughshod over the radical distinctiveness of persons. Walsh thus recasts Rawls as asserting “the priority of right is really the priority of persons over the good.” This does not entail a moral free-for-all, however. Personalism is a control on some choices. For example: “Our rights cannot extend to the design of another human being because our very rights depend on the incapacity of anyone to determine the existence of another. We may be procreative but we are not creative.”
As a philosophical movement, personalism is typically associated with 20th century European Catholic writers, most notably Pope John Paul II. However, Walsh’s work is not really a continuation of this school of thought: “The inconclusiveness of the Catholic experiment with personalism, I suggest, has much to do with the failure to pay adequate attention to the philosophical and linguistic revolution it entailed. New wine cannot be put into old wineskins.” Christianity proposed that a person is a whole unto herself. A person is not a part of a polity but exceeds the polity because created and destined for God. However, it is liberalism that has clarified the fullest meaning of this revelation.
Walsh places the remote origin of personalism in the rupture of late medieval mysticism from scholastic theology, a valorisation of personal experience over logic. Scholasticism, with all its metaphysical talk of form, genera, and species, prioritized categorization and thus the peculiar uniqueness of human experience was obscured. A critical corrective came from the prayer life of the late Middle Ages, blossoming in an upswing in mystical writings which seeded the Reformation and subsequent development of liberalism. This history carries the important implication that persons are not individuals of libertarian fame but relational beings: “The individual, whose atomistic assertion of rights seemed to dominate, would have to withdraw. In its place would emerge the person who has no existence on his or her own but whose whole being is bound up with the relationship with the other.”
Mystical emphasis on the union of persons (God and the pious) culminated in existentialism. Large parts of the book are discussions of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Levinas, and even post-moderns like Derrida, whose contributions to existential philosophy clarified that personal existence is constituted by obligations to others. Arguably the most famous example is Kierkegaard’s reflection on the story of Abraham. For centuries before Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Abraham haunted natural law treatises as the command given him by God to sacrifice Isaac conflicted with the self-evidence of the prohibition against killing the innocent. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard cut through the legal wrangling about rule of law and states of exception by approaching the story from the perspective of the person Abraham himself and the reaction to him by the other persons involved, Isaac and Sarah. In Kierkegaard’s hands, the story of Abraham and Isaac shows that “whatever ground is attributed to goodness, we can always ask whether it too is good.” Yet the story is not despairing, for it prompts the realization that responsibility for others is the inner meaning of what it is to be a person. Though “human rights is a discourse we cannot explain,” existentialism affirms the core holding of human rights language wherein “each person is acknowledged as an inexhaustible center of the universe.” Existential philosophy as a prop for liberalism is an arresting idea.
This book is for those who like their political theory with a hefty dose of philosophy, and yet readers are likely to want to hear more about the constitution of the person. “The person is prior and exceeds all definition” and, in a poetic moment, Walsh types the revelation of personhood to the Annunciation: “The angel is the one who opens up and invites Mary to what she senses she is already called.” This is a revealing image as it masks a problem with Walsh’s theory. “The essence of our humanity requires unimpeachable recognition of our right to make our own decisions.” Maybe an angel could claim this right but for those of us born of mother and father, then, as psychoanalysis has documented in excruciating detail, a lot of options are already off the table and other compulsive behaviours well ensconced. Walsh focuses on a part of modern European philosophy, but that part indebted to psychoanalysis also needs addressing. Walsh rather suggests that persons are pristine and crystal-like, but we are muddy, messy, riven creatures, as a good politics is mightily aware. Walsh laments that Christianity has struggled to reconcile itself to modern liberty and human rights but theological reflection on human brokenness, whether the deadly sins in Aquinas or Calvin’s skepticism towards unredeemed intellect, explains why Christianity has framed freedom inside church establishment.
This touches on the critical problem of human dignity. Walsh: “God can be known only by persons who are God-like. That is their dignity. They are beyond any claim to dignity in this world. It is the dignity of those whose dignity does not turn on any display of dignity.”
Though not elaborated, Walsh rejects natural law, building value into politics from the premise that “an inescapable dimension of the infinite attaches to every human being and makes each a center of value outweighing the whole world.” Walsh uses this idea to combat euthanasia. We end the suffering of animals, he argues, because their lives can be utterly consumed by pain, but humans are never simply contained by this world, we transcend it, and our pain. Euthanasia contradicts dignity and the drift towards its institutionalization in the West is enabled, thinks Walsh, by the reductive materialism that dominates our universities. Personalism is helpful in pushing back against immanentism, but equally requisite is the natural law insight that rule of law depends on restricting killings by a clear distinction between innocence and guilt.
Though I think Walsh’s arguments require extra support his core contention is profound. It is an application of Voegelin’s theory of the differentiation of consciousness, the idea that the more a civilization plays with complex distinctions, the greater the likelihood of its framing a humane politics. The transcendent worth of the person is “a distinctly modern advance in human self-understanding.” It would be interesting to know whether Walsh thinks commercial civilization, with its innovations in the division of labour, has been decisive in modernity affirming personhood. The Priority of the Person is a significant challenge to Catholic integralism, and any variety of conservatism that would think to forsake modern liberty.