Protest and Reason


In order to stop our present decline, we must transcend our natural tendency to retreat into factions and instead begin to sacrifice for the common good.

St. Paul’s Cathedral is open again after closing its doors due to Occupy London Stock Exchange. Initially welcomed and defended by the cathedral’s canon chancellor, who later resigned his position, the protesters quickly fell out of favor for interfering with services, halting tour fees, and creating fear of violence.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, while sharply criticizing the protesters, has helpfully identified a widespread loss of trust going far beyond the protest: “In some senses this is what our society now looks like. We are all protesters, even if we don’t take to the streets. We all have an inchoate sense that something is wrong and we have any number of culprits to blame—from Europe, to immigrants, to the banks, to politicians and media barons. Public distrust of the institutions of a civil society has reached an all-time high. . . .”

The notion that we are “falling apart” into competing factions is shared by many, and to general distress. Several years ago, Jonathan Sacks described his concerns over the fracturing of liberal societies in much the same way as Carey: “Culture is fragmenting into non-communicating systems of belief in which civil discourse ends and reasoned argument becomes impossible. The political process is in danger of being abandoned in favor of the media-attention-grabbing gesture, with the threat of violence never far from the surface.”

The failure of communication may have a variety of causes, but a primary candidate is the loss of a shared narrative and the subsequent loss of concord or political friendship. Lord Carey, for instance, suggests that we are divided “into many factions and separate communities” because there is no “sense of an overarching narrative to form our identity as a nation” without “the very faith and heritage that set us on our way as a great country.” A loss of religious and national unity turns communities into factions at each other’s throats.

A closely related explanation for the failure of civility is provided by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, where he explains that one of the primary marks of contemporary moral discourse is interminable disagreement, in which we are split into so many incommensurable camps that we are utterly incapable of moving forward. Failing to share foundational principles, we cannot really win or lose our arguments but simply confront assertion with counter-assertion, with morally indignant protest a predictable result:

It is easy also to understand why protest becomes a distinctive moral feature of the modern age and why indignation is a predominant modern emotion. . . . Protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because . . . protestors can never win an argument: the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because . . . the protestors can never lose an argument either. . . . This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective.

If we are in a condition of failed civility, with protest the new norm for discourse, I’d like to understand why, and I suggest that Bernard Lonergan provides both help and cause for concern.

Faction is a permanent possibility in social life because we are by nature spontaneously intersubjective. Every individual by nature seeks his good, understood initially as the object of his desire, as an object of satisfaction. An infant, say, has desires circumscribed by the limited range of their satisfaction, a range that expands with growing consciousness. Given our social nature and necessity, a similarly limited community is spontaneous—unplanned, not constructed by rational choice—with the community existing to prolong and secure the goods of satisfaction. In a basic sense, when an infant cries for some desired good, parents may seek to secure food for the infant and themselves by cooperating with other families in a village to divert a river for irrigation. So while spontaneous community is not unintelligent or merely animalistic, it is concerned primarily to satisfy desires.

Intersubjective community always remains, no matter how developed a civilization, and is not something outgrown or left behind. We cooperate within bonds of natural affection such as the family, the clan, and the neighborhood, and do so primarily for purposes of satisfying natural needs. However, civil community goes far beyond spontaneity and is a new and distinct mode of cooperation, with a distinct good. Civil community emerges when new patterns of collaboration occur amongst several distinct, spontaneous communities for the sake of goods not available or possible to the smaller groups. As Lonergan puts it, civility occurs when relationships “condition the fulfillment of each man’s desires by his contributions to the fulfillment of the desires of others, and similarly protect each from the object of his fears in the measure he contributes to warding off the objects feared by others.” To do so, each spontaneous group must be willing to forgo or limit a desired satisfaction in order to seek and collaborate for a common good emerging only through the collaboration. Lonergan claims that in addition to goods of satisfaction, a new good emerges: the good of order, which is not reducible to desires or their satisfaction, as it is the intelligible pattern constituting institutions. Government and law are means whereby various factions limit the full range of their possible satisfactions so as to attain the good of order, the polity.

Now, there always will remain intersubjective spontaneity and its constant temptation toward factionalism or group preference—tribalism, racism, classism, for example—even when an intelligently conceived and chosen social order is in existence. Consequently, there is always a tension between my desire to serve my interests and the interests of my group on the one hand, and my intelligent grasp of the common and political good on the other. Given this abiding tension, moments of “economic breakdown and political decay are not the absence of this or that object of desire or the presence of this or that object of fear,” as if we have the various Occupy protests because people are afraid they will not be able to feed their children today, but rather “they are the breakdown and decay of the good of order, the failure of schemes . . . to function.”

We are all simultaneously committed to these two sorts of good: the good of order and the particular goods of our desires. In periods of peace and happy relations, “the good of order has come to terms with the intersubjective groups . . .  it commands their esteem by its palpable benefits . . .  a man’s interest is in happy coincidence with his work” and his country. In times of crisis, on the other hand, the various groups “tend to fall apart in bickering, insinuations, recriminations, while unhappy individuals begin to long for the idyllic simplicity of primitive living in which . . .  human fellow feeling would have a more dominant role.” So crisis results not only in bickering and indignant protest, but in an active rejection of the accumulated complications of highly ordered and specialized society and a preference for the simple, the immediate, modeled on the sorts of feelings one tends to have for family and not the stranger. In such a breakdown, we should expect to see many people demanding the end of complicated systems of trade and development in favor of a return to the small village with its rather more limited satisfactions. Further, since sense satisfactions come in many varieties, one would also expect the demand for simplicity to be surprisingly varied and diverse in the goods demanded—a not-so-simple simplicity.

Such demands would not be unintelligent or unreasonable, as they indicate both that natural goods seem to be threatened and that the intelligently devised system of order is breaking apart. The fact that the demands seem to be incommensurable with each other, as well as virtually impossible to implement in a diverse, large, and highly technical society, would not per se indicate that the protests were irrational; it would merely suggest that the tension between the good of order and the satisfaction of desires had no obviously reasonable solution at the time.

At that sort of juncture, Lonergan suggests, it is likely that many will capitulate to their individual or group self-interest, and so delay and impair intelligent and reasonable solutions to the tension of community, since the cause and maintenance of civil community is always dependent on the various groups furthering the interests of others.

A commitment to the common good is thus the obvious solution to breakdown, although the common good is least likely to be sought at the moment of breakdown (thus contributing to more decline) since individuals and groups are most motivated toward self-interest at that time of fear and confusion. Further, since the groups split into factions and camps, the various satisfactions demanded grow exponentially and with the least chance of resolution. Finally, as civility declines and factions retreat to their own community, they tend also to retreat to the first principles and modes of thought of their own group rather than to the public and shared discourse prevalent in the civil community, creating mutual incomprehension and distrust in a vicious circle, spiraling downward into more and more indignation.

Now, if Lonergan is right about any of this, then progress at a time of breakdown cannot be made simply by meeting the various demanded satisfactions—bread and circuses won’t work. Nor will the mere enforcement of the law result in progress, as force causes groups to retreat from committing to the institutions of order. Something rather more remarkable needs to be done, just when we have the least motivation to do it given our natural tendencies—satisfactions must be transcended as citizens sacrifice for the common good.

It’s not clear that we are that sort of people with that sort of will; if not, the long cycle of decline may be upon us. Progress is not inevitable; decline is a real possibility, and it depends entirely on whether we are willing to seek the other’s good.

R. J. Snell is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University and a Research Director of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.



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