Theology has been a curious non-interlocutor in most public debates among conservative theists regarding how best to defend the objectivity, intelligibility, and communicability of moral truths and their application to contemporary legal issues, such as racial discrimination, human rights, and abortion. One such debate occurred recently on the pages of On the Square and Public Interest. (For a summary of and commentary on the debate, see Micah Watson’s A Tale of Two Philosophers). The main issue of the debate was not the content of basic moral principles, but their epistemological, ontological, and rhetorical aspects: the fundamental structure of moral thinking and judgment, its relation to what precisely is being thought about and judged, and the most reasonable and effective mode of public ethical and legal discourse. The two interlocutors agreed “that the source of morality is human nature, that human nature is essentially a rational nature, and that moral truths are discoverable through reason apart from revelation,” and they both condemned the moral evil of racial discrimination. What they were at odds about is exactly why this or any evil act is evil, and what makes an act good and a moral principle true. The question comes down to the precise ontic and epistemic character of “ought.”
For Arkes, racial discrimination is a big “ought not” because—and only because—it is unreasonable; it is an act that violates a knowable and known principle of reason, that humans have moral status and dignity by virtue of what makes them human, namely rationality and freedom. Thus, treating a human being as less than human based upon what does not define them essentially as human, such as skin color, is unreasonable and therefore wrong. And since reason is ultimately anchored in the law of non-contradiction, racial discrimination is evil because it violates this most fundamental and self-evident law of human reason. If a human being is properly defined as possessing an essential equality with all other humans, then it is contradictory to commit racial discrimination, since it entails one human being with this essential equality treating another human being as not having this equality. Thus, legal proscriptions against this evil practice, for Arkes, should be explicitly grounded in and justified by just this sort of explanation. O’Brien, on the other hand, identifies Arkes’ characterization of the location, derivation, and justification of moral knowledge as essentially Kantian and therefore problematic: "To have substance, morality needs to go beyond mere rational consistency and find its grounds in the form of ‘rational animality,’ as Aristotle and Aquinas saw, but which Kant mistakenly rejected as ‘heteronomous.’” For O’Brien, moral evil is not evil primarily because it is and is seen to be self-evidently unreasonable in light of some sort of a priori, abstract conception of the rational being as such, but because it is and is seen to be vicious in light of concrete, personal, historical, tradition-constituted, community-informed experience, in terms of a conception of human flourishing and happiness that answers not so much the question why one ought to do this or that, but what we, qua-members-of-this-community-and-tradition, need in order to live and live well.
As it seems to me, this debate is a scuffle in an ongoing human feud, begun back in the wranglings between the ancient Stoics and Epicureans. It is a war between “two rival versions of moral enquiry,” to use MacIntyre’s expression, eudaimonism and deontologism: an ethics of happiness, flourishing, virtues, eros, and the good, versus an ethics of self-sacrifice, duty, law, agape, and the right. This feud is not going to end any time soon, at least not without some mediation, by a third, peace-making interlocutor.
As I said at the outset, theology, unlike in the ancient debates, has not been an interlocutor in this and virtually all other academic and public discussions of ethics and politics. Sure, the theologian is allowed to have his say, but he is barred from ever having an authoritative say, from being one of those insiders whose deliberations and speculations are to become an integral part of “public reason.” The theologians have a quite compelling story, the philosophers and public policy folks admit, but we need a story more appropriate, more “true,” for our pluralistic, secular, political culture. However, when dealing with the foundations of ethics, the Christian theologian’s story is not just one story among others—it is one that must be read by everyone, for it is meant for everyone. It is ultimately everyone’s story. Moreover, as Radical Orthodoxy has shown, the ostensibly a-theological, secular stories that automatically pass the muster of public reason are nothing if not theologically implicated, even if only implicitly. Now, although the Christian story is everyone’s story, only a very select audience has heard it in its entirety, believed it fully, and made it a model for their own life-stories. Yet, even for the unbeliever, the theologian’s story has clear and arguable logical, ethical, philosophical, legal and political ramifications and components, just as the “non-theological” stories have implicit yet robust theological moorings. Let those who have ears—that is, those who have taken out their old and decrepit, modernist, Enlightenment earplugs—hear: “We are all theologians now.”
The inseparability of faith and reason, in both theory and practice, is one of the main points of Benedict XVI’s encyclical teachings. We can debate the political and philosophical ramifications of the affirmation that we are made in the image of God, that God loves us, and that He commands us to “be perfect as His father in heaven is perfect”; however, in the end, we either affirm these truths or we do not, based upon whether we have or have not encountered the living Christ, caritas in veritate, or perhaps just encountered those Christians who have. So, if human acts are a matter of experience, choice, and grace—not just logic, evidence, and demonstration, whether Aristotelian-eudaimonistic or Kantian-deontological in mode—then any debate about the metaphysical, epistemic, and rhetorical aspects of ethics must invite theology as an interlocutor. And this neglect of theology is the reason that the debate between Arkes and O’Brien is, as it stands, irresolvable.
The problem is that they are both right. O’Brien is correct that arguments about and declarations of principled moral prescriptions and proscriptions, even rigorous and true ones, cannot ensure a public commitment to and embodiment of Christian or even humanistic values in our post-Enlightenment, neo-pagan, pluralistic political culture. Moral principles are experiential, cultural, and historical in their genealogy and in the subjective apparatus of human recognition. But Arkes is right that we can and must transcend these contingencies to see and act on principles in an absolute, universal, and eternal way. In other words, although reason is tradition-dependent (pace Kant), it is also tradition-transcendent (cum Kant). Somehow we must hold these together, and I don’t think we can outside of a theological narrative and discourse.
And the problem is that they are both wrong. Western nation-states lack a shared intellectual tradition to provide grounding for the abstract meaning of universal, human rights and moral values. They also lack a communally shared ethos, which is required for the effective, authentic, and integral political and legal embodiment of rights and values. As O’Brien’s argument suggests, the discourse-of-moral-principle-alone, in prescinding from experiential genealogy and a moderate historicist sensibility, is ultimately sterile. Public reason in today’s secular culture mistakenly eschews any theological dogma that might shed authoritative light on the ultimate meaning, derivation, and fulfillment of human life and experience. On the other hand, as Arkes maintains, a discourse-of-moral-experience-alone absent the universal, history-and-experience transcending logos is ultimately indeterminate, for it is sub-rational. The right and the good must live together or die alone.
Here MacIntyre sums up what he considers the essential problem with a natural-law morality and argumentation that tries to transcend contingency and experience. MacInytre is critiquing Maritain’s “democratic charter,” where natural-law norms, not religious or philosophical particularity, are the bases for political consensus:
What Maritain wished to affirm was a modern version of Aquinas’ thesis that every human being has within him or herself a natural knowledge of divine law and hence of what every human being owes to every other human being. The plain pre-philosophical person is always a person of sufficient moral capacities. But what Maritain failed to reckon with adequately was the fact that in many cultures and notably in that of modernity plain persons are misled into giving moral expression to those capacities through assent to false philosophical theories. So it has been since the eighteenth century with assent to a conception of rights alien to and absent from Aquinas’ thought.
According to this view, Arkes's model would be analogous to Maritain’s and so not sufficiently aware of the fact that—while men may argue and think about moral truth, and value and pursue moral goods without conscious deference to a particular philosophical theory or religious belief—they nevertheless possess implicit and unconscious philosophical commitments that influence and condition the character and interpretation of that evaluation and pursuit. These commitments determine to some extent the character of behavior that is the conclusion of the practical reasoning that begins with the evaluation and pursuit of a particular good. Since rationality itself is a practice, the former inevitably takes the shape of the particular lived tradition of which it is a part. In practice, then, there is no rationality as such, but only particular rationalities informed by particular religious, philosophical, anthropological, and epistemological commitments that condition the manner in which that rationality is applied to practical questions. Therefore, with citizens divided in traditional allegiance, one should not expect rational agreement on practical matters of a moral nature, especially not on the foundational moral values of the political order. As MacIntyre argues in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?: "There is no way to engage with or to evaluate rationally the theses advanced in contemporary form by some particular tradition except in terms of which are framed with an eye to the specific character and history of that tradition on the one hand and the specific character and history of the particular individual or individuals on the other."
For MacIntyre, a strictly principled, obligation-laden, logic-derived articulation of moral goods and rights cannot serve as the political foundation of a tradition-pluralistic regime. For we are “tradition-constituted, culturally dependent rational animals” that cannot effectively separate our beliefs from our values and the actions derived from them. Though the citizens in a pluralistic polity may share a common lexicon of “human rights” and “democratic values,” in reality, it is a house built on sand with a sinking foundation of entirely disparate understandings of that lexicon and radically disparate traditions of practical rationality: Thomist, Humean, Kantian, Rousseauian, Nietzchean, Deweyean, et. al. For MacIntyre, shared moral evaluation and understanding is extremely limited, if not impossible altogether, in the absence of a shared tradition of practical rationality, including a common reservoir of theological, philosophical, ethical, and anthropological concepts, and common virtues and goods attained in and through the various practices—especially the architectonic practice of politics—that constitute a shared tradition. This is why we have so much moral disagreement in our public discourse. Tracey Rowland describes MacIntyre’s position: “Macintyre’s analysis raises the question of whether there can be any such things as ‘universal values,’ understood not in a natural law sense, but rather…the idea that there is a set of values which are of general appeal across a range of traditions, including the Nietzschean, Thomist, and Liberal traditions.” MacIntyre again:
Abstract from the particular theses to be debated and evaluated from their contexts within traditions of enquiry and then attempt to debate and evaluate them in terms of their rational justifiability to any rational person, to individuals conceived as abstracted from their particularities of character, history, and circumstance, and you will thereby make the kind of rational dialogue which could move through argumentative evaluation to the rational acceptance of rejection of a tradition of enquiry effectively impossible. Yet it is just such abstraction in respect of both of the theses to be debated and the persons to be engaged in the debate which is enforced in the public forms of enquiry and debate in modern liberal culture, thus for the most part effectively precluding the voices of tradition outside liberalism from being heard.
But let us suppose it is true that citizens belonging to the same narrative tradition would form a more unified, robust, stable and strong political order, so that exceptionless and self-evident rights and laws deriving ultimately from the law of non-contradiction and man’s obvious end-in-himself dignity, would serve as the most effective public discourse. Unfortunately, the demographic and sociological exigencies of the modern, pluralistic nation state preclude such narrative unity. We cannot have forced conversions to our narrative of choice, and so we must accept the limitations of our “concrete historical ideal,” as Maritain would say: the fact of religious pluralism requires us to attempt, even if it seems impossible, the separation of the public, legal, political sphere from the particularity of our traditions. But can such be done? Is this kind of acquired schizophrenia necessary to be a good pluralist citizen?
Conservative theists endorse wholeheartedly the infusion of integrally religious practices and discourse into the naked public square; yet they also tend to limit the participation in and scope of these practices and discourses to the in-house crowd, as it were. For those outside their tradition, and for the secular public sphere in general, a program of translation— a translation of dogma, ritual, charitable acts, and especially the natural law. It is urged to speak only the language of principled, universal “public reason” to strangers, thereby secularizing, moralizing, and politicizing what is distinctly theological and spiritual in our tradition, both in doctrine and in practice, to render it intelligible to non-theists and practically effective for secular society.
However, this strategy presupposes two fundamental ideas that need to be reexamined. The first is that there is such a thing as the “secular,” that is, an ideologically neutral, universal, public world accessible to and based upon a universal public reason, abstracted from the practical and speculative particularities of tradition. However, if not, if there is no objective, public reason, then it would seem that all we are left with are the postmodernist hermeneutics of suspicion, or the will to power, where any affirmation of true or good is unmasked as either mere idiosyncrasy or the will to dominate. The second idea that must be reconsidered is the easy separability of theoria and praxis, the confidence that one can effectively strain out from the concrete practices and particularist discourse of one’s tradition a secular, universally accessible remainder that is intelligible to all regardless of traditional allegiance.
Regarding the existence of a secular reason or public space neutral to any particular tradition, MacIntyre writes:
Either reason is thus impersonal, universal, and disinterested or it is the unwitting representative of particular interests, masking their drive to power by its false pretensions to neutrality and disinterestedness. What this alternative conceals from view is a third possibility, the possibility that reason can only move towards being genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disinterested, that membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded, is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry.
For MacIntyre, as well as, I think, for O’Brien, it is only through active participation in particular authentic traditions that men are rendered capable of discovering and achieving their ultimate good. For it is always through a particular tradition that we ascend to universal truth. Indeed, without tradition we are unable to make any sense of reality at all, because our bodies, minds, and souls are, largely, products of tradition themselves. As body and soul composites, our encounters with reality are mediated by bodies, which are themselves mediated by history and culture. Even the words and concepts we use to interpret and make sense of the brute facts of reality originate and develop in what MacIntyre calls “traditions of rationality.” All men are necessarily habituated into a particular tradition, even if it is an incoherent and considerably defective one like the tradition of liberalism. Outside of tradition, coherent knowledge and discovery of the good is practically impossible. We are, in MacIntyre’s improvement on Aristotle’s classic definition, “tradition-dependent rational animals.” As Paul Griffiths puts it: “To be confessional is simply to be open about one’s historical and religious locatedness, one’s specificity, and openness that is essential for serious theological work and indeed for any serious intellectual work that is not in thrall to the myth of the disembodied and unlocated scholarly intellect.”
Regarding the capacity to translate particular religious truth into non-religious public reason, MacIntyre articulates what can be called the traditionalist dilemma:
The theologian begins from orthodoxy, but the orthodoxy which has been learnt from Kierkegaard and Barth becomes too easily a closed circle, in which believer speaks only to believer, in which all human content is concealed. Turning aside from this arid in-group theology, the most perceptive theologians wish to translate what they have to say to an atheistic world. But they are doomed to one of two failures. Either [a] they succeed in their translation: in which case what they find themselves saying has been turned into the atheism of their hearers. Or [b] they fail in their translation: in which case no one hears what they have to say but themselves.
Is there a solution to this dilemma? Is there a resolution between Arkes and O’Brien, between eudaimonism and deontologism? If there is, the indispensable condition for its realization, I think, is the recognition of the illusory nature of secularist liberal pluralism. Indeed, there is really no such thing as “liberalism,” if this means a sphere of reason or action that escapes the particularism and exclusivity of tradition. And there is also no such thing as “the secular” since traditions of rationality are distinguished by the particular way they grapple with matters of ultimate concern—all traditions are ultimately religious. This has great political implications. David Schindler writes: “A nonconfessional state is not logically possible, in the one real order of history. The state cannot finally avoid affirming, in the matter of religion, a priority of either ‘freedom from’ or ‘freedom for’—both of these priorities implying a theology.”
If believing theists of diverse traditions do not think, speak, and act distinctively as Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims—bringing their intellectual, moral, and liturgical traditions wherever they go in imitation of Socrates, whom Catherine Pickstock calls a “walking liturgy,” then our “ecumenical jihad” stands no chance at converting the “liberal traditionalists” of the culture of death, who have no qualms about communicating to themselves and others exclusively in their religious parlance of tolerance and diversity, and inviting all into their liturgical practices of abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia. Indeed, they see themselves as the “true believers,” the only ones truly defending “life,” with us as the heretics, obsessed only with death and control.
How can these deluded devotees have any hope of ever renouncing their enslaving tradition unless they are made aware of its enslaving character? And how can they become aware unless they have some palpable experience of an alternative? The tradition they inhabit deprives them of the existential conditions required to see moral truths, let alone religious ones, as Tristram Englehardt has pointed out: “In the grip of Enlightenment dispositions regarding religion, few are inclined to recognize that the moral life once disengaged from a culture of worship loses its grasp on the moral premises that rightly direct our lives and foreclose the culture of death.” D. Stephen Long puts the whole point powerfully:
Beginning with the flesh of Jesus and its presence in the church, theology alone can give due order to other social formations—family, market, and state. The goodness of God is discovered not in abstract speculation, but in a life oriented toward God that creates particular practices that require the privileging of certain social institutions above others. The goodness of God can be discovered only when the church is the social institution rendering intelligible our lives. . . . For a Christian account of this good, the church is the social formation that orders all others. If the church is not the church, the state, the family, and the market will not know their own true nature.
Moral judgments are certainly principled judgments, and we should search for and declare these principles, even enforce them in law. Yet, all principles of reason, whether moral or logical, are first and foremost expressions of the divine logos, who can be encountered in and through his manifold, principled, universal expressions, but absent a personal, experiential encounter with Him through Faith, in the very particular place and time where His Flesh becomes available to touch and experience, principles are just principles—fleshless, bloodless, and dead.