Must secular rights fail?

posted by Thaddeus J. Kozinski


<p></p>It does certainly seem, as Simone Chambers points out in “Do good philosophers make good citizens?“, that Dr. Wolterstorff ultimately asserts, rather than adequately demonstrates, that only theistic belief can guarantee human rights in perpetuity for all humans. Why? I think it is because he knows that there is ultimately no philosophical demonstration possible for such a conclusion. It is for the same reason, I think, that he asserts rather than argues for the inevitable failure of all secular groundings, past, present, and future, for human rights. I think the best explanation for Wolterstorff’s apparently “dialectically hostile” discourse in Justice: Rights and Wrongs is that we are dealing ultimately with a theological issue here, one with clear and arguable philosophical and political ramifications to be sure, but one that is, when all is said and done, theological. Theological judgments (and I mean revealed, not natural) can be defended by reason, of course, but they can’t be proven true. We can debate the political and philosophical ramifications of the affirmation that we are made in the image of God and that God loves all of us, but, in the end, we either affirm this or we do not. It’s a matter of choice and grace, not evidence and demonstration.

Also, I think for Wolterstorff it is an illusion to think that an overlapping consensus or, as Maritain called it, a “democratic charter,” can actually live up to its goal of ensuring a public commitment to and embodiment of liberal (Rawls) or Christian values in the absence of a shared intellectual tradition to ground, not just the abstract meaning of these values, but the appropriate ethos for the effective, authentic, and integral political and legal embodiment of these values. I think Alasdair MacIntyre has successfully demonstrated philosophically that such a project must fail. MacIntyre’s thought thus provides not only a fuller explanation of the inevitable failure of the secularist’s practical prescription of the overlapping consensus, a failure which Wolterstorff perhaps doesn’t explain successfully enough, but also the inevitable failure of any secular theory that would attempt to inform this practical prescription.

Here MacIntyre sums up what he considers the essential problem with the project of an “overlapping consensus.” He is critiquing Maritain’s “Democratic Charter”:

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 MacIntyre, Maritain’s democratic charter model (and Rawls’ model could be included) does not sufficiently account for the fact that while men may value and pursue goods without conscious deference to a particular philosophical theory or religious belief, they, nevertheless, possesses 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, any “overlapping consensus” on moral goods that is to serve as the political foundation of a pluralistic and “dialectically open” regime is an illusion and cannot but fail. For we are “tradition-constituted, culturally dependent rational animals” who cannot effectively separate our beliefs from our values and the actions derived from them. Though the consenters 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 impossible 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. 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. Alas! The exigencies of the modern, pluralistic nation state preclude such narrative unity. Do we want forced conversions to our narrative of choice? We must, after all, consider the limitations of our “concrete historical ideal,” as Maritain would say, and accept that the fact of religious pluralism requires us to attempt, even if it seems impossible, the separation of the public, political sphere from the particularity of our traditions. Well, this is the question, isn’t it. Can such be done? Should we attempt the impossible just because “dialectical politeness” requires it? Is this what is necessary to be a good pluralist citizen? I think, in the absence of any convincing argument to the contrary, Wolterstorff is in his rights merely to affirm a negative answer, without having to marshal adequate “proof.” As it seems, there just ain’t any.

I’ll end by quoting MacIntyre. Early on in his career, MacIntyre articulated the dilemma of the Christian evangelist, such as Wolterstorff, in our secular pluralistic world:

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.

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