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Competing Liberalisms and the Metaphysics of Democracy

Fr. Thomas Joseph White begins his discussion of “The Metaphysics of Democracy” with the claim that “Liberalism began as a political project that sought to curtail the role of religion in public life.” Well, yeah. But I think there’s a middle step missing that deserves mentioning. I’d write the sentence “liberalism began as a political project that sought to reduce violent religious conflicts and so sought to curtail the role of religion in public life.”

After a long, bloody twentieth century in which secular, manifestly anti-religious, ideologies led to the deaths of countless of millions, we tend to forget how the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War and the (much less devastating) conflicts of the English Civil Wars scarred the European mind during a critical period of the early modern era. While plenty of worldly causes and interests motivated and sustained these conflicts, the religious divisions reflected in the conflicts added fuel to their breadth and viciousness.

The itch to privatize religious belief stemmed initially not from a full bodied alternative set of metaphysical beliefs in conflict with religious belief, but as a thin, tactical move aiming to defuse conflict. Indeed, on a much smaller scale, the same insight today motivates well-known tactics employed to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Mediators are trained to urge parties in conflict initially to emote in discussion with each other about the conflict rather than articulate factual claims or black and white moral conclusions. “When you did x, it made me feel y.” The purpose is expressly to diffuse the conflict by subjectivizing the categories of the dispute.

The emotivist move in the West that Alasdair MacIntyre decries in After Virtue began in large part as a purely practical move to defuse conflicts that had devastated Europe, conflicts exacerbated by rival religious commitments.

When understood purely as a tactical means to promote dispute resolution, emotivism does not entail denial of objective right and wrong. It instead initially aims to slide around articulated absolutes in recognition that, sometimes, in seeking to justify and rationalize actions, people wrap up what are merely interests in absolutist categories. Not always, of course, but sometimes. Having the disputants initially emote allows them, initially at least, to move beyond the provocation of absolutist categories and discuss the real ground of the dispute.

Moving back to politics, the analogous form of thin liberalism does not entail that people jettison absolutist moral convictions, whether those convictions are religious or not. But thin liberalism can be understood purely a tactical move to promote political and social peace.

To be sure, thin liberalism can set the stage for useful conversations, conversations in which parties can find more agreement than initially recognized. But there also exist political disputes that hinge on the resolution of factual, moral or other absolutist claims. “Agreeing to disagree” is not always a practical option, as when legislators are called on to vote on a proposed statute to punish an asserted injustice.

The above is not to give liberals, let alone secularists, a free pass relative to religionists. While forms of thin liberalism still exist, there are also thicker forms of liberalism, forms in which the practical, tactical move is turned into its own absolutist metaphysics. The transition from thin to thick versions of liberalism are no better evidenced than in the definition of “liberty” provided in the plurality opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Case, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Blather like that, which hardly rates expression in a high school theme paper — let alone a Supreme Court decision — exemplifies what happens when emotivism shifts from being a tactical move to resolve conflict and starts being treated as a full-orbed metaphysic.

But we can’t let thin liberalism off too easily either. The question today seems to be whether versions of thin, tactical liberalism can in fact be socially stable over the long run, or whether thin liberalism must sooner or later morph into its metaphysically thick form. I take that challenge to be the one motivating Fr. White’s essay.

If so, then White’s argument suggests a tragedy in the making. If thin, tactical liberalism is not historically stable, if it sooner or later must evolve into a set of absolutist metaphysical claims, then religious wars, wars over metaphysical conflict, are unavoidable, at least over the long run. Thick forms of liberalism would seem today to be on the ascent. They have their own hegemonic metaphysics, and true believers must insist that others bend the knee, both domestically and internationally. That is itself a tragedy, given that goals of minimizing conflict over metaphysical disagreement gave birth to liberalism.

And yet, truth be told, Fr. White also seems uninterested in minimizing metaphysical conflict. He instead advocates doubling down on a rival metaphysic: “Today we need to formulate a Catholic view of democracy that is not based on the dogmas of liberalism. Our task is to challenge the premises of Kant and rediscover the basic claim of Aristotle: ‘First philosophy’ is not politics or ethics. It’s metaphysics.”

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on February 06, 2018 at 10:31:55 am

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on February 06, 2018 at 11:33:23 am

That’s a thoughtful distinction: Thin (procedural) liberalism vs. thick (substantive? aspirational?) liberalism. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s essay Democratic Education (1943), in which the meritocratic Lewis expressed dismay that the (thin liberal) ideal of equality before law was being confused with the (think liberal) ideal of equality in fact. Lewis later expanded on this theme in Screwtape Proposes a Toast (1959), in which a demon lectures his fellows about strategies to befuddle mortal minds:

[Democracy] is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men ARE equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word DEMOCRACY to sanction in his thoughts the most degrading ... of all human feelings....

The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say, ‘I’m as good as you.’

[Y]ou thus induce him to enthrone at the centre of his life a good, solid resounding lie. I don’t mean merely that this statement is false in fact, that he is no more equal to everyone he meets in kindness, honesty, and good sense than in height or waist-measurement. I mean that he does not believe it himself. No man who says, ‘I’m as good as you’ believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce.... What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.

And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners... ‘Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I -- it must be a vile, upstate, lah di dah affectation. Here’s a fellow who says he doesn’t like hot dogs -- thinks himself too good for them no doubt.... If they were the right sort of chaps they’d be like me. They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic.’

* * *

Under the influence of this incantation [‘undemocratic’] those who are in any or every way inferior can labour more wholeheartedly and successfully than ever to pull down everyone else to their own level.... Under the same influence, those who come, or could come, nearer to a full humanity, actually draw back from it for fear of being UNDEMOCRATIC.... To accept [their unique gifts] might make them Different, might offend against the Way of Life, take them out of Togetherness, impair their Integration with the Group. They might (horror of horrors!) become individuals.

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nobody.really
on February 06, 2018 at 11:46:22 am

Fr. White also seems uninterested in minimizing metaphysical conflict. He instead advocates doubling down on a rival metaphysic: “Today we need to formulate a Catholic view of democracy that is not based on the dogmas of liberalism. Our task is to challenge the premises of Kant and rediscover the basic claim of Aristotle: ‘First philosophy’ is not politics or ethics. It’s metaphysics.”

Where do we find the most obvious conflict between liberalism and religion? The First Amendment. After all, why would a “Catholic view of democracy,” freed from “the dogmas of liberalism” (presumably freed to embrace the dogmas of Catholicism) let poor individuals imperil their immortal souls by being exposed to other religions? Or, indeed, exposed to errant forms of the One True Religion? Yet Catholics are frustrated in this endeavor by the First Amendment. So let’s repeal it!

Of course, this would be ironic. Catholicism has flourished in the US precisely because of the First Amendment’s protections. It is a rare place in the US where Catholics represent a majority. Absence of a First Amendment would likely result in more instances of Catholic subordination than Catholic ascendance. But those who would live by the sword will perish by it.

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nobody.really
on February 06, 2018 at 12:19:53 pm

I can't help myself. Re-reading Lewis's earlier essay, I just have to post an excerpt:

"Democratic education, says Aristotle, ought to mean, not the education which democrats like, but the education that will preserve democracy….

The demand for equality has two sources; one of them is among the noblest, the other is the basest, of human emotions. The noble source is the desire for fair play. But the other source is the hatred of superiority…. There is in all men a tendency … to resent the existence of what is stronger, subtler, or better than themselves. In uncorrected and brutal men this hardens into an implacable and disinterested hatred for every kind of excellence…. There is reason to be alarmed at the immense vogue today of such words as 'high-brow', 'up-stage', 'old school tie', 'academic,' 'smug', and 'complacent'….

The kind of 'democratic' education which is already looming ahead is bad because it endeavors … to appease envy…. Envy is insatiable…. No attitude of humility which you can possibly adopt will propitiate a man with an inferiority complex. [Moreover], you are trying to introduce equality where equality is fatal.

Equality (outside mathematics) is a purely social conception. It applies to man as a political and economic animal. It has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic… Virtue is not democratic…. Truth is not democratic…. Political democracy is doomed if its tries to extend its demand for equality to these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death.

A truly democratic education—one which will preserve democracy—must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly 'high-brow'….

'And what', you ask 'about the dull boy?....' If you let me have my way, Tommy will gravitate very comfortably to the bottom of the form; and [develop] that playful intransigent attitude to authority which is our chief protection against England’s becoming a servile State. [T]he world will still have room for a great many more Tommies than [geniuses]. And one priceless benefit he will enjoy: he will know he’s not clever…. He will have a certain, half amused respect for them. He will cheerfully admit that, though he could knock spots off them on the golf links, they know and do what he cannot. He will be a pillar of democracy. He will allow just the right amount of rope to those clever ones.

But what you want to do is to take away from Tommy that whole free, private life as part of the everlasting opposition which is his whole desire [and] fool the poor boy into the belief that what he is doing is just as clever “in its own way” as real work? What do you think will come of it? When he gets out into the real world he is bound to discover the truth…. [And] he will resent those inferiorities which (but for you) would not have irked him at all. A mild pleasure in ragging, a determination not to be much interfered with, is a valuable brake on reckless planning and a valuable curb on the meddlesomeness of minor officials; envy, bleating 'I’m as good as you', is the hotbed of Fascism…. Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves."

From C.S. Lewis, published in the English literary magazine Time and Tide, vol. XXIV (September 4, 1943) at 717, “Notes on the Way,”—or perhaps as “Democratic Education” in 1944—and republished as “Democratic Education” in Present Concerns (1986) at 32-36.

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nobody.really
on February 06, 2018 at 12:27:55 pm

We value political compromises because unified nations like China are so much more peaceful than fragmented countries like Europe. So many more people died during WWII, for instance, than under Chairman Mao. To this day, China has far more liberty than Western Europe precisely because they compromise on every issue rather than having separate countries with political extremes like Britain and France. If the U.S. broke up into several nations, they would lose all their liberty that they share with China and have no liberty like Britain and France.

In specific terms, it is better for first-term abortion to be legal everywhere at the expense of third-term abortion being legal nowhere, rather than having some states like California and New York where abortion is legal at all stages, and places like South Dakota and Louisiana where abortion is illegal at all stages.

What matters isn't so much what the law is, so long as its a compromise that applies the same everywhere--like in China, rather than some countries having better laws than others, like in Europe.

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EU
on February 06, 2018 at 14:23:40 pm

I do enjoy satire!

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gabe
on February 06, 2018 at 14:26:51 pm

Agreed - I find Fr. White's comment a bit disconcerting!

One minor correction: While Catholics may not be a majority in any county in the US, is it not true that Catholicism is the largest single Christian sect within the US? Minor perhaps, but what implications would that have for 1st Amendment comity?

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gabe
on February 06, 2018 at 14:31:07 pm

I am shocked, shocked, I tell you, to find that nobody is "releasing" the Democrat Party Playbook: "Keep 'em envious, let 'em hate the rich (except us of course). And nobody didn't clear it with Mr. Schiff. Simply shocking.

Seriously though, thanks for the Lewis quote(s), I had forgotten them. Very apropos!

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gabe
on February 06, 2018 at 14:37:54 pm

And the prime example of "thick" liberalism may be found in the latest leftist mantra:

"CELEBRATE not tolerate"

So I am now to celebrate that which I do not like or find distasteful. Is this celebration to include foul mouthed misogynistic hip-hop singers, members of North American Man Boy Love Association, race / gender hucksters and many other types of miscreants?

Me! I like peace and quiet and normally refrain from *unseemly* celebrations!

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gabe
on February 07, 2018 at 12:23:51 pm

I am forming the opinion that any reference to natural law in Supreme Court decisions is a violation of the establishment clause.

For millennia, natural law has been the particular province of religion, a branch of metaphysics. Allowing fools like Kennedy to use emergent political problems as an excuse to divine natural law on their own and then using the Constitution as a Trojan Horse to make their revelations secular law for the rest of us is very problematic. It really no different from saying "Deus lo vult" (God wills it).

On the other hand, secular laws are based either on tradition and custom, for example the common law, or positive law that is essentially arbitrary and proclaimed and enforced by the sovereign. We all know humans are fallible and so their laws are fallible. We can't say the same about God's Laws or the Laws of Nature and Nature's God.

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EK
on February 07, 2018 at 16:50:21 pm

[A]ny reference to natural law in Supreme Court decisions is a violation of the establishment clause.

I generally agree. That said, I don’t regard Kennedy as any great proponent of Natural Law theory; for example, I can’t recall him espousing a teleological perspective.

We all know humans are fallible and so their laws are fallible. We can’t say the same about God’s Laws or the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.

Perhaps not. But I would not be surprised to learn that the 9/11 attackers believed that they were interpreting and applying God’s Law.

Indeed, the New Testament is filled with instances of Jesus contradicting the prevailing wisdom of his day, saying "But I say unto you.... (ego de lego umin)." People who felt themselves well justified by God's Law to stone an adulterer were chastised by Jesus, while those who felt themselves well beyond the pale of God's Law were embraced.

In short, when fallible humans are asked to interpret and apply God’s Laws, what results can we really expect?

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nobody.really
on February 07, 2018 at 19:41:17 pm

nobody:

Agreed AND a serious question:

Can the same be said of Law of Nature, i.e., that the interpretation of same is wrought with difficulty and consequently that some, such as the character serially known as Lawdog, MissCreant, etc. is engaging in the fallible effort as are those who would arrogate to themselves the right and ability to interpret God's Law? - or for that matter Black Robe Kennedy?

Just askin'!

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gabe
on February 07, 2018 at 23:24:15 pm

I can't claim to have sufficient knowledge of the collective works of Lawdog, MissCreant, etc. If you have a particular statement you'd like to discussion, feel free to cite it.

I expect all mortal efforts are fallible.

That said, mortals still confront the need to make decisions. The mere fact that decision-makers are fallible, or that knowledge is imperfect, or that policy implementation is imperfect, is not a justification for paralysis.

To be sure, perhaps some people disagree. But I expect I will never hear from those people because their cursors will be perpetually suspended above the "Post Comment" button, wracked with indecision.

Kennedy is not one of these timid souls--for better and worse. Kennedy actually renders decision. Just as his fellow Justices do, and as all prior Justices have done. You may disagree with some of his decisions--as you may disagree with other Justices's decisions. What else is new?

My response to EK was not to disparage the effort to act with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right. My response was to call into doubt the premise that this effort would somehow be insulated from the problems that beset all other mortal endeavors.

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nobody.really
on February 08, 2018 at 08:16:02 am

I'm not sure it's satire. The author styles himself "EU" and within the couple of months Angela Merkel and Pope Francis have said about the same thing. That does seem to be the emerging party line amongst the eurocrats.

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EK
on February 08, 2018 at 13:51:56 pm

So then, I suspect that, like me, you are not at all partial to "one-size (solution) fits all" nor that one interpretation explains all.

I guess, like Oakeshott, I simply cannot avoid *collisions* and how they color ones perceptions.

seeya

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gabe
on February 08, 2018 at 13:56:05 pm

And now, the execrable George Soros is engaging his considerable resources to "overturn" Brexit.

So, yep, it can't be satire.

Oops, then again, there are many here among us, who believe that anything that Soros is involved it is satire.

As for Francis, where is Mehmet? Francis is pushing his Church at breakneck speed toward the same end as the Mainlione Protestant Churches did some 30+ years ago.

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gabe
on February 13, 2018 at 15:33:33 pm

"man's true greatness lies only in the harmony of the liberal sentiment and the religious sentiment, both working simultaneously to animate and restrain souls."
-Alexis de Tocqueville, Letter to Corcelle 1853

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CJ Wolfe

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