You’ve always wanted to visit Rome, but your spouse dreams of hiking in the Alps. Your teenage son wants to go to London, while your daughter lobbies for Paris. But although everybody has substantive reasons for their preferred destination, nobody says so, and you end up in a more and more tedious argument about which place has the most convenient flights.
In his book The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, Steven D. Smith points out that a great deal of public debate is like that. People have definite views about big moral questions. But when drawn into a public arena—whether speaking in public or just arguing with a co-worker—they tend to suppress their real reasons and the debate devolves into a squabble about a fairly narrow set of concerns about fairness, autonomy, tolerance, inclusiveness, and of course into mere utilitarian calculations of what “works best.”
Thus the challenge we face, one that was frequently identified by John Paul II and continues to be a concern of Pope Benedict: the need to restore metaphysical ambition to rational discourse.
Smith pins a great deal of the blame on John Rawls, as have many others. Rawls was acutely aware of the fact that our moral views require for their cogency a larger, metaphysically ramified view of reality. He was also impressed by the fact that these larger views—“comprehensive doctrines” as he called them—can’t be proven, at least not in a conclusive way.
Because “comprehensive doctrines” and the robust moral convictions that stem from them tend to collide and compete, Rawls thought that a pluralistic society needs to take a very modest approach to political debate, restricting arguments to “public reason,” which in his terminology means giving arguments based on principles that most people will accept.
Here’s how it works. For the most part those who support voluntary euthanasia do so because of their beliefs about the meaning and purpose of human life. “It’s futile to prolong a life that has no hope of fulfillment,” someone might say. Meanwhile, those who are opposed to doctor-assisted suicide often say: “It’s not our place to decide who dies and when they die.”
Very different views of what it means to be human lie behind these statements, with one side elevating autonomy and the quality of personal experience, and the other side emphasizing a submission to reality, even it its painful and challenging forms. Yet, according to Rawls, because they—man-as-maker-of-meaning vs. man-as-grateful-recipient—are “comprehensive doctrines,” they should not be invoked as public reasons.
Three decades ago in After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre described the dysfunctional consequences of banishing metaphysics from moral debates. The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse reinforces that diagnosis. As Smith, who teaches constitutional law at the University of San Diego, points out, the narrow and supposedly public reasons end up “smuggling” (as he puts it) the comprehensive doctrines back into the picture. For example, the notion of that an end-of-life decision should be private, restricted only by legal safeguards to ensure informed consent, presupposes the man-as-maker-of-meaning view of life.
The inevitable need to smuggle metaphysical assumptions back into debates leads to the further impoverishment of the public square. Our cosseted culture of critique ferrets out the implicit metaphysical assumptions and holds them up as bloody shirts indicating the betrayal of “public reason.” Religious conservatives, we are told, want to impose their beliefs on the rest of society. Giving tit for tat, may religious conservatives show that secular humanism provides the hidden agenda for progressive political policies. In these ways we chase after each in a tedious game of “gotcha.”
Richard Rorty, for example, was a master. Although a subtle moralist in his own right, and someone who could explain the “comprehensive doctrines” that give substance to modern liberalism, he had a tendency to rule out opposing views as “foundationalist.” In this respect, like Rawls and so many modern thinkers, Rorty remained a child of the Enlightenment, giving priority to epistemological critiques as a way of organizing the world of ideas.
The political life of a nation isn’t the most important concern we face. To a great extent, our contemporary views of public reason reflect a contrary judgment. Rawls, Rorty, and others have been eager to banish metaphysics from politics, because they smuggle in a crucial assumption: that our political life together is so cosmically important that we should sacrifice everything else to ensure its primacy. We shouldn’t bring metaphysics into politics, because to do so treats truth as more important than the peace and harmony of the city of man.
But is this so? The truth about our humanity and eternal destiny matters a great deal more. This doesn’t mean that politics fades into insignificance. We properly care about the shape and character of laws, which in a modern bureaucratic society provide a great deal of the architecture for our economic, communal, and even personal interactions.
That’s why, as Smith points out, John Courtney Murray urged a vision of public reason that cuts against the shallowness prescribed by Rawls. “As we discourse on public affairs,” Murray wrote, “we inevitably have to move upward, as it were, into realms of some theoretical generality—into metaphysics, ethics, theology.”
That’s also why Aristotle designated politics as the highest vocation of reason, not because politics is ultimate, but because ultimate things, first things, invariably come into play. Insofar as public affairs force us to “move upward” in our reason-giving, the full range of our minds are engaged. So enough of the “gotcha” critiques, left or right.
Steven Smith is right. We shouldn’t stop “smuggling.” Instead, we should legalize the metaphysical imagination and promote the open commerce of comprehensive doctrines.
R.R. Reno is editor of First Things.