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.”