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Jeffery Stout wants democrats and believers to discover civic unity

Posted in Books with tags , , , , on 7 January 2010 by John

In his book Democracy and Tradition, Jeffery Stout tries to play peacemaker between contemporary proponents of liberalism and what Stout dubs the “new traditionalists.” I became interested in this book because I’m rather of fond of the new traditionalists. The three thinkers Stout chooses to dialogue with (Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Alasdair MacIntyre) are three of the most interesting writers I’ve read. Furthermore, Stout’s tone is constructive. From what I’ve read so far, you could disagree with Stout on every point and take something away from the book.

The goal of Stout’s project is to forge a basis for civic unity in a democratic society. Stout is sympathetic to the new traditionalists’ claim that contemporary American civic religion is “incoherent and alienating”, but doesn’t think it’s wise to base civic unity on religion (1). However, instead of viewing democracy as an empty and corrupting force, Stout views it as a broken in American society today. Stout wants to argue for a non-Rawlsian conception of democracy. He identifies two premises of modern liberal thinkers that the new traditionalists have criticized: 1) that a nation-state can be ideally neutral with respect to conceptions of the good 2) that political discourse can occur on the basis of “free public reason” (2). What Stout wants to do is argue that a true democratic philosophy need not adopt these two premises: “Rawlsian liberalism should not be seen as its official mouthpiece” (3).

Stout wants to argue that, instead of being the antithesis of tradition, “democracy…is a tradition” (3). The character of this democratic tradition is not forged from a Rawlsian agreement on the conception of justice, but rather is “more a matter of enduring attitudes, concerns, dispositions, and patterns” (3). To Stout, democracy is more than a system of government. Rather, it is an attitude and cultural phenomenon. The public deliberation required by political democracy makes it more than mere politics. The goal of political philosophy, therefore, is to cultivate this democratic project: “It is the task of public philosophy, as I understand it, ti articulate the ethical inheritance of the people for the people while subjecting it to critical scrutiny” (5).  Stout invites his readers to take the position of citizen while reading the book.

Stout envisions true democracy as able to break through the polarization of American politics today. The opposing positions adopted by new traditionalists and liberal secularists result in the “Manichean rhetoric of cultural warfare”  and since “there are many important issues that cannot be resolved solely on the basis of commonly held principles,” we need some sort of mechanism to mediate these disputes (10). The democracy method Stout proposes is “conversation.” Conversation for Stout means a willingness to try to understand another person’s perspective and premises and freely subjecting your own views to criticism.

To try to generate this democratic conversation, Stout selects Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre as his interlocutors. He does so because “they represent the tradition to which most American citizens are committed” (11). Hauerwas has often said that Stout overestimates the influence of his work and I can see why with a quote like this. If Stout’s project is truly a pragmatic political endeavor, the selection of these three thinkers is puzzling to me because I don’t think any of them (especially Milbank, who is British) are particularly influential on the practice of American Christianity. Actually, these thinkers are critical of American Christianity. All this to say – I don’t think Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre represent the “tradition to which most American citizens are committed.” While I welcome Stout’s ecumenical efforts, I don’t think by dialoguing with Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre he’ll have any particular effect on the practice of American Christianity. Stout’s insistence on a pragmatic project is problematic here.

I also think Stout underestimates the problem that secularization poses for people with religious convictions.  Stout thinks the fears of the new traditionalists are unfounded because “modern democratic reasoning is secularized, but not in a sense that rules out the expression of religious premises or the entitlement of individuals to accept religious assumptions” (11). However, Stout thinks Neuhaus’ “naked public square” is either “unacceptable or unrealistic” (11). Such a proposal requires the church to rely on coercion (unacceptable) or persuasion (unrealistic). The only place for Christian convictions in the public square is in the form of individual expression. I find such a view theologically problematic for many of the same reasons that the new traditionalists do, I suspect.

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So Augustine and Milton Friedman walk into a bar…

Posted in Books with tags , , , , on 19 December 2009 by John

Cavanaugh begins the first chapter of  Being Consumed with the observation that while technically the market has become “free-er”, most people have an inherent feeling that it has truly become more bureaucratic. Instead of rejoicing in the endless opportunities afforded by a free market, most people are cynical about work. He cites the comic strip Dilbert as evidence. Cavanaugh attributes such cynicism to the fact that we can’t give a unified account of the telos of human life. What we’re left with today is the exercise of will against sheer will. It’s completely arbitrary. Cavanaugh then sets forth the goal of chapter one:

What is required is a substantive account of the end of earthly life and creation so that we may enter into particular judgments of what kinds of exchanges are free and what kinds are not.

Cavanaugh then defines the modern conception of a free market using Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman’s criteria for a free exchange are that the transaction is informed and voluntary and freedom is defined as pursuing “what you want without interference from others.” There are two corollaries Cavanaugh draws from Friedman’s assessment. First, in Friedman’s view, freedom is purely negative. Cavanaugh labels it “agnostic” when it comes to the “positive capacities of each person in a transaction.” The second idea is that “a free market has no telos.” Language about ordering desires becomes unintelligible in this purely free conception of the market. Cavanaugh is also critical of free market philosophers for not asking what makes a desire real and not merely artificial. Milton Friedman’s answer is that a real desire is one that people act on. It’s obvious that such a view practically eliminates the distinction between artificial and real wants.

Cavanaugh then brings Augustine into the argument to cast suspicion on Friedman’s definition of freedom. You could say this book is about Catholic social teaching vs. realpolitik, but I think the book comes down to ancient freedom against modern freedom. Being Consumed is a book about why we should prefer antique notions of freedom against the cultural presuppositions we have today. Since William indicated we should have a discussion about the practicality of Catholic social teaching and the like, I pause here to make a brief pass at the issue of feasibility. What Cavanaugh is trying to show is that Friedman’s philosophic conceptions underlying his market system are untenable. I think it’s possible to believe in a market economy, but you can’t elevate choice to this deific level. Of course, speaking of practicality, no one actually lives out Capitalism and Freedom. What Friedman represents is a sort of economic imperialism. All bodies of knowledge become subject to the discipline of economics.  The moral of the story is that economists make bad philosophers.

Cavanaugh recounts Augustine’s conception of freedom as not simply freedom from, but “freedom for.” Desires, accordingly, are not produced purely within the individual, but are rather complex social constructions. Cavanaugh notes that, for Augustine, “there are true desires and false desires and we need a telos to tell the difference between them.” To be left “free to choose” without an outside force (God) shaping your will was a tragedy, not a blessing. Cavanaugh proposes using Augustine’s conception of freedom and desire to evaluate a market transaction. Here is the result:

The point is this: the absence of external force is not sufficient to determine the freedom of any particular exchange. In order to judge whether or not an exchange is free, one must know whether or not the will is moved towards a good end.

I have to pause simply to note the overlap in common law between Augustine’s  view and the bad tendency test (I just finished a Constitutional Law class, that’s what being in College still does to you, the power of peculiar reference.) Anyways, let’s continue:

This requires some kind of substantive – not merely formal – account of the true end, or telos, of the human person. Where there is no objectively desirable ends, and the individual is told to chose his or her own ends, then choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good. When there is a recession, we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bed, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.

A lovely little paragraph. I couldn’t help but think of some Christians who have turned the creation mandate into a consumption mandate with a little linguistic and theological gymnastics. Cavanaugh has a running metaphor through out the book of an “empty shrine.” We buy things to fill that empty shrine, Cavanaugh argues.

Cavanaugh then turns his attention to power and the market. Advertising, with its shift from product centered to buyer centered ads, creates an imbalance of power. Products are now linked to images and emotions they have little to do with. Cavanaugh also notes that advertising has invaded our lives. Everywhere we go, sometimes even unknowingly, we are advertised to. “To pretend, as Milton Friedman does, that the consumer simply stands apart from such pervasive control of information is to engage in fantasy,” he argues.

Cavanaugh’s ends the chapter by summarizing his position: “There is no point in making broad utilitarian claims about the benefits of ‘the free market’ as if we could identify a market as ‘free’ merely by the absence of restraint on naked power.”

Bill Cavanaugh wants a truly free market

Posted in Books with tags , , , on 17 December 2009 by John

Catholic theologian William T. Cavanaugh, author of such dense scholarly works as Torture and Eucharist and Theopolitical Imagination, has written a small little book to address how Christians should confront modern economic challenges. Being Consumed is an interesting book because, in the tradition of Catholic social teaching, it refuses to embrace or reject the free market. In each of the four chapters, Cavanaugh’s goal is to “use Christian resources to try to change the terms of the debate.” He calls his work a sort of “theological microeconomics.”

When “Caritas in Veritate” was published, Ross Douthat observed that the Pope’s “vision doesn’t fit the normal categories of American politics.” A similar assessment could be made of Cavanaugh’s work in Being Consumed. He wants to move the debate beyond the binary opposition of state intervention and “freedom” and instead seeks to ask “When is a market free?”

In the introduction, he lays out the approach of the book: “We must give a fuller, more positive, account of freedom; and to do so from a Christian point of view, we must draw on theological resources.” Stay tuned for Chapter One where Cavanaugh will pit Milton Friedman against Augustine on the question of freedom and choice.