Patrick Deneen’s article “Unsustainable Liberalism” sparked a very stimulating debate about liberal principles and our great country. As a member of the sophomoric Junior class of Wyoming Catholic College, I followed the debate with interest. Robert Miller’s article in particular served as the starting point for rather intense class discussion, and so when J.L. Liedl published his reply that covered much of what we had concluded in class, I had to pull out my notes and compile my two cents.
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 and, often incompatible, goals.
But what if the system is itself vicious? If the liberal system under which the United States operates is inherently flawed leading to vice rather than the promotion of virtue, as Deneen and others have said, then a Catholic cannot support a liberal regime even pragmatically. Such a stance would justify the means by the end, which Catholic teaching does not permit. In order for pragmatic liberalism to work, Miller would have to prove that a liberal system “is neutral, an ideology that causes other conceptions of man and society no harm.” To prove this he argues that America is not as bad as she is purported to be, that a pragmatic liberal political philosophy is compatible with an Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy, and finally that the moral degeneration of our country is independent of the liberal political structure. At the end of his article, none of these claims is proven, the position of a pragmatic liberal is in no way justified, and a sense of the sorry state of our country is heightened.
Miller’s first defense of America is personal. His pathetic appeal compares her to an individual. This approach alone is flawed, for though it is emotionally moving, the treatment of the nation as an individual is a key characteristic of the nation state, so stringently criticized by William Cavanaugh. It is this propensity for individualization that leads the nation state to conflate the private and the common good. (While Miller did not intend his comparison of America to an individual as a political statement, such a defense does not even work on the poetic level.)
He describes America as a man who makes mistakes, such as getting divorced, but is on the whole a good man. This sounds alright, but the man Miller describes as “good” is no more than mediocre, and he is given no reason to improve. This lack of motivation is a critical flaw in the liberal system. Such a system allows the individual to seek his own good unobstructed by others in a world of conflicting views, and therefore cannot encourage one way of life, a virtuous life, over any other, while “political citizenship,” as understood by Aristotle and Thomas, ”invites man to achieve beatitude, to step outside himself and to subordinate his own desires to the good of the communion to which he belongs.” Miller’s reply is that “the state should promote the good life of its citizens in all ways that, in the circumstances, are reasonable.” This seems to fit with Aristotelian-Thomism, until he states that in a heterogeneous society like ours, it would be unreasonable for the state to promote any one idea of morality. Thus, the moralizing of the people is left to private institutions, which Deneen pointed out in his article are in conflict with the liberal idea of liberty—the ability to act free of cultural inhibitions—and are therefore eventually destroyed by a liberal regime. The final result being that there is no moral formation in a liberal state.
The poetic comparison is further invalidated when “abortionist” is substituted for “divorced,” and Miller’s argument remains the same. The purported “goodness” of this individual is transformed into a facade overlaying grave sins. Here is an accurate portrayal of America. A country that disguises her moral depravity under a plethora of superficial goods, for the goods of “republican government,” “free and fair elections,” and an “amazingly high standard of living” cannot be described as anything but superficial, luxuries that are not required to attain the good life. While the truly necessary goods, such as religious liberty and basic human rights, are daily threatened in this our sanctuary of freedom, and so, even “taking all things together” as Miller urges, our country is “a moral horror show” in which the dignity of the human person is attacked by the “liberated individual and the controlling state.”
Miller next claims that it is possible to be an Aristotelian-Thomist and support American liberalism, because there is a disjunct between “politics and moral philosophy”; he argues that a person can be a pragmatic liberal without subscribing to liberal philosophy, but he does not recognize that any practical theory is embodied in a philosophy, and any practice will effect your philosophy. An Aristoteliaon-Thomist cannot even support liberalism as the pragmatically best form of government for our country now, because far from producing “conditions under which people can live good lives” if they want to, liberalism forces its views of toleration of everything on everyone in a very intolerant fashion. This is evident in such measures as the HHS mandate and the redefinition of marriage to include and legalize same sex marriage.
Again, the ability to live according to eudaimonistic principles is only permitted in American liberal culture so long as the majority supports that view. Everything in such a liberal culture is a compromise. Miller presents the court case over the words “one nation, under God” in the pledge as a positive instance of these compromises, but this case shows how unstable the toleration of Christianity is. Those “brief, mild, traditional, and non-sectarian” words were only upheld because the majority agreed with them, but there may, and almost certainly will, come a time when the majority considers those words too offensive to remain. His second example of Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association is further proof. Miller argues that it was good that the law was struck down, because it protects us against the time when our Christian beliefs may be “found disgusting and worthless,” but he fails to note that the Christian faith is already being found “disgusting and worthless,” and Christians are criticized for publicly speaking of their beliefs, especially when challenging accepted institutions like abortion and gay marriage. In our free country, which prizes and boasts of its freedom, persecution and martyrdom seem to loom on the horizon, and some proclaim that the democracy has already devolved to a tyranny with the government amassing hollow-point bullets and claiming the right to arrest citizens without proof. Surely, such a regime is not “the best available”?
Finally, Miller fails to show that the liberal regime is not related to the moral turpitude as cause to effect. He argues that a person’s or a society’s behavior does not necessarily follow from its philosophy, for he says that “some people with dreadful philosophical ideas are exemplary in their moral conduct, and some people with all the right principles behave abominably”. While I do not deny that this may happen, it certainly is not the norm, for actions usually conform to ideas, and Tocqueville’s concern that Americans would start to live like Lockeans as well as to talk like them has for the most part been realized as Deneen illustrated with a telling anecdote. In “Better than Our Philosophy: A Response to Munoz,” he says that, “Almost all my students describe themselves as ‘social liberals and economic conservatives.” That is to say, they favor self gratification and individualism in their personal and their economic lives.”
This realization of Tocqueville’s fears was again piquantly dealt with by J.L. Liedl in his recent article “Your-Daimonia is Not Eudaimonia: A Response to Robert Miller.” Throughout the article Liedl shows how entrenched liberal ideals have become in American thought, not just in intellectual communities. His analysis of the divorce rate reveals how true Deneen’s claim that “liberalism tends to encourage loose connections” really is. The liberal ideals have permeated our culture to such an extent that
It isn’t actively thought of as an ideology of high moral principles; more or less, it isn’t thought of at all. Instead, it informs the thoughts and actions of individuals so comprehensively that its tenets have come to be viewed as givens, as factual and irreplaceable as the air we breathe.
Its pervasiveness is evident in such common phrases as “live and let live.” Most Americans base their judgments upon such maxims; at least, their arguments for immorality revolve around them. The arguments for contraception and gay marriage are prime examples. These actions do not directly impinge on anyone but the practitioners ability to act and are therefore fine. A liberal regime can do nothing to prevent them.
Miller also states that the liberal principles upon which our country was based are not responsible for the lack of morals in our society, because so much more goes into the forming of a culture than its founding. While it is true that a culture is not the same as the principles that built it, it does follow the tracks that its principles set it on. Miller may claim that the American model of liberalism is based on “a collection of vague, ill-defined, and not entirely consistent ideas,” and the founders did draw from such diverse sources as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Sidney, but it was clear to their contemporary, Tocqueville, that Americans gave precedence to a Lockean philosophy. The effects and growth of this worldview can be traced through the degeneration of American morals, and none of the examples of depravity and the circumstantial and historical information that surrounds them proves in the least way that liberalism is not to blame.
So, while Miller makes a valiant attempt to defend the regime that raised him and that has been promoted as the protector of liberty for so many generations, he failed in his mission. Liberalism is not and can never be a viable option for an Aristotelian-Thomist, because it is intrinsically opposed to such values and will either destroy or be destroyed by them. Such a situation makes it, in the words of Javier Martinez Archbishop of Granada, “impossible for a Catholic to maintain a liberal position.” However, the Leviathan, as Thaddeus Kozinski insists, “is here, and here to stay.” So while Catholics may not in any way support the liberal regime, they find themselves in the awkward position of having to, as Kozinski writes, “accept its exigencies and limitations so that we can work with it to uphold the mediating institutions that alone can secure those common goods that we need to flourish and get to heaven.” Only through the continuation of such “mediating institutions” can the liberal regime be overcome, because the cultural norms they presented to society are diametrically opposed to the liberal agenda and as Deneen, Cavanaugh, and Liedl have said, they cannot coexist.