Patrick Deneen, Robert Miller, and the American Ethos (Part I) - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Patrick Deneen, Robert Miller, and the American Ethos (Part I)

In this month’s First Things there’s an important article by law professor Robert T. Miller, defending America’s liberal (in the old-school Lockean sense of the word) political institutions against the fundamental criticisms of American liberalism leveled by the likes of Patrick Deneen and Alasdair MacIntyre. Specifically, Miller intends to rebut Deneen’s essay, “Unsustainable Liberalism,” published in the August/September 2012 issue of First Things (unfortunately not available online to non-subscribers) and originally presented way back in February of last year at First Things’ “After Liberalism” conference. It is worth noting that Miller is not the only knight to have rushed to his country’s defense; Philip Muñoz critiqued Deneen’s argument at Public Discourse, the web journal of the Witherspoon Institute, as did Nathan Schlueter. Deneen, for his part, responded to both critics, prompting further critiques, to which he again responded. In other words, this particular iteration of the highly traditional conservative debate over America’s founding liberalism has been a prolonged and contentious, if civil and respectful, one.

The first sentence of Miller’s essay suggests why. He writes, “America is under attack in the pages of First Things.” Understandably, it grieves him—as it does, no doubt, many patriotic American conservatives—to see conservative intellectuals like Deneen criticizing America with such seeming pitilessness. “Deeply loyal to the American political tradition,” Miller wants to make the case that our traditional liberal institutions are compatible with a robust understanding of the human good: specifically, the eudaimonist, Aristotelian-Thomist understanding that he shares with Deneen and MacIntyre (all three are Catholic).

Now, there is one preliminary indicator that Miller’s argument is not directly responsive to Deneen’s. To wit: Nowhere in the pages of “Unsustainable Liberalism” is the word “America” to be found. Nor do the words “United States” appear. And the only direct reference to what might be called “American liberal institutions” is the following sentence: “The creation of a world after liberalism would not require, as some might fear, the dismantling of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, nor the cessation of free markets.”

That is, Deneen takes care to explain that American institutions—nor, it would seem, the United States generally—are not his primary target. For “[t]he strictly political arrangements of modern constitutionalism do not per se constitute a liberal regime.” Rather, it is the anthropological and moral foundation of liberal political philosophy as expressed in such thinkers as Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke that constitute liberalism and, surviving as the West’s dominant cultural ethos, underlie a panoply of our civilization’s current social ills. While it is true that, in his Public Discourse articles, Deneen follows conventional wisdom in writing of America as the liberal nation par excellence, it is obvious that his critique of liberal philosophy has little to do with liberal institutions per se—so little that Deneen even claims “constitutionalism, the rule of law, rights and privileges of citizens, separation of powers, the free exchange of goods and services of markets, and federalism” as forms inherited from the West’s medieval and preliberal past. All this is apparently lost on Miller.

Nonetheless, his case is worth examining. The heart of it is a distinction between “philosophical liberals,” who support liberal institutions on the basis of irreducible principles of personal autonomy and who are justly subject to Deneen’s and MacIntyre’s criticisms, and “pragmatic liberals” like himself, who “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.” Pragmatic liberals, Miller argues, have every reason to support America’s liberal order, not least because it gives them the breathing room to pursue their own understanding of the human good without excessive interference.

As Miller recognizes, this is partly an empirical claim; whether America’s liberal regime, in point of fact, yields a livable and acceptable civilization is not something that can be settled by armchair philosophizing. And so Miller contrasts the concrete goodness of life in America—our free elections, our high standard of living, our enviable enjoyment of human rights, our concern for the poor, and our cultural and scientific advancement—with the “land of moral nightmares” supposedly envisioned by Deneen and MacIntyre. “We should judge nations in the same reasonable way we judge individuals,” writes Miller, reminding his readers of all the people we know “who, although they have some very serious faults, are nonetheless on the whole good people.”

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that America can pass the moral test that Miller himself proposes, even if we accept his own relatively rosy picture of American culture. He concedes that America has two “great historical sins” on her conscience, “slavery (along with its racist legacies) and legalized abortion.” Let’s take one of them. If you knew a man who 1) was an accomplished scientist, 2) whose work had improved the lives of thousands, 3) who gave generously to the poor, 4) was possessed of cultured tastes, enjoying opera, Renaissance art, and fine wine, and 5) slew between one-fourth and one-third of his offspring, would you consider him a good man?

But the moral perils of American culture run deeper than these two salient sins. I earlier mentioned that the target of Deneen’s critique was the prevailing liberal ethos of American and Western civilization, and that Miller failed to appreciate this fact. Indeed, reading Miller’s essay, you would hardly know that America has an ethos, or that it exercises a profound influence over our concrete opportunities to achieve and exercise eudaimonia.

Miller writes: “The liberal political system of the United States allows a Catholic like me to pursue my final end with remarkably little interference from others.” Again, we return to the empirical question: While many Catholics (and probably most of those plugged into the intellectual world of First Things, as Miller is) succeed in practicing their faith amidst an alien culture, the American Church as a whole is not in great shape. Most Catholics do not attend Mass weekly. Of those who do, half favor women’s ordination (a dogmatic impossibility) and 62 percent think the Church should permit the use of birth control (a moral doctrine that has all but been settled ex cathedra). Remember, these are weekly Mass-going Catholics; heterodoxy is still more rampant among the vast majority of American Catholics who don’t attend Mass each Sunday, a decisive majority of whom support legalized abortion. From a Catholic standpoint, there is no question of what this amounts to: an absolute crisis of doctrinal ignorance, moral confusion, and, in several cases, open rebellion. Either priests and catechists are neglecting their duty to transmit the faith whole or entire, or the laity are neglecting their duty to accept the truths revealed by God through the Church. In fact, both are the case.

What does this have to do with liberalism? Isn’t it the fault of us Catholics and Catholic leaders themselves, if we can’t keep our own ship on course? Well, yes, undoubtedly. The primary responsibility is ours. But to accept that as the whole story is just to beg the question in favor of liberalism; to accept as a given that liberalism is a sort of neutral background condition that allows religions, philosophies, lifestyles, and institutions to stand or fall on their own merits. But in fact, isn’t much of the crisis of American (and more broadly Western) Catholicism due to the implicit adoption of philosophically liberal-egalitarian premises on the part of Catholics? Doesn’t it seem that the influx of liberal assumptions—that authority must represent the will of the governed, that moral principles are a matter of private judgment, that what doesn’t tangibly harm others is always morally permissible—is what’s partly at work? We cannot be so naive as to think that the liberal regime—specifically in the habits of mind it cultivates—doesn’t actively undermine the foundations of Catholic faith and virtue, making it harder for the ordinary parish Catholic to live his faith genuinely.

This example, while admittedly sectarian, hints at the general danger that liberalism poses to any worldview with intransigent moral claims, particularly any dogmatic religion. But Miller seems as unaware of this danger as he is unaware of the nuances of Deneen’s argument. To put it in his terms, it is far from clear that we can be pragmatic liberals without putting ourselves and our neighbors in mortal peril of succumbing to the antisocial voluntarism and vulgar existentialism to which philosophical liberalism is prone. Just how great that danger is, and how, if at all, it can be mitigated, I hope to address in a future post. Gentle reader, please stay tuned.

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