Spring has sprung, and with it comes another academic eager to scribe a defense on behalf of the American experiment. Joining the ranks of professors Vincent Muñoz and Nathan Schlueter, Robert Miller of the University of Iowa College of Law has offered his own critique of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen’s assertion that America was built upon a foundation of “unsustainable liberalism.”
Originally detailed in a 2012 essay for First Things, Deneen describes this ideology as an abrupt departure from classical and medieval thought, one that enshrined anthropological individualism and voluntarism as the foundational premises of politics, reconceived man apart from and opposed to nature, and ultimately informs many of the cultural, political, and economic blights that plague American society today. From this perspective, the problem isn’t found on the left or the right of the American political spectrum; rather, the continuum itself, liberalism writ large, is the source of most of our modern troubles.
Needless to say, Deneen’s thesis is a controversial one, and has drawn its share of willing detractors, of whom Miller is just the latest. But whereas Muñoz defends the merits of the ideological liberalism implicit in the American founding, and Schlueter makes the case that the founders successfully fused Enlightenment philosophy with pre-modern thought into some kind of “natural law liberalism,” Professor Miller provides an as-of-yet unexplored angle: namely, that one can support a liberal political system without necessarily accepting liberal principles as axiomatic.
The difference, he tells us, is that of one between a pragmatic liberal and a philosophical liberal. Thus, Miller, a self-declared “eudaimonist” in the Aristotelian-Thomistic mold, supports America’s liberal political system and institutions not on the basis of Lockean rights or Rawls’ theory of justice, as a philosophical liberal would be inclined to do, but because liberalism serves as the best model for maintaining peace and promoting individual well-being in a pluralistic society such as our own. For Miller, supporting America’s liberal political ethos isn’t a matter of principle, but of prudence. Pushing back against Deneen, Miller makes the case that for someone genuinely concerned with eudaimonia, that is, with human flourishing, accepting a liberal political order is not only a plausible stance, but the only justifiable position for genuine eudaimonists in contemporary America.
Miller’s argument is fatally flawed for two significant reasons. First, he continuously understates the implicit pervasiveness of liberal ideology in American society, and, perhaps most tellingly, in his own thought. His thesis is intact only if liberalism is neutral, an ideology that causes other conceptions of man and society no harm, and that is clearly not the case. Secondly, Miller consistently mischaracterizes the Aristotelian understanding of eudaimonia (or its Thomistic counterpart, felicitas), depriving this concept of its inherently communal element in order to render it compatible with an atomized, individualistic, liberal society such as our own. The end result is an argument that both fails to convince the reader that liberal ideology is not alive and well in the US, and does equally little to rebut the premise that eudaimonia, at least as Aquinas described it, is a pursuit that is actively thwarted by the liberal ethos that permeates American society.
Liberalism is to America as Water is to the Sea
Miller states that philosophical liberalism is simply not as pronounced and potent a force in American life today as Deneen argues it is. Our nation’s political institutions may bear its hallmarks, he tells us, but its people are not in any meaningful way influenced by high-brow liberal philosophy. I’ll begin my critique of this claim with an illuminating account I’ve lifted from elsewhere (lest you mistakenly attribute its conception to me):
Two young fish, so the story goes, are swimming casually along, talking about whatever it is that young fish talk about. Presently, they look up and notice an elderly fish approaching. He has a mysterious twinkle in his eye as he passes them, going the opposite direction, and playfully shouts, “Hey boys! How’s the water?”
Once the old fish is out of earshot, the first young fish turns to the second and asks, “What the heck’s water?”
Professor Miller claims to be a pragmatic liberal, unbeholden to the actual philosophical claims and fundamental premises of liberalism. He’d like you to believe most Americans are pragmatic liberals, too. To convince us that this is the case, he presents as evidence the fact that the majority of Americans aren’t aware of and cannot articulate core tenets of liberal theory, whether those of Kant, Locke, or Rawls. Therefore, he argues, philosophical liberalism really doesn’t have much of a hold on the American people. Take, for example, his response to Deneen’s charge that social phenomenon such as no-fault divorce can trace their philosophical origins to ideas embedded in liberalism:
Deneen sees rising divorce rates as the result of deep philosophical assumptions about personal autonomy. People like Charles Murray, who actually investigate marriage empirically, find that affluent, educated people-the people most likely to accept, or to have at least herd of, the philosophical ideas Deneen thinks are responsible for the high divorce rate—tend to have successful and stable marriages. It’s poorer, less educated people who have high divorce rates. This is a complex story, but the one thing that is not an important factor in it is the political philosophy of the founding.
For Miller, the fact that less-educated people, people who are probably unaware of the actual arguments and ideas of liberal theorists, actually have higher divorce rates than their more academically-inclined peers is somehow an indication that the premises of liberal philosophy have nothing to do with the matter. But isn’t this rather like saying that because a fish is unaware that it is swimming in water it is, therefore, not swimming in water? Such a claim is, of course, absurd. One doesn’t need to know he’s in water to, in fact, be in water, just like one doesn’t need to be able to articulate liberal principles or even be aware that such a category exists to actually be deeply and completely affected by their axioms. Yet this line of thinking seems to be the basis for Miller’s assertion that liberal ideals are not a pervasive part of American society.
The fact of the matter is that the ideals of liberalism are deeply ingrained in America’s collective consciousness. In fact, I would argue that they are so deeply entrenched that they operate at the level of the unconscious. Rarely are the liberals ideas of anthropological individualism, or political voluntarism, or the rejection of the natural order thought of as, well, ideas, conceptions concocted by thinkers centuries ago that, until then, did not inform how people viewed the world or themselves. But while Miller suggests that this is evidence that American society is not liberal, I suggest it means that it is pervasively and utterly liberal. Liberalism’s great success is 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. As Deneen notes, the prospect of conceiving life without the assumptions of liberalism is for most Americans as implausible as living on Mars.
Of course, this is a tendency of the liberal project that Deneen explicates in his original essay. While liberalism and its proponents claim their theories are merely descriptive, based upon objective conclusions concerning human nature and decision-making, liberalism is necessarily normative, pushing from the public square pre-liberal conceptions of the role of government and the nature of man. In effect, liberalism subversively reeducates people to think and act as liberals, not merely to think about liberal theory; its pervasiveness is evident in the fact that it has displaced alternative understandings of man and society, not in that everyone is a scholar of the Enlightenment.
To restate the piscine parable in more obviously applicable terms, we can easily imagine a scenario in which two young men are approached by an older gentleman who asks them what they think of John Locke and his Two Treatises of Government. Unsurprisingly, they don’t have much to say; they’ve never heard of Locke or his treaties. The older man leaves, and the younger men return to their previous diversions: watching the TV, where a cell-phone commercial informs them that they have “a right to be unlimited,” eating BigMac’s consisting of beef unsustainably raised on genetically modified and mass produced grain, commiserating about the fact that their parents and small town community “cramp their style” and inhibit their ability to express their individual identity, deriding the notion that the profits they accrue through their own labor and initiative should in any way be doled out to public services from which they don’t directly benefit, and complaining about how some fundamentalists and the Catholic Church are trying to impose their beliefs on others through legislating morality, which is, of course, not the role of the government. After all, it’s a free country, and people have rights. Live and let live, as they say.
Although these hypothetical young men are unaware of the finer points of liberal theory, there is no doubt that much of their thought is implicitly liberal. That is, the worldview they hold and the premises they argue from had never been stated, let alone accepted as accurate, until the liberal revolution of the Enlightenment. These men might not even be able to recognize this reality, as Miller thinks is necessary for one to be classified as a self-aware philosophical liberal, but they are certainly unconscious philosophical liberals, as are most Americans.
Why does Miller fail to grasp the significance of the liberal legacy in American society, alive and well today? I think there are two reasons. First of all, he seems to be either mischaracterizing or misunderstanding critical aspects of Deneen’s arguments. Deneen is careful to qualify his claims, making clear that by liberalism he refers to a broad ideology marked by two (already mentioned) anthropological assumptions: the primacy of the individual and choice, and a rejection of the classical understanding of man’s place in the natural order. What Deneen does not mean by liberalism, and he makes this rather explicit, is democratic rule, constitutionalism, rights of citizens, federalism, and a whole host of other political arrangements that, in fact, predated liberalism. These pre-liberal concepts seem necessary for a liberal regime to function, but are not, in and of themselves, sufficient to make a regime liberal. It is the difference between the engine and the fuel, the structural framework and the ideas that animate it.
Yet Miller appears to have missed this distinction. Repeatedly he conflates the political arrangements often found in liberal regimes with liberalism itself, as when he compares liberalism to autocracy and monarchism, which are structures of governance, not political ideologies. Miller uses the term “pragmatic liberal” to mean the same thing as “pragmatic constitutional democrat,” when really liberalism and constitutional democracy are quite different things, not in terms of degree but in terms of kind. This is evident when we acknowledge that democracies have thrived in societies where liberalism’s anthropological assumptions were non-existent. Ancient Athens, for instance, was democratic, yet it was anything but liberal.
Miller’s conflation of political ideology with political structures is telling, and perhaps helps us understand why he also misinterprets the kind of political philosophy Deneen engages in and the conclusions he draws. For Miller, “political philosophy” is a type of inquiry that can only tell us about forms of government and manners of ruling. This, of course, is quite a modern understanding of the word “politics.” However, for Deneen, and Aristotle before him, politics does not merely refer to government, but to human beings living and interacting with one another, and thus to human nature and the composition and orientation of society. What modern schools of thought have divided into the respective categories of sociology, economics, cultural studies, and political science are all aspects of a whole that political philosophy has much to say about. This much is clear from Deneen’s argument (and, indeed, his work at large); his assertions regarding the nature of liberalism and its anthropological assumptions certainly have implications for governance, but they are just as relevant to every other dimension of human society.
In addition to mischaracterizing liberalism, Miller misunderstands what political philosophy is, and thus horribly misconstrues Deneen’s claims about liberalism and its effect on American society. Take the following (much abbreviated) passage:
An explanation such as Deneen suggests—that social problems in the twenty-first century arise from the unforeseen implications of the philosophical assumptions of the founders two hundred years earlier—is hopelessly simplistic. Consider some of the influences that have intervened between 1776 and 2013 to shape the views and habits of contemporary Americans: the French Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, the Great Awakening, Darwinism, the First Industrial Revolution…the Pill, feminism, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, Roe v. Wade, the stagflation of the 1970s, Reaganism, the commercialization of the microprocessor, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the internet, biotechnology, September 11 and the war on terror—the list of important factors affecting social conditions in America today is immense. To ignore all this and say that our social problems today arise primarily from philosophical ideas held by people who lived two centuries ago is beyond absurd.
To his credit, Miller does touch on the notion of determinism, a possible dimension of Deneen’s argument that Vincent Muñoz has already addressed in nuanced fashion (to which Deneen appropriately responded that he’s not engaging in determinism, but the type of political analysis put forth by Alexis de Tocqueville). Though I disagree that Deneen’s argument is guilty of determinism, this is nonetheless an aspect of his critique that is worthy of discussion and consideration.
However, as evidenced by the above passage, Miller himself is guilty of egregious determinism. Whereas he contends that Deneen’s reasoning is “hopelessly simplistic” because he argues that philosophical ideas have, over time, led to the type of problems existent in contemporary America, Miller overcompensates by presenting a view of history in which ideas have seemingly no role whatsoever in shaping the habits and actions of a particular society. Miller would have us believe that economic, political, social, and scientific developments occur in an ideological vacuum, independent of the thoughts and convictions that inform economic, political, social, and scientific actors. This assessment of how events unfold, not Deenen’s, is an account of things that is “beyond absurd.”
To be clear, Deneen’s argument is not that the philosophical premises of the founders were suddenly invoked in the past decade or two, spontaneously beginning our current troubles. Rather, his claim is that liberalism has gradually asserted its primacy in American society, defining how Americans view themselves, others, and nature, and displacing alternative conceptions. The catalogue Miller provides is actually helpful in reinforcing Deneen’s account, not in dispelling it. Embedded in several of the developments Miller cites is the logic of liberalism at work, with each successive shift constituting more ground gained for liberal ideology. What could we call the development and proliferation of the Pill and the use of biotechnology to alter natural chemical structures if not instances of man dismissing the natural order and asserting his dominance over nature? Similarly, was not the creed of Rock and Roll a rejection of tradition and authority, a celebration of individual autonomy through drugs and sex? Are not phenomena like the sexual revolution, Roe v. Wade, and the rise of no-fault divorce examples of individuals pursuing their individualized conceptions of happiness through whatever (legal) means, obligations to others and traditional norms be damned? And are not significant political shifts like the French Revolution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights obvious overtures of liberal ideology? Miller is certainly right that these developments of the past have led us to where we are today. But he is categorically wrong to think they have nothing to do with liberalism. Not only are they internally marked by liberal thought, but as they emerged and became more widely accepted they have actually further entrenched liberalism in the ethos of America.
The second reason I believe Miller is oblivious to the obvious and active presence of liberalism in America today is because—despite his insistence that he supports a liberal political system for pragmatic reasons—he is a philosophical liberal. Perhaps, like most Americans, not a philosophical liberal who is actually aware of how deeply ingrained liberalism is within his worldview, but a philosophical liberal nonetheless. His own defense of liberalism on allegedly pragmatic grounds reveals as much.
Miller begins his defense of a liberal political system by invoking “prudential judgment.” But prudence is not reason itself, but the proper application of reason. Thus, it is important to identify what reasoning Miller is applying to his political prescriptions. As it turns out, Miller’s assumptions about government and man are philosophically liberal ones. Repeatedly he refers to his ability to “privately” pursue an individualized conception of happiness, or to pursue his final end with “remarkably little interference from others,” as the essential qualification that makes a political system good. This is a line of thinking that bears an incredible amount of similarity to the thought of the forefathers of liberalism—Machiavelli and Spinoza in particular. Like Miller, these men cast themselves as political pragmatists, not ideological polemicists. In order to solve the great “theologico-political problem,” these thinkers came to the conclusion that questions of morality and final ends must be removed from the purvey of the political, a premise that is foundational to Enlightenment political thought. Thus, a government should treat all systems of morality or religion—all conceptions of Good—neutrally, thereby implicitly concluding that there is no Good, or that the government has no role in promoting the Good. Rather, liberals hold that the government should be primarily concerned with allowing individuals to pursue their own, subjective understanding of the good life.
Abstractly, this results in privileging the individual’s pursuit of an individualized conception of happiness above the community’s orientation toward Happiness. Practically, it necessarily results in weakening social institutions, such as the church, the community, and even the family, and pushing their “illegitimate” and “nonconsensual” authority out of the public sphere. Much more could be said on liberalism’s tendency to eradicate intermediate institutions from the public square. For now, it will suffice to note that the confinement of the political to non-teleological concerns, to securing individual rights and private pursuits of happiness, is a central tenet of philosophical liberalism, and one that Miller appears comfortable accepting as the raison d’être of contemporary government. Thus, the only thing “pragmatic” about Miller’s political thought is that he applies philosophical liberalism in a pragmatic fashion; but a philosophical liberal he remains.
Miller has already acknowledged that he considers philosophical liberalism to be opposed to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, and thus opposed to authentic eudaimonia, so it is not surprising that he would understate the pervasiveness of this ideology in his own thought and in American society at large. Yet the ample evidence that philosophical liberalism does, in fact, substantively inform the American political ethos raises questions about the integrity of eudaimonia in America, questions that we shall now address in the following section.
Eudaimonia, or Lack Thereof, In America
Despite Miller’s reticence to identify as a philosophical liberal, he nonetheless claims that “liberal political institutions are much more likely than any of the practically available alternatives to produce conditions under which people can live good lives.” From Miller’s perspective, the possibility of eudaimonia, a Greek word related to “human flourishing,” is best promoted in our particular society by upholding a liberal regime.
However, before we can evaluate his conclusion, we must first scrutinize his premises. Does Miller understand and use eudaimonia in a manner that is consistent with the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition to which he claims to belong? After all, Aristotle was careful to note that, though most people agree that achieving eudaimonia is the point of life, opinions differ vastly on what eudaimonia actually consists of. One can see how this observation remains descriptive to this day; most people will agree that “happiness” or “fulfillment” is the point of life, but views on the practical means for attaining this end, and the nature of the end itself, vary widely, including theories as disparate as “adhere to God’s will and natural law” and “indulge in whatever gives you pleasure.” Self-identifying as a eudaimonist indicates that one is concerned with human-flourishing, but it does little to actually tell us what one believes about human-flourishing. So is Miller an authentic eudaimonist, or is he peddling a counterfeit version?
As noted previously, when Miller discusses eudaimonia, he does so in exclusively private terms. Attaining the good life is something that individuals do on their own or, at the most, something they pursue privately with like-minded persons. What is essential is that their efforts are not affected by “interference from others.” Indeed, as far as Miller’s eudaimonia is concerned, the only legitimate role of contemporary government is essentially to act as a neutral watchdog that preserves an atmosphere in which individuals “live together in peace” and “pursue their various, often incompatible, goals.” Preserving social stability and upholding individual rights are the only ways in which politics factors into Miller’s account of eudaimonia. In other words, the polis is merely instrumental, and has nothing intrinsic to it that necessarily relates to human flourishing (a thesis that Ethika Politika’s Michael W. Hannon has already critiqued quite persuasively); one can exhibit all the virtues necessary for full eudaimonia within a state that is, in Miller’s own words, “morally inadequate,” a characteristic that he concedes is definitive of a liberal order.
In truth, Miller’s concept of eudaimonia diverges dramatically from the tradition to which it allegedly belongs. Central to Aristotle’s eudaimonic theory is the assertion that eudaimonia is only attainable through an active life that exhibits moral excellence, or virtue. Put another way, human-flourishing is dependent upon the virtuous life. Virtuous life, in turn, is necessarily a “complete life,” as Aristotle puts it, a life actively lived within the context of a political community. This is what Aristotle means when he observes that “man is a political animal.” In fact, Aristotle holds that only in the communal life can one come across the external goods necessary to exercise the highest degree of moral virtue. This explains why Aristotle holds that a life of private morality is an inadequate arrangement as far as eudaimonia is concerned; in order for one to live virtuously, they must not only be striving for their own good, but the good common to the community at large. Thus, a society orientated toward the virtuous life through its practices and arrangements (and size) is a prerequisite for Aristotelian eudaimonia; a liberal nation-state is not compatible.
Granted, not everything Aristotle said is necessarily true, a fact that Miller recognizes and invokes in order to defend his departure from actual Aristotelian eudaimonia. Conveniently, however, Miller seems to neglect the other foundational thinker of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, the man whose thought is even more relevant to a Catholic concerned with eudaimonia than is Aristotle’s. Perhaps this is because Miller recognizes that bringing St. Thomas into the discussion defeats his argument; Aquinas’ thought on eudaimonia is so different than Miller’s that it is clear the two men use the same word to mean different things.
While Aquinas prefers to use the term beatitudo (or felicitas), his conception of the ultimate end of human life is near identical to Aristotle’s eudaimonic theory, at least as far as virtue and politics are concerned. Like Aristotle, Aquinas rejects the idea of eudaimonia as having anything to do with individual pursuits of happiness, protected from the “interference” of others; instead he emphasizes the common flourishing of the community. The political community, in this sense, should not be directed towards merely preserving a society in which individuals can advance towards their own eudaimonia and their own final end (a nonsensical notion from the perspective of an authentic eudaimonist), but should instead be orientated towards common felicitas, or the common good of all.
It should be evident, at this point, that Miller’s eudaimonia is not Aristotle’s or Aquinas’s. A conception of human flourishing that amounts to individuals pursuing private interests, unencumbered by each other, is simply not compatible with the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. In this sense, it is ironic that Miller addresses his rebuttal not only to Deneen, but to Alasdair MacIntyre as well. MacIntyre, after all, raised awareness of liberalism’s penchant for counterfeiting the language of antiquity and the Middle Ages, maintaining the same outward appearance, but being horribly internally incoherent. Yet this is exactly what Miller has done. His concept of eudaimonia is a simulacrum.
While Miller’s eudaimonia can flourish in America, authentic eudaimonia fairs far worse in such a pervasively liberal society. This is because liberalism is not merely “neutral” towards authentic eudaimonia; it is fundamentally opposed to it. A liberal society thwarts the Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of human flourishing, because liberalism fundamentally redefines what it means to be human. With individuals left as the only meaningful measure of humanity, and society conceptualized as a mere aggregate of individual preferences, there can be no “common good,” properly understood, in a liberal society. Similarly, there can be no comprehensive eudaimonia. In order for one to argue otherwise, they necessarily need to alter the definition of eudaimonia so completely so as to fit it to the premises of liberalism, that they are no longer talking about authentic eudaimonia. Someone set on arguing that a square is, in fact, a circle by beginning with the assumption that “roundness” is a characteristic of squares necessarily commits the same logical flaw.
Pragmatic Eudaimonists in a Liberal Society
I maintain that eudaimonia cannot be comprehensively achieved in a liberal society, such as contemporary America, that is not fundamentally oriented toward virtue and the common good. If I am correct, then what is a genuine eudaimonist to do?
Miller’s pragmatic liberalism is not an acceptable option, for it turns out to be no more than pragmatic philosophical liberalism. However, simply refusing to participate in the liberal political process and abandoning ship, a position taken by MacIntyre, seems like an equally unsatisfactory and unAristotelian approach to the problem. Fortunately, this dichotomy is false and an alternative approach is available: that of the pragmatic eudaimonist living in a liberal society.
This perspective upholds the proper Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of eudaimonia, while still allowing for participation within a liberal political order. It allows one to operate within the conceptual framework of a liberal regime, while actively attempting to restore an understanding of politics that orientates man and society toward authentic eudaimonia. It responds both to St. Augustine’s call to participate in politics as an act of charity, and St. Thomas Aquinas’s insistence that certain conceptions of society and forms of government are, in fact, better than others and should be sought after.
As a model for this approach, I raise a rather particular and seemingly unrelated historical example: Blessed John Paul II’s position on nuclear weapons. In particular, I highlight the following passage from his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations in June of 1982:
In current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. Nonetheless in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with this minimum which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosions.
Pope John Paul II recognized that nuclear warfare was unacceptable and that a world without nukes was the only ultimate solution capable of ensuring peace. Yet he did not advocate for the immediate disposal of all nuclear weapons in one fell swoop, a non-pragmatic measure that would have invariably failed and quite possibly could’ve toppled the uneasy balance struck between the Americans and the Soviets. Instead, the pope stipulated that possession of nuclear weapons as a matter of deterrence would be acceptable in the present, so long as the world progressively worked toward complete disarmament.
It is this nuanced approach that the pragmatic eudaimonist in a liberal society must seek to maintain. A society defined by liberalism is simply unacceptable, and should ultimately be remedied. One cannot support liberalism as some sort of Spinoza compromise in the same way that the pope could not support a world characterized by mutually assured destruction. However, the eudaimonist’s response to liberalism need not be one marked by “riots and revolutions,” as Miller believe is the only recourse available to those who choose not to support a liberal regime. Rather, one can work within the liberal system with the intention of loosening, slowly but surely, its grip on American society. In essence, one can be in a liberal regime without being of it. One can be pragmatic without being a liberal, all the while keeping his eyes affixed to the revitalization of authentic political communities in which eudaimonia, properly understood, is fully attainable.