Liberalism and Natural Law: Deneen contra Schlueter

By Jonathan Liedl
March 5, 2013

founding liberalsOver at the Public Discourse, the boys are back at it. After a two-month cease-fire, professors Vincent Muñoz (of Notre Dame) and Nathan Schlueter (of Hillsdale College) have resumed their forceful critique of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen's assertion that liberalism, the philosophical foundation of American politics, is ultimately unsustainable and implicitly at odds with core tenets of Catholicism. As far as lucid and edifying discussions concerning Catholic political thought go, this is as good as it gets.

For those of you who are just now tuning in, I would sincerely recommend reading all  five previous installments of this dialogue (which can mostly be found at the Public Discourse, although the piece that kick-started this discussion, Deneen's "Unsustainable Liberalism," was published in First Things and is only available with a subscription). It'll be worth your time, and will provide a  solid summation of the dominant points of view in what has been and still is the fundamental political question for American Catholics, namely, if a regime running on liberalism is a desirable or even acceptable reality.

Although both Schlueter and Muñoz are staunch defenders of America's founding philosophy, each man goes about making his case in a distinctly different way, to the point that it'd be a mistake to take their respective arguments as part of the same package. I'll address Schlueter's line of reasoning first and discuss Muñoz's later this week.

At first blush, it's tempting to place Schlueter in the same camp as Orestes Brownson, John Courtney Murray, and Peter Augustine Lawler, Catholic thinkers who have maintained that the Founding Fathers "built better than they knew." The thesis of this position is essentially that, though the founders may not have realized it, they created a democracy that was implicitly characterized by natural law thinking. However, as Deneen is correct to note, Schlueter "pushes this argument in a somewhat unusual direction," to the point where it makes an even bolder claim than the "built better" crowd is wont to do. Rather than merely suggesting that Jefferson, Adams, and the rest unknowingly imbued the American experiment with a grounding in natural law, Schlueter instead advances the argument that the founders "knew more than they said" and were actually cognizant proponents of natural law theory. In his estimation, the political thought of the founders was not characterized by either the classical liberalism of Hume nor the social contract liberalism of Locke, but  by "natural law liberalism." As such, although America's founders never "articulated the principles of natural law liberalism in a systematic way," Schlueter believes they are the intellectual successors of Aristotle and Aquinas.

Deneen's response to Schlueter is biting, as he notes that his interlocutor's argument "invites an almost immediate dismissal." Deneen proceeds to highlight what he believes are irreconcilable tensions between the natural law tradition and the type of liberalism espoused by the founders, concluding that "Schlueter’s natural law liberalism, then, is a chimera, a combination of parts of fundamentally different creatures that does not and cannot exist in reality." Deneen maintains that the natural law tradition and liberalism, whatever its stripes, are "contradictory and mutually exclusive," closing his retort with the admonishment that "wishful thinking is not a substitute for political philosophy."

In his much anticipated response, Schlueter returns fire with equal vigor, suggesting that Deneen's claims are "remarkable," if only for the fact that they are informed by the opposite of what is true. Relying on a number of documents from the founding era, Schlueter offers a defense of the marriageability of natural law and liberalism, asserting that there is "abundant explicit evidence" that the founders successfully fuse the two together. The founders, for instance, spoke and wrote at length about the necessity of virtue in public life, as well as the government's obligation to pursue the common good of society. Rejecting Deneen's inclination to include them in the "ideology of autonomous individualism," Schlueter asserts that the Founding Fathers succeed in establishing "principles that at the same time affirm natural rights and the natural law, limited government and the common good, freedom and virtue, the dignity of civil society and the dignity of political life." Finally, while Deneen accuses Schlueter of "wishful thinking," Schlueter believes that his sparring partner arrives at his conclusions through a dangerous blend of cynicism and romanticism.

Now, I will not pretend for a second that I can offer a response to Professor Schlueter that is remotely comparable to the one that is surely forthcoming from Professor Deneen. Nor will I even attempt to do such a thing. However, I see no harm in weighing in on this discussion as an interested bystander, and I present my own treatment of Schlueter's thesis accordingly.

In examining Professor Schlueter's articulation of the founder's "natural law liberalism," I cannot help but think of the hypothetical scenario that Alasadair MacIntyre uses to set the stage of his seminal masterpiece, After Virtue. Presenting an account that is strikingly familiar to readers of Walter Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz, MacIntyre describes a world in which all scientific knowledge has been effectively erased by hordes of anti-intellectuals. Years later, fragments of understanding are collected and pieced together. But the end result, random facts and theorems removed from their original context and any comprehensive framework, is certainly not "science" properly understood, but is merely an aggregation of isolated incoherencies masked in the language of authentic science. It is a simulacrum and not the real deal, and one would be mistaken to consider the impostor as a continuation of the tradition that preceded it.

In my estimation, this error is exactly what Professor Schlueter's analysis is guilty of. Despite their invocation of the "language" of natural law theory, I see no reason to grant the supposition that the Founding Fathers were deeply and consciously informed by an accurate understanding of the Western tradition of natural law. Deneen's original response to Schlueter's argument for "natural law liberalism" highlights as much, presenting deep and serious incongruities between the founders' understanding of man and society, and those generally contained within natural law tradition. The fact that the Massachusetts Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and a host of other documents from the founding era are generously peppered with language that also finds its home in the thought of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas should not be taken as proof that the founders understood and used these words in the same way as did the ancient Greeks or the scholastics of the Middle Ages. Disconnected from their original context, this language does not and cannot mean the same thing as it originally meant. Disregarding this critical distinction renders any argument guilty of serious intellectual conflation.

Schlueter reveals as much with the evidence he utilizes to illustrate his interpretation of the founders as faithful heirs to natural law theory. Specifically, he cites George Washington's First Inaugural Address, highlighting Washington's qualification that "the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality." Yet instead of bolstering his argument, the inclusion of this phrase does exactly the opposite--it undermines it. The principle of "private morality" that Washington invokes is something completely and utterly contradictory to one of the foundational tenets of Western natural law tradition. In fact, as MacIntyre makes abundantly clear, the necessity of a "moral consensus" is a central component of both Aristotle and Aquinas' political thought. The founders and liberalism at large rejected this, enshrining moral pluralism in its place. The fact that Washington attributes great importance to all Americans subscribing to some system of morality (as did Adams, Eisenhower, and a score of other important Americans throughout the years) is demonstrably not that the same as insisting that all Americans adhere to the same conception of morality. This is but one example of the founders' fundamental break from the Western tradition of natural law, and as good a reason as any to reject the notion that their thought constitutes a successful hybrid of natural law and liberalism. Another, closely related, is the Declaration's defense of man's right to pursue his own individualized conception of happiness, rather than society's obligation to orient itself towards the attainment of Happiness (capitalization intentional).

Perhaps Schlueter recognizes the over-reaching nature of his claims, for, after initially matching Deneen's self-sureness with some intellectual bravado of his own, he dilutes his original thesis considerably. Instead of continuing with the argument that the American founders were informed by a conception of natural law explicitly inherited from the Western canon (originally citing the thought of Aristotle, Cicero, and Aquinas), Schlueter subtly changes the terms of debate, casting his net far beyond the Western tradition with the intent of still being able to lay claim to the term "natural law." Eschewing the idea that his understanding of natural law should be confined to a particular "version" of the concept, Schlueter invokes C.S. Lewis' nebulous "Tao," which he understands as a "basic orientation of practical reason toward the discovery and achievement of basic goods." If this is what Schlueter means when he speaks of the founders' acquiescence to "natural law," then he is decidedly making a different argument than one that stipulates that these men were informed by a conception of natural law deeply rooted in the thought of Greek antiquity and pre-modern Christendom. In fact, if acknowledgement of the Tao is the standard by which Schlueter grants admission to the Western tradition of natural law, then decidedly non-Western thinkers such as Confucius and the ancient Egyptians have just as much claim to membership as do the Founding Fathers.

Schlueter's conception of natural law renders it a term that has little exclusivity to the Western tradition. Perhaps the founders were proponents of "natural law liberalism," but this is not a conception of natural law that Aristotelians nor Thomists have much cause to celebrate.