Do Ideas Really Have Consequences?

 
 

To view practical agreements between Aristotelian-Thomist foundationalists and contemporary anti-foundationalist liberals as “progress” is to fiddle while Rome burns.

I’ve recently argued here at Public Discourse that contemporary Aristotelian-Thomists—and this could be broadened to include related groups such as religious conservatives—should come to the difficult simultaneous realization that (1) their approach to understanding and evaluating the world is profoundly at odds with that characteristic of the modern intellectual context, and that (2) this modern intellectual context has yielded important insights regarding the dignity of the human individual that should be integrated into contemporary elaborations of broadly pre-modern approaches.

My argument elicited a thoughtful response by Robert Miller, who seems to agree with both of these points but to disagree that matters are “as bleak as they seem” for Aristotelian-Thomists in my depiction of the modern intellectual situation. According to Miller, the fact that the fundamental approach of Aristotelian-Thomists is opposed to that of contemporary liberals is not particularly important, since our philosophical disagreements tend to be irrelevant to our opinions on practical issues of public policy. Miller’s claim raises an extremely significant and far-reaching question: do deep philosophical ideas really have consequences for ordinary politics? I contend that they do, and that we can see this most clearly if we attend to the distinction between foundationalist and anti-foundationalist philosophical approaches, a distinction Miller problematically overlooks.

Foundationalism vs. Anti-Foundationalism

Latent in the complicated two-part injunction expressed above is an understanding of “modernity” as itself divisible into two sub-categories, to which I alluded in the final paragraph of my most recent essay: a “foundationalist” expression of modernity and an “anti-foundationalist” one. Modern “foundationalism” is encapsulated by the idea of natural rights—individual rights that share a common basis with the natural law (human nature) without being derived from this law. Modern “anti-foundationalism” is characterized by a denial of the fact that nature, including human nature, can serve as a basis for moral and political reasoning at all.

Modern foundationalism indeed represents a departure from pre-modern foundationalism, but it is a departure that can be productive rather than destructive, preparing the way for a fuller and more complete foundationalist account. Modern anti-foundationalism, on the other hand, equally rejects modern and pre-modern foundationalist accounts, refusing to countenance nature itself as a basis for reasoning about morality and politics, just as Enlightenment thinkers refused to countenance religion as such a basis. The hallmark of a modern anti-foundationalist society is the irresolvable antagonism between religious beliefs that affirm and explain the distinctions between good and evil, truth and falsity, and right and wrong, and a secular outlook that skeptically denies the validity of such dichotomies.

Modern foundationalism, which I’ve argued was inspired primarily by John Locke, is reconcilable with pre-modern foundationalism, despite its significant departures. Modern anti-foundationalism, which began with the historical approach of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and has been carried forward by the “postmodern” liberalism of John Rawls, Richard Rorty, and others, is entirely irreconcilable with foundationalism of any kind. Although foundationalism of both the modern and pre-modern varieties is indeed alive and well in some circles, as Miller suggests, it is, in my opinion, quite obvious that contemporary public discourse—and, to an even greater extent, contemporary scholarly discourse—is dominated by anti-foundationalism.

On one level, my quarrel with Miller rests upon the fact that he seems either to miss entirely or to disagree with this brief account of where we are relative to intellectual history. Although something of the modern/pre-modern disjunction is certainly captured by the rules-and-obligations vs. virtue distinction Miller describes in his opening paragraph, this distinction is far from being the most wide-reaching and profound one.

On another—and ultimately more important—level, however, my quarrel with Miller lies in his assertion that “deep philosophical assumptions turn out to be irrelevant” in contemporary public discourse. It is on the basis of this premise that Miller most persuasively defends his own pragmatic liberalism; if one may simply take or leave the anti-foundationalist philosophical starting points for contemporary liberalism, contemporary liberalism becomes palatable for Aristotelian-Thomists, like sugar-free cookies for a diabetic. If, on the other hand, contemporary liberal public discourse cannot be purified of “deep philosophical assumptions”—if we can’t simply choose contemporary liberalism-lite—then Miller’s pragmatic liberalism needs to be rethought as well.

Philosophy and Public Discourse

I will not attempt to dispute the examples Miller provides of practical political agreement and disagreement, since I freely admit that people of completely opposed philosophical or theological backgrounds can agree on many issues regardless of their more abstract disagreements. In fact, I admitted as much in my earlier essay, in my discussion of Maritain’s account of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What I do dispute is Miller’s inference that since most people aren’t thinking about deep philosophical issues when they formulate and discuss their opinions on morality and politics, such issues must not be particularly important to the formation and discussion of these opinions.

Miller’s inference here is similar to a claim made by David Hume and other thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment in their arguments for the importance of the “moral sense”: namely, that since people generally don’t behave morally as a result of abstract philosophical reasoning, such reasoning is in fact unconnected to moral behavior in practice. To make such a claim is, however, to ignore a chain of necessary, inexorable connections that begins with abstract or “deep” philosophical arguments and ends with particular opinions or actions.

Our behavior as human beings may be differentiated from the behavior of other animals or inanimate objects primarily by the pervasive influence of abstract ideas in its determination. Although we fall like rocks and eat like pigs, we also act on the basis of reasons and feel the need to explain and justify actions and patterns of behavior using such reasons. No matter how uneducated or unintelligent one may be, we all act in ways that are profoundly affected by our ideas. As Aristotle explains in Book VII of the Ethics, human actions in general may be viewed as conclusions of syllogisms that begin with general propositions about the world in which we live.

The ideas, reasons, or general propositions that pervade human actions in this way do not, moreover, arise from a vacuum. As many intellectual historians have effectively shown, one’s intellectual context sets certain limits, bounds, and directions to one’s thought. Opinions are significantly shaped by intellectual context. Intellectual context is, in turn, shaped by the work of intellectual elites engaging in “deep philosophical” inquiry. The opinions and actions of Joe the Plumber or Barack Obama should not, therefore, be treated simply as self-contained particularities; they also represent the tip of an intellectual iceberg extending centuries into the past and far into philosophical depths.

Since all contemporary opinions partake of this tip-of-the-iceberg character, regardless of how innocently practical and particular they may seem, Miller’s pragmatic liberalism only encourages a complacency on the part of foundationalists of all types. Such complacency is likely to hasten the victory of anti-foundationalism in the modern world. To emphasize practical or superficial agreement at the expense of fundamental disagreement is tacitly to accede to the anti-foundationalist abandonment of the fundamental ground. Foundations don’t matter to anti-foundationalists, but they certainly should to foundationalists.

To view practical agreements between Aristotelian-Thomist foundationalists and contemporary anti-foundationalist liberals as “progress” is, then, to fiddle while Rome burns. Although we need not ignore or reject these areas of superficial agreement, we also shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that such agreements obviate the need to persuasively confront and refute opposed stances on fundamental issues. Our goal should not be merely to blend in and get along with “our modernist fellow citizens”; it should be to persuade them of the falsity of their fundamental moral assumptions and the correctness of our own. Anything less than this isn’t prudent pragmatism; it’s a surrender of the truth.

S. Adam Seagrave is an assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University and author of The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law.

 

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