Democracy and Tradition—the fruit of years of reflection and development by the author—actually comprises essays on three quite different topics. They are held together chiefly by a view of democratic tradition as a largely habitual (as opposed to rationally necessary) “commitment, on the part of citizens, to talk things through with citizens unlike themselves.” (There are a few places where the author also gives what one might call a “post–September 11” theme to the book, but the essays are largely complete without it.) The essays in part one sketch an understanding of American democratic tradition for which Emerson and Whitman are central and for which a “self-reliant piety,” though acknowledging dependence on the sources of our existence, asserts that “it is our own responsibility to imagine” these sources and then “to fashion lives worthy of our best imaginings.”
The essays in part two treat the place and propriety of religious claims within a secular society (by which Stout means simply a society in which, even if many citizens remain personally religious, it cannot be assumed that all citizens share any religious commitments). These essays attempt to steer what Stout regards as a kind of middle way between Rawlsian social contract liberalism (which he says now dominates the law schools and ethics centers of this country) and a “new traditionalism,” often religious in character and influenced especially by the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas (which he says, mistakenly in my judgment, now dominates theological schools in this country).
The essays in part three develop the philosophical underpinnings of the pragmatic understanding of moral discourse that has been at work in the first and second parts. Although Stout writes that he “seeks a public, as opposed to a narrowly professional audience,” and although he is a clear writer skilled at unpacking philosophical issues, it is a bit of a stretch to suppose that these chapters in part three—quite dependent as they are on technical philosophical discussions within the academy—can reach the wide audience he seems to envision.
The best way to begin to unfold the connections among the essays will, I think, be to start with ideas developed chiefly in part two. The influential work of the late John Rawls raised important questions about the place—or even the legitimacy—of religious claims in democratic public argument. All “comprehensive doctrines” were, for Rawls, suspect in public discourse. Eventually he came to regard arguments grounded in comprehensive visions of the good life as allowable, but only if one also could and did give other sorts of arguments that were grounded in the terms of the social contract itself. But as Stout observes, on these terms it may be hard to say whether the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. or of Lincoln’s great Second Inaugural Address should qualify as legitimate democratic discourse; yet any view that excludes them is a view we might hesitate to adopt. What concerns Stout most about the relative dominance of the Rawlsian vision is that—if taken as a proper account of democratic political life—it encourages religious believers to withdraw from that shared public life.
That is to say, the dominance of Rawls invites in response the views of the new traditionalists, though, at least in Stout’s view, they to some extent mischaracterize the “secular” nature of our democratic culture. Relying especially on the work of Christopher Hill, Stout suggests that public moral discourse in the modern period became secularized—but only in the sense that no common religious assumptions could be taken for granted by all citizens. Hence, this pluralism of belief does not reflect any public commitment to an ideology of “secularism,” to the sort of thing religious believers need fear. (In fact, it reflects chiefly the nature of pragmatic moral justification, as Stout develops it in the essays constituting part three. On his view, I am justified in believing a claim if, given the context of my other commitments, I have adequate reason to affirm it. But it would be quite different to say, more generally, that the claim is justified—which, in a shared discourse, would require that everyone sharing that context has good reason to believe it.) Although I don’t doubt that Stout’s analysis of the sense in which our public discourse is “secularized” must be in some considerable portion accurate, it is, nonetheless, hard to believe that a phenomenon such as the Supreme Court’s religion clause jurisprudence in recent decades does not at all reflect what might be called an ideology of secularism. But the deeper questions actually concern our understanding of the meaning and origins of democratic freedoms in the West.
There is much to be said for the claim that a “secularized” public discourse arose in the West largely because a plurality of religious beliefs—in a world in which the unquestioned authority of feudal and ecclesiastical institutions had begun to fade—gave rise to seemingly endless religious warfare in the seventeenth century. Still, a more complicated narrative would lead to a story with a rather different plotline from Stout’s. Because from very near the beginning of the Christian era sovereignty was divided and contested—between the “two swords,” church and state, emperor and bishop of Rome—a sphere of personal liberty was carved out. Although this is by no means the whole story, it is not wrong to say that this liberty, without which it is impossible to conceive of the rise of a “democratic tradition,” has its first source in the presence of the Church. Not only there, of course. The struggle between monarchs and lords is also an essential part of the story, as is the conflict between Catholics and Protestants—out of which those religious wars grew.
The point is, however, that the slow rise of political freedom in the West is chiefly a story of the limitation of political power—achieved through devices such as the separation of powers, through the development of commerce and institutions of civil society separate from the state, and through the continued independence of the Church. This is the history which molded citizens able to participate in the give-and-take of democratic life, and they are by no means characterized chiefly by an Emersonian “self-reliant piety.” One didn’t have to wait for the new traditionalists discussed by Stout to find serious thinkers who feared that an unnuanced emphasis on democratic “talk” might actually undermine liberty; many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberals held such views.
This more complicated narrative would, in turn, make for a picture of democratic society less narrowly focused on the image of conversation. It would emphasize less Stout’s Emersonian picture of self-trusting individuals who create and tell their own stories, concerned primarily to resist conformity to any socially inculcated types—and would emphasize more the mediating institutions of civil society, in which we may locate the social origins of the self. Moreover, this more complex narrative would give us reason to hope that other societies with quite different histories from ours—Islamic societies, for example—could find routes to freedom and democracy that do not depend on the kind of plurality of beliefs we take for granted and that could develop without the weariness brought on by endless warfare.
In any case, if Rawlsians often characterize permitted public discourse in ways that might seem to make illegitimate the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., a new traditionalist such as Stanley Hauerwas is, on Stout’s view, at least as dangerous to our shared public life. “No theologian,” he writes, “has done more [than Hauerwas] to inflame Christian resentment of secular political culture.” Stout devotes a long chapter to tracing the development of Hauerwas’ thought, and for anyone interested in seeing where the decisive shifts occurred—from early, influential accounts of virtue and narrative to later writings in which, influenced in different ways by the pacifism of John Howard Yoder and the concept of tradition developed by Alasdair MacIntyre, Hauerwas came to reject the political culture surrounding the Church “in increasingly strident terms”—this chapter will prove a helpful guide.
Nevertheless, I think Stout’s account is in certain respects unfair to Hauerwas. Not that there isn’t plenty in Hauerwas’ more recent writings to justify the sense of a “strident” rejection of our political culture and of a “rigid dualism” separating the Church from the surrounding society. All that is present in abundance in the writings. Yet to see only this is to have the words but not the music. After all, Hauerwas has written and lectured extensively about a wide range of issues of public significance: abortion, war and peace, illness and old age, sexuality and marriage, the character of bioethics. Indeed, he has written far more on such subjects than has Stout, whose work remains for the most part at the level of method. As much as I myself disagree with both the tone and substance of some of Hauerwas’ critiques of our society, I do not see how one can characterize him as dualistically rejecting or withdrawing from that society. He participates in its wider public debates, even if, of course, he does so in a far less optimistic manner than Stout’s Emersonianism would wish. A more adequate response would have to take on the substance of the positions he has defended.
Stout could, of course, grant this but still argue that the manner of Hauerwas’ participation belies any real commitment to democratic discussion. For Stout, democratic questioning is “a valuable social practice”; for Hauerwas, it is “one of the acids of individualism eating away at tradition.” Putting the issue this way helps us to see some of its deeper implications but may also give us reasons for taking Hauerwas’ concerns seriously. Stout’s chief commitment is to “conversation,” to citizens who “talk things through” with one another. I will return later, and from a different angle, to this metaphor, but for the moment we can focus on its implications for religion. Religious believers are permitted to enter into this conversation, but no background of religious belief is in any way necessary to sustain it. An epigraph from Bill Holm for the concluding chapter of the book, presumably placed there approvingly by Stout, expresses all too clearly the Emersonian vision at work in the book’s argument: “Sacredness is unveiled through your own experience, and lives in you to the degree that you accept that experience as your teacher, mother, state, church, even, or perhaps particularly, if it comes into conflict with the abstract received wisdom that power always tries to convince you to live by.”
Where does this leave us with respect to religion? “Great urgency,” Stout writes, “attaches to the general project of cultivating identifications that transcend ethnicity, race, and religion.” Identifications that transcend one’s religious identity? Suddenly one realizes that Hauerwas has been getting at something important. And it is something that still unites him with other critics of an ideology of secularism, such as Richard John Neuhaus, who is less than approving of Hauerwas’ pacifist stance. “What, in the end,” Stout asks, “do Hauerwas and Neuhaus agree on, aside from calling themselves Christians?” But is that not the point? Precisely in so identifying themselves they make clear that their primary loyalty is to the “moral and spiritual association” that is the Church—the presence of which, as I noted above, is actually the first source of our tradition of liberty. If this primary loyalty must be relinquished in order to argue for democracy, the price is too high.
Friendly to the possibility of religious talk in public as Democracy and Tradition seeks to be, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Religion makes its way into public life in domesticated form as one identity among many—or, if refusing to be domesticated, then as something that unsurprisingly may sound just a bit strident (though I am quite ready to grant that in my preferred mode it would not have the kind of stridency in which Hauerwas has recently come to specialize). This is what happens when democracy itself is understood as a form of “spiritual association.” Whether or not we think rhetoric about the acids of individualism is helpful or entirely accurate, a society composed of those who look first to the sacredness unveiled in their own experience, and who are mainly concerned “to resist conformity to socially mandated types,” is a society about which we might raise various questions: Are most citizens as interested in talking as they are in associating—in associating with those who share their vision of life and want to transmit it to the next generation? Is a society filled with those persuaded of the sacredness of their own experience likely to favor the glib and sophistic? Will it be a society in which, as this vision of democratic culture gradually seeps down into other communities such as the family, it is hard to raise children? Will the acceptance of public religious speech come with the suggestion that religion lay aside its ultimate claim upon our loyalty and identity? And, if so, can such a society possibly offer hope for democratic transformation of other (e.g., Islamic) cultures, except perhaps after a new round of religious warfare?
It is worth noting, as Stout himself clearly recognizes, that one might offer something like the defense of Hauerwas I have just given, and something like the critique of Stout I have offered, without oneself sharing the Hauerwasian position. In the book’s opening chapter Stout contrasts his preferred Emersonian vision with an Augustinian Christian vision, which emphasizes “the human spirit’s need for settled institutional and communal forms.” Wide as the gap may be between these two visions, their adherents could reach some political consensus. Unlike Hauerwas, some Augustinians—while agreeing that modern democracy lacks true piety, instantiates ultimately the sin of pride, and, perhaps, is characterized by a corrosive individualism—might nonetheless embrace modern democracy “somewhat ambivalently, as a way station in a long journey toward the end of human history.” These sorts of Augustinians and Stout’s kind of Emersonian might well reach a limited political (not ethical) consensus—though this seems less likely, I have to say, if the Emersonians really view democratic government as a form of spiritual association that ought to transcend all other sources (including religious ones) of our identity. I don’t think any sort of Augustinian could affirm that.
In many respects Stout’s best essays—although those least likely to find the public audience he desires—come in part three, where he unpacks the pragmatic vision of justification (relying initially on the work of Rorty but even more on others, such as Robert Brandom). This philosophical view—embedded in the pragmatic tradition and, in the end, in the Hegelian rejection of any Kantian notion of pure practical reason—supplies the underpinning for Stout’s description of democratic discourse.
How should democratic argument take place? Although he (somewhat narrowly, as I noted above) locates the origins of modern democracy in the early modern break with feudal and ecclesiastical authorities, Stout does not imagine that our public discourse can get along without appeal to authorities. But given that the authorities acknowledged by citizens are likely to conflict, we must reconceive “authority in nonauthoritarian terms.” This, in fact, he describes as “pragmatism’s most important contribution to democracy.” Appeals to authority—including even religious authorities—are necessary and permissible, but all such appeals have to be subjected to the give-and-take of democratic argument.
What, then, if not authority, justifies an argument? Here the complexities of Stout’s view emerge. He offers a “contextualist” account of justification. Citizens make claims, offer arguments and reasons in support of them—and may all, from within the context of their own beliefs, be justified in the claims they make, even when those claims conflict. There is no assured way of resolving their differences, no agreed-upon starting point by which to adjudicate them, and no authority qualified to settle them. Therefore, he believes, we must cultivate ongoing and charitable conversation in which citizens hold each other accountable to offer reasons in support of their claims. It’s a very talkative community Stout pictures, in some respects rather more like the academy than the polis. It makes one wonder why such citizens would have bothered to leave Locke’s state of nature, in which the lack of a common power to adjudicate disputes is the major problem. It does not entirely take account of the enormous power of adjudication (and power to shut down talk) possessed by courts and regulatory bureaucracies, and it tends to forget the rather large number of citizens who—except when some threat absolutely necessitates their participation—might well prefer silent immersion in other pursuits to participation in political talk. Still, there can be no doubt that such discussion and argument—even if not as idealized as Stout depicts—must play at least some role in any democratic polity.
This contextualist account of justification in moral argument is bound to raise several important questions, and Stout takes them up along the way. Most obvious will be the concern that this account must end in moral relativism, with moral principles true only for those of us who share the appropriate context, but with no obligations that bind all people—any time, anywhere. Stout argues that this need not follow, however, since a contextual description of what it means to be justified in moral argument need not be joined to a similarly contextual account of what it means to make a true argument. Suppose I argue that it would be wrong to produce fetuses in order to mine their bodies for organs (as the state of New Jersey now permits), while my neighbor establishes a corporation aiming to do precisely that—and each of us offers reasons in support of our view. It might be that each of us—given the entire context of beliefs we hold—is justified in holding his respective belief, but this need not lead us to say that what I believe is true (simply) “for me,” and that what my neighbor believes is true (simply) “for him.” I remain free to hold that my view is true for all people in all times and places—and that my neighbor’s view is an abomination.
Why? Because the concepts of truth and of justification behave differently in our language. Adopting a view of language that connects “meaning” with “use,” Stout departs from the pragmatic tradition just enough to disagree with Dewey’s definition of truth as (merely) “warranted assertibility.” On the contrary, Stout thinks that we use the word “true” in ways that are clearly nonrelativist, ways that make it possible to describe some moral obligations as absolute or universal. To be sure, he offers no alternative definition of truth, and there may be limits to how interested we can become in a position characterized finally by a kind of positivistic refusal to move beyond how we talk (even though, of course, in adopting this view Stout relies on one well-developed strand of modern philosophy). A philosophy designed chiefly to sustain an ongoing political discussion may not always engage the questions of greatest human significance. It may leave us as permanent residents of Plato’s cave, talking together of shadows on the wall of the cave.
Stout sees this and recognizes that his inclination to find more metaphysical talk rather useless is not likely to be shared by everyone. For example, how might one make sense of a “higher” or “universal” law in terms of Stout’s theory? Such a universal law would, as he notes, be that “infinitely large set consisting of all the true moral claims” that there are. But, of course, none of us could—given the context of what we know and believe—be justified in believing all of these true claims. So although this higher law exists and may be known in part by all of us, the higher law itself—as the totality of true claims—is an “imaginative projection.” It is “little more than an imaginative embellishment of the gap between the concepts of truth and justification,” useful primarily for reminding us that any of our actual moral codes is likely to be deficient in countless ways and in need of criticism. One might wonder, however, whether a moral law that is, finally, our own “imaginative embellishment” retains the capacity to judge us and our society.
This concern comes especially naturally to religious thinkers, and Stout takes it up through a discussion of the work of Robert M. Adams. Precisely in order to keep the moral law from collapsing into a projection of what we ourselves desire and admire, Adams develops a complex theory of moral obligation in terms of divine commands. This gives the moral law a ground outside the realm of any society’s practices. Stout, by contrast, wants an “ethics without metaphysics” (the title of one of his chapters). I suspect, though, that he has given us only a “politics without metaphysics.” Recalling the possibility of a certain political consensus between Augustinians and Emersonians, we can grant that this need not be bad. When he writes that “if the God of the philosophers is dead, not everything is permitted,” he may be right about political life. But good politics and good ethics are not the same. In declining to pursue very far questions about how the moral law finally judges us, in contenting himself with declaring that the existence of conflicting communities of competent judges is less a philosophical puzzle than a practical question, he loses some of the depth of our moral experience. The picture in which he delights—of “a loosely structured democratic conversation in which variously situated selves tell their own stories on their own terms”—may perhaps portray adequately a politics in which nothing is ever finally settled, but it is inadequate for describing a moral world in which sound judgment requires more than being true to oneself, and in which cultural and religious traditions are more than resources for personal self-cultivation. “The excellence of self-trust” has difficulty bending the knee and produces a world more narrow than heroic.
About this picture of democratic political life as charitable conversation, there remain yet two things to note. The first harks back to Stout’s critique of Hauerwas discussed above. I suggested that, despite his careful discussion of the development of Hauerwas’ thought, Stout was finally a little unfair—contenting himself with noting the “strident” (and, for Stout, less than charitable) character of Hauerwas’ criticisms of democratic culture, without really engaging the substance of the countless essays on particular moral topics that Hauerwas has written over the years. Recalling this directs our attention to a genuine flaw in Democracy and Tradition.
The sophisticated argument in the book comes almost entirely at the level of philosophical method. This argument calls for public debate marked by civil discourse, by a charitable spirit, and by reason-giving. Yet when Stout himself renders moral judgments in this book, they almost always—and, I have to say, disappointingly—have the character of obiter dicta. They are simply announced, unencumbered by reasons. Consider, for example, the following passage from the book’s concluding chapter:
More recently, our arrogant use of massively destructive military power announces that one nation, unconstrained by international law, will henceforth decide which regimes stand or fall. When our leaders oppose or support tyranny as it suits them, why suppose them to be interested in justice? They deliberately confuse the public about their reasons for war and the facts that justify resorting to it. They pretend to know the price of their policies in dollars, in the goodwill of other nations, and in human life. They extol humility, tradition, compassion, and democracy, while laying plans to rule the world. They propose their own will as the standard of right or wrong.
Complicated issues all. Perhaps the charitable way to interpret such a passage is to see it as an unfortunate attempt to take a book that is largely theoretical, written for fellow academicians, and to give it (post–September 11) a pitch that might seem to make it suitable for a larger audience. Even so, would it be wrong to call such a passage “strident”? It is not an exercise in reason-giving. And it belies the counsel to be charitable.
Finally, we might wonder whether the guiding image of this book—conversation—is not better suited as a characterization of academic than political life. Stout has drawn the image of conversation from Rorty, but its deeper source can be found in Michael Oakeshott’s discussion of the several voices in “the conversation of mankind” (though Rorty and Stout both eschew Oakeshott’s sense that philosophy is the search for what, as whole and complete, goes beyond any single voice in this conversation and seeks the coherence—at least in thought—of the whole). For Oakeshott, however, conversation characterizes not politics but the academy. Far from being a moral and spiritual association, politics is a realm of practice that concerns itself with the general arrangements necessary for a cooperative life among a group of people whom chance or choice have brought together.
Unlike politics—where decisions must be reached and goals pursued, where results count for a great deal—a university education provides the true image of an endless conversation. Such a conversation, Oakeshott writes, “does not need a chairman, it has no predetermined course, we do not ask what it is ‘for,’ and we do not judge its excellence by its conclusion; it has no conclusion, but is always put by for another day.” Captivating as this image is, much as we might wish it really characterized our own colleges and universities today, it cannot, of course, be adequate as a depiction of the rest of life—in which children must be raised, enemies confronted, goals pursued, and the Eternal (with whom one does not simply converse) confronted. Hence, writes Oakeshott, “the characteristic gift of a university is the gift of an interval.” It is not the whole of life, but a moment in life—and it is perhaps the characteristic vice of the academician (even if understandable for one whose life is spent fostering such an interval of conversation in the lives of his students) to try to extend it beyond its proper reach. Recognizing the lure of that, Oakeshott also sees that it cannot and should not be so extended. “It belongs to the character of an interim to come to an end; there is a time for everything and nothing should be prolonged beyond its time. The eternal undergraduate is a lost soul.” To miss this is more than a philosophical mistake; it is bad for democracy.
\Gilbert Meilaender is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the Council.