How should we understand the American founders’ philosophy? Did they choose principles that could only lead to America’s demise? Or, have those principles today morphed into new ones that they would find objectionable? Or, did they successfully unite the best parts of the Western philosophical tradition, and so create a political philosophy that could withstand its own worst tendencies?
For a vigorous debate of these questions, readers can turn to an essay series at Public Discourse, which finished yesterday, between professors Patrick Deneen (Notre Dame), Phillip Muñoz (Notre Dame), and Nathan Schlueter (Hillsdale).
Their conversation started with Deneen’s First Things article “Unsustainable Liberalism,” wherein he makes a contentious claim: American liberalism can’t survive because it needs civic institutions—like family, church, and cultural associations like the Boy Scouts—to sustain itself, but its own logic undermines these institutions by prioritizing individual choice, the “right” over the “good,” and rejecting any fixed idea of human nature.
In the first round, Muñoz responded that the founders’ liberalism was not individualistic or relativistic; it maintained “a commitment to truth and a profound respect for nature and the natural order created by God.” Schlueter argued that the founders’ philosophy was indeed sustainable because it combined the best of classical liberalism, social contract liberalism, and the natural law tradition.
In the past three days, all three scholars have given us a final say. Their disagreements hinge on two questions.
First, to what extent was natural law thinking part of the founding? Schlueter maintains that the founders continued the pre-modern natural law tradition in their handiwork, citing references to the “common good”—a key concept in natural law—in founding documents. Deneen, to the contrary, argues that social contract theory radically changed the founders’ conception of natural law—the “common good,” for example, was no longer an objective human good knowable to reason, but merely a collection of personal preferences.
Second, is the founders’ liberalism distinct from liberalism’s other forms, like Lockean and Rawlsian liberalism? Muñoz argues yes: Even if the founders believed government’s primary aim was to secure rights, they still upheld an objective standard of human good, to which law should conform, regardless of private interests. Deneen thinks no: The founders’ liberalism was too closely modeled after social contract theory to protect civic institutions from corrosion, owing to liberalism’s emphases on individual autonomy and private definitions of the good.
Since Schlueter and Munoz respond primarily to Deneen, I’ll leave readers to compare their views—their exchange would likely raise the question whether the natural law tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas is that of Locke and Hobbes, or something else entirely.