America is under attack in the pages of First Things. In a recent article Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen tells us that America is founded on a philosophy of “unsustainable liberalism.” Implicit in the ideas of the American founding, he argues, are certain mistaken philosophical premises about individual choice and man’s separation from nature. Moreover, these mistakes are not merely intellectual because, as their logical consequences play out over time, the inexorable results are severe and pervasive social pathologies: a corrupt political order, a collapsing economy, and a degraded and degrading culture. Indeed, in Deneen’s account, pornography, sexual promiscuity, abortion, divorce, violent video games, cheating in academia, and Wall Street frauds all stem from the faulty political philosophy of the American founding.
Now, such attacks on America, whether by Deneen or other conservative philosophers in the Thomistic tradition such as Alasdair MacIntyre, have three distinct parts. The first is a factual claim that America is a land of moral nightmares. The second is a philosophical claim that the moral philosophy that these philosophers support, which is organized around a substantive account of human happiness or fulfillment (that is, eudaimonism in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition), is incompatible with the liberal political philosophy that often serves to justify American political traditions and institutions. The third is causal: The moral nightmares result from the mistaken philosophy.
The first part of this attack I find simply unaccountable. Of course, America is not a morally perfect nation—far from it—but thinking that America is a land of moral nightmares shows unbalanced judgment. We should judge nations in the same reasonable way we judge individuals. We all know people who, although they have some very serious faults, are nonetheless on the whole good people. A man may be divorced and remarried and thus living in adultery by traditional Christian lights, but he may still be a generous man, kind and patient, a loving father, an honest employee, a devoted member of his church, a man willing to risk his life to save others in an emergency. I would say that this man is a good man, all things considered, even though I adhere to the Catholic doctrine on marriage and divorce.
I think something similar about the United States of America. Because of its great historical sins, slavery (along with its racist legacies) and legalized abortion, the country is seriously flawed. But against these flaws must be set its many good qualities: among others, its republican form of government, its free and fair elections, its respect for religious liberty and other human rights, its commitment to the rule of law, the amazingly high standard of living enjoyed by its citizens, its efforts to improve the lot of the materially disadvantaged, and its great cultural achievements, especially in science, technology, law, and economics. Taking all things together, you have a very good country, not a moral horror show. This is especially true if you compare America to other nations, past and present, including America herself in earlier times.
But although they are wildly wrong on the facts, Deneen and MacIntyre are right about the philosophy: Liberal political philosophies are incompatible with the eudaimonism of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. Does that mean that eudaimonists cannot support the American political system? I share Deneen and MacIntyre’s Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical commitments, but I am also deeply loyal to the American political tradition. The reason is that there is a great gap between politics and moral philosophy. Thinking that a certain set of political arrangements is the best way to organize a particular society in particular historical circumstances is a prudential judgment, and in supporting America’s liberal political system I do not thereby commit myself to a liberal political philosophy.
This point is obscured by the fact that liberal political institutions are naturally and commonly justified on the basis of liberal political philosophies, such as a theory of natural rights as in Locke, or a theory of personal autonomy inspired by Kant, or a theory of justice as in Rawls. People who support liberal political systems on such bases are philosophical liberals. But we can also view a liberal political order as embodying not grand philosophical principles, but reasonable, pragmatic, political compromises worked out among individuals who disagree sharply on matters of morality in order to allow such people to live together in peace and to pursue their various, often incompatible, goals.
People who support liberal political systems for these kinds of reasons are pragmatic liberals. For them, liberalism as a political system is justified not by some foundational philosophical doctrines but by its practical effects. In particular, especially among people who disagree profoundly on important moral questions, such a system tends to defuse issues likely to cause social unrest and facilitate cooperation on issues where agreement is possible, thus allowing people to live in peace and freeing them to pursue private endeavors with like-minded individuals without too much interference from others.
The difference between philosophical liberalism and pragmatic liberalism is not merely one of supporting the same ideas for different reasons. Philosophical liberals see the tenets of liberalism as high moral principles. They think that these principles, like all moral principles, are internally consistent and universally applicable. For pragmatic liberals, however, those tenets are merely political compromises worked out among actual human beings who have diverse interests and adhere to diverse moral beliefs. Such compromises need not be internally consistent, may be adjusted over time as circumstances change, and need be neither universally applicable nor consistently applied.
For example, philosophical liberals think that, as a matter of principle, the government should be neutral not only between various religions but also between religion and non-religion. Rawls, for instance, thinks this follows from his understanding of public reason: Laws and government policies may not be based on controversial aspects of a comprehensive doctrine like theism or atheism. Consider the implications of this approach when a militant atheist challenges the use in public schools of the Pledge of Allegiance with its reference to “one nation, under God.” The use of these words by the state, and its invitation to schoolchildren to repeat and affirm them, is clearly an endorsement by the government of religion over non-religion and thus violates the liberal principle of neutrality. That the violation is a minor one, that it does little actual harm, and that a great majority of Americans either approve of it or at any rate are not offended by it, are all irrelevant. A small and essentially harmless endorsement of religion is still a violation of the principle of neutrality between religion and non-religion, just as stealing an item of small value from a rich man is still theft. For philosophical liberals, the Pledge of Allegiance has to go. For just such reasons, in 2002, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the pledge was unconstitutional (though, after protracted litigation, a different panel of that court finally reached a different conclusion and upheld the pledge).
A pragmatic liberal will see the matter quite differently. For a pragmatic liberal, the question is whether allowing the exact kind of endorsement of religion at issue in the pledge is a reasonable compromise for people like us in a society like ours, and the answer is obviously in the affirmative. Since the endorsement is brief, mild, traditional, and non-sectarian but clearly monotheistic, a very large majority of Americans approve of it and want it to continue. Furthermore, for most of the small minority of Americans who would prefer that the pledge not mention God, their preference is but lightly held: They do not care about this issue very much and can live with the pledge the way it is. For the tiny percentage of Americans who are seriously aggrieved by the endorsement of religion in the pledge, we have provided an opt-out: While the rest of us recite the pledge, they may remain silent, and we will not hold this against them.
The system adopted is a pragmatic, political compromise among different interest groups designed to satisfy all of them enough to preserve social peace. Its appropriateness thus turns on, among other things, how many people hold which views, how strongly they hold them, and what happens to the people who do not get their way.
In other cases, philosophical and pragmatic liberals will come to the same practical conclusions but for quite different reasons. Consider Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, a case in which the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a California statute prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors without parental consent. The affected games were disgustingly violent, and when the Supreme Court struck down the statute on First Amendment grounds, many conservatives reacted with consternation, deploring the result as liberalism run amok.
Clearly, the result in the case can be easily justified by the liberal philosophical view of personal autonomy, which entails that a person has a moral right to pollute his own mind. But a pragmatic liberal can support the court’s decision too, though not for reasons related to personal autonomy. For the pragmatic liberal, the key point would be that allowing such a law would change our system of government in ways too dangerous to permit. For, under our current First Amendment doctrine, other than with respect to a few classes of “unprotected speech” such as obscenity and fighting words, the government may restrict speech only if doing so serves a compelling government interest by narrowly tailored means.
The statute in question clearly did not meet that standard. There was no evidence, for example, that violent video games lead to actual violence. So allowing the law to stand would require allowing government to restrict speech merely because it is disgusting and worthless. In this case, that would have been a fine thing. But entrusting that power to government is dangerous because what a legislative majority sincerely finds disgusting and worthless may actually be quite the opposite. Recall that educated Romans of the first century found Christian preaching disgusting and worthless.
The pragmatic liberal thus makes a political calculation: The cost of prohibiting some appalling speech is the risk that the government will someday use the power it thus acquires to suppress other speech that the pragmatic liberal wants to protect. People like Deneen and me, who are in a religious minority now at odds with many of the norms of the larger, increasingly secular society, should reflect carefully before advocating an expansion of government power, for we are some of the people whose speech could easily be found disgusting and worthless. For pragmatic liberals, therefore, the decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants is sound not because people have a moral right to play disgusting video games (they don’t), but because the danger of censorship is too great to allow the government the power to restrict speech merely because, in the government’s view, the speech is disgusting and worthless.
An Aristotelian-Thomistic eudaimonist can thus be a pragmatic liberal in contemporary America. There is a deeper point here, however, and it is that, although the philosophical liberal must reject as immoral any form of government other than liberal democracy, the Aristotelian-Thomist can be much more flexible. Leaving aside some extreme systems that would substantially prevent a person from attaining his final end (e.g., a Shari’a theocracy or a Nazi or communist dictatorship), an Aristotelian-Thomist should conclude that, in the right circumstances, almost any form of government may be the best available. Hence, St. Paul urged respect for the Roman emperor, who was an absolute autocrat;St. Wenceslaus was a feudal overlord; and St. Thomas More served Henry VIII, who was a constitutional monarch.
The Aristotelian-Thomist would endorse these forms of government not because they answer to certain political principles but because, in the circumstances, they were more likely to produce conditions under which people could live good lives than were any of the practically available alternatives. Paul was thus a pragmatic autocratist, Wenceslaus a pragmatic feudalist, and More a pragmatic constitutional monarchist. For analogous reasons, although an Aristotelian-Thomist in morals, I am a pragmatic liberal in politics: I think that, for people like us in a society like ours, liberal political institutions are much more likely than any of the practically available alternatives to produce conditions under which people can live good lives.
I foresee two objections to my pragmatic liberalism. The first argues that liberal philosophical principles are implicit in liberal political institutions, and so, regardless of why anyone may subjectively support such institutions, over time any society with liberal institutions will see liberal philosophical ideas play out in practice with disastrous results. This takes us back to the third part of Deneen’s attack: the alleged causal connection between liberal ideas and social pathologies. Now, I have already argued that it is unbalanced to see American society as morally disastrous, and so even if liberal ideas caused social pathologies, the force of this argument largely disappears if American society is nowhere near as terrible as Deneen maintains. More important, however, is that this whole style of argument is wrong for two separate reasons.
The first is that there is no such thing as the philosophical assumptions of the American founding. To be sure, the American founders were philosophical liberals in the sense that they believed in principles and ideas derived from liberal (and other) kinds of political philosophy, but, even taking the founders one by one, none of them held a consistent philosophical system of the kind a professional philosopher aspires to hold. Recall how Jefferson, who was far more philosophical than most of the founders, famously said that the ideas in the Declaration of Independence derived from the “sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.” These sources are obviously not mutually consistent. Much less was there a single philosophy held by all or most of the founders.
A cursory review of the records of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 shows that the founders were not building political institutions to embody a set of philosophical principles but were working out a practical system of government to solve definite social problems in ways that most members of a diverse population with competing interests would find acceptable. The American system of government is broadly liberal, to be sure, but if one insists on looking for philosophical principles “implicit” in it, at best one finds a collection of vague, ill-defined, and not entirely consistent ideas. Such a mélange does not have any clear logical consequences. It certainly does not have any inevitablepracticalones.
Moreover, although it must be flattering to political philosophers to think that their discipline holds the key to explaining virtually everything that is wrong in contemporary society, this is really quite ludicrous. Social pathologies do not result primarily from philosophical mistakes. This is true on the individual level because a person’s behavior results from many factors besides his moral or philosophical principles; hence, some people with dreadful philosophical ideas are exemplary in their moral conduct, and some people with all the right principles behave abominably. This is even more true on the societal level because the development of the political, economic, social, and cultural life of a nation of hundreds of millions of souls over the course of two centuries is an enormously complex business, involving a tremendous number of interacting causes.
An explanation such as Deneen suggests—that social problems in the twenty-first century arise from the unforeseen implications of the philosophical assumptions of the founders two hundred years earlier—is hopelessly simplistic. Consider some of the influences that have intervened between 1776 and 2013 to shape the views and habits of contemporary Americans: the French Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, the Great Awakening, Darwinism, the First Industrial Revolution, abolitionism, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and labor unionism, historical textual criticism of the Bible, the vast immigration waves of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the public school system, Marxism, the Grange, modern economic theory, the Second Industrial Revolution, Christian fundamentalism, general relativity and quantum physics, the linguistic turn in philosophy, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, Keynesianism, the Great Depression and the New Deal, the Second World War and the Holocaust, atomic energy and nuclear weapons, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the founding of the United Nations, the Cold War, postmodernism, McCarthyism, Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement, rock and roll, the Second Vatican Council, the Pill, feminism, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, Roe v. Wade, the stagflation of the 1970s, Reaganism, the commercialization of the microprocessor, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the internet, biotechnology, September 11 and the war on terror—the list of important factors affecting social conditions in America today is immense. To ignore all this and say that our social problems today arise primarily from philosophical ideas held by people who lived two centuries ago is beyond absurd.
To take one of Deneen’s examples, people today are certainly much more sexually promiscuous than people were, say, fifty years ago. This results, however, not from the philosophical ideas of Madison and Jefferson but first and foremost from technological change, namely, the invention of cheap, reliable contraception. Whether because of original sin or for reasons of evolutionary biology, men desire a great deal of sexual intercourse. Such intercourse, however, tends to produce children, and the women who bear these children would have a great deal of trouble caring for them if they were not married to the men who impregnated them. Hence, until the most recent times, women provided a lot less sex than men have wanted. Cheap, reliable contraception changed this. The cost for women of sex outside of marriage fell sharply; hence, women became much more willing to engage in sex, and there is a lot more sexual intercourse. Introduce cheap, reliable contraception into almost any society, regardless of its political character, and you will see something similar. Political philosophy has nothing to do with this.
Or take marriage and divorce rates. Deneen sees rising divorce rates as the result of deep philosophical assumptions about personal autonomy. People like Charles Murray, who actually investigate marriage empirically, find that affluent, educated people—the people most likely to accept, or to have at least heard of, the philosophical ideas Deneen thinks are responsible for the high divorce rate—tend to have successful and stable marriages. It’s poorer, less educated people who have high divorce rates. This is a complex story, but the one thing that is not an important factor in it is the political philosophy of the founding.
Or again, take the recent spate of financial scandals. These related to the housing sector, which suffered a tremendous bubble in the middle years of the last decade. The pattern of fraud and other financial wrongdoing immediately prior to the bursting of a bubble is familiar to economic historians, with examples stretching back to the Tulip Bubble in Holland in 1637. Such scandals are explainable in terms of greed, which is a universal human failing, and the perverse financial incentives bubbles create before they burst. Once again, political philosophy doesn’t enter into it. Virtually all of Deneen’s examples of social pathologies are subject to similarly obvious explanations unrelated to political philosophy.
The second objection to pragmatic liberalism is more serious. Aristotelian-Thomists think that the state has an affirmative moral obligation to promote the correct vision of the good life, that the state should make men moral. To be sure, the liberal state does not do this. On the contrary, it is generally indifferent to the moral perfection of its citizens, and with respect to their ultimate salvation, the liberal state takes care not to offer or endorse any particular view. But if the state has an affirmative moral obligation in these matters, then the liberal state, it seems, is immoral, or at least morally inadequate.
Now, Aristotle did indeed say, and Aquinas agreed, that the end of the state is the good life and that the virtue of its citizens must be the care of the state. Moreover, Aristotle at least seems prepared to implement these views in a thoroughgoing fashion. He thinks that the legislator should control the education of the young and that the citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives. He concludes: “Since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private—not as at present, when everyone looks after his own children separately and gives them separate instruction of the sort he thinks best.” Like Plato, Aristotle even opines on the kinds of music to which children should be exposed, and given his view that the government should control education, it seems that such restrictions would be imposed by law.
That the historical Aristotle thought that the state should be a benevolent instrument for the moral perfection of its citizens is of no moment. Aristotle was wrong about many things (for instance, that people who work for a living are unable to live the life of virtue and attain the final end), and a contemporary eudaimonist need not think that the state should control citizens’ lives the way Aristotle thought. The relevant question is what demands a eudaimonist moral theory really places on the state. Does such a theory require that the state be committed to promoting the good life for its citizens and, if so, in what ways?
The answer, in my view, is that the state should promote the good life of its citizens in all ways that, in the circumstances, are reasonable. In a large society of generally well-educated and informed individuals holding a widely diverse range of moral views, however, it turns out that there are very few ways in which it would be reasonable for the state to attempt to improve its citizens’ moral character. In other words, for people like us in a society like ours, there is very little range in which it would be reasonable for the state to make men moral.
Recall Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the case in which the Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to children without parental consent. Philosophers like Deneen and MacIntyre would likely support this law: Playing violent video games can spoil the moral development of the young, and if such games are easily available on the market, a parent’s ability to keep such games away from his children is seriously undermined. It may seem that this is exactly the kind of case in which the law should intervene to support parental authority and promote virtue.
But the question is not simply whether this law is a good law, but rather whether we should have a political system that allows such laws. The fact that the law is a good law does not settle this issue, for, as I argued above, allowing government to make this law would also allow it to make other laws restricting other kinds of speech that legislative majorities found disgusting and worthless, and these laws could be very bad indeed. Thus, we have to ask whether the benefits of this law are worth the risks that inevitably come with it. If the eudaimonist concludes that the costs outweigh the benefits, as I think he should, then he will think that we ought not have laws restricting violent video games. This attempt to improve the morals of citizens is thus unreasonable.
This point can be generalized. Under current sociological conditions, the Aristotelian-Thomist finds himself in a highly pluralistic society in which his moral views often fail to command majority support and are even viewed with suspicion and hostility by increasing portions of the population. To protect citizens’ ability to pursue the final end and to band together to do so, the prudent eudaimonist should support, as pragmatic political compromises, the tenets of a liberal political order. The state will not generally be making men moral as the eudaimonist understands morality and thus will not be helping men achieve their final end, but if the state had the power to make men moral, it would likely make men moral as someone else understands morality, and thus, rather than merely failing to help people become good, it would actually impede people from achieving the final end as the eudaimonist understands it.
This point about pluralism has other implications as well. As a factual matter, most people in our society are unlikely to accept as legitimate a political result in which they have been unable to participate, that lacks broad support, or that otherwise violates the values of a significant portion of the population. Thus, a procedure that reliably yields the morally right solutions—say government by the Council of Eudaemonistic Philosophers—would be dreadful in practice. In the actual society in which we live, such a system would generate tremendous social unrest and would be sustainable only by repressive means that eudaimonism itself would likely prohibit. This would be a disaster on eudaimonistic terms, for we cannot get on with the day-to-day business of achieving the human end if our society is in upheaval. Few things are more inimical to rational activity in a community of goodwill than riots and revolutions.
For people like us in a society like ours, a necessary condition of social stability is that, when we decide contentious normative issues, we do so in a way that allows wide participation and open debate and is generally majoritarian. “If a constitution is to be permanent,” Aristotle says, “all parts of the state must wish that it should exist and the same arrangements be maintained.” Given our history and our pluralism, it is hard to imagine the American people supporting any political system that was not essentially liberal. A prudent eudaimonist will understand this and will support a liberal system of government on pragmatic grounds.
My loyalty to the American system stems from such a pragmatic judgment. The liberal political system of the United States allows a Catholic like me to pursue my final end with remarkably little interference from others. Given our pluralism and the fact that many philosophical liberals would very much like to direct my life to accord with their views, views that Deneen and I agree are wrongheaded and damaging, this is no small thing and should be cherished and defended.
Aristotle himself said that “the best is often unattainable, and therefore the true legislator and statesman ought to be acquainted not only with that which is best in the abstract but also with that which is best relative to the circumstances.” For people like us in a society like ours, this means a liberal political order, understood as a related set of pragmatic political compromises among people with diverse interests and beliefs, for such a system provides us the best hope of leading good human lives.
Robert T. Miller is professor of law and the F. Arnold Daum Fellow of Corporate Law at the University of Iowa College of Law.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?