The Reluctant Eudaimonist: The Flaws of “Pragmatic Liberalism”

Robert Miller’s pragmatic liberalism fails to strike a satisfactory balance between Aristotelian-Thomistic eudaimonism and American liberalism because he does not defend the universality of moral principles.

Among faithful Catholics in the United States, former New York governor Mario Cuomo is still a figure of some notoriety. In his controversial lecture at the University of Notre Dame in September 1984, the elder Cuomo spoke about the interplay of his faith as a Catholic, his membership in the American political community, and his duties as an elected official. By arguing that certain moral teachings of the Catholic Church could not serve as the basis of public policies in a pluralist democracy like the United States, Cuomo earned the ire of many Catholics even as he won the admiration of many secular liberals.

Yet in several sections of his lecture, Cuomo nearly denied the thesis for which he gained so much attention. That is, he explicitly suggested that certain teachings of the Catholic Church could be taken as elements of “our universal public morality.” He even suggested that the Church’s teaching on contraception could serve as the basis for public policy.

After putting forth this view, however, Cuomo promptly backed away from it without any real analysis or argument. He noted that the Catholic Church does not expect any state or polity to adopt its teaching on contraception, and then concluded that states should not be expected to adopt the Church’s teaching on abortion. For these reasons, his lecture has long been considered an important statement—perhaps the definitive statement—of the “personally opposed, but publicly pro-choice” mindset.

Although his First Things essay does not mention Cuomo, Robert T. Miller’s “Eudaimonia in America” invites comparisons with Cuomo’s lecture. Both men write as Catholics; both acknowledge the religious and cultural pluralism of the United States; both favor some kind of accommodation or rapprochement with contemporary liberalism. Finally, both install contemporary liberal views as the “default position” on several important policy questions, a move seemingly prompted by a rather vague desire for “civil peace.”

Whatever the similarities, Miller’s essay is theoretically richer than Cuomo’s lecture. In the end, however, Miller fails to vindicate the central ideas and principles of his “pragmatic liberalism.” His posture toward liberalism also raises questions about the strength of his simultaneous commitment to the moral philosophy of eudaimonism in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. For eudaimonists, virtuous actions are those that lead to the true happiness or human flourishing of man, which is his rightful end. And government exists to help lead man to that end. Government contributes to its attainment by enacting laws that discourage certain forms of vice, which in turn leads people in the direction of morally correct choices and virtuous actions.

As the opening paragraph of his essay shows, Miller reacts strongly to Patrick Deneen’s criticisms of the American political tradition. Deneen points to a host of social pathologies—the “mainstreaming” of pornography, widespread indifference to child-bearing outside marriage, economic recklessness at many levels—as evidence of a civilization in crisis. Writing for Public Discourse earlier this year, Deneen even characterized American society as a “civilization intent on suicide.” To Miller, this critique is hyperbolic, evoking fearsome scenarios that do not correspond with American realities.

Miller also faults Deneen for attributing so many pathologies to the political philosophy of the American republic. Because he finds Deneen’s rhetoric and criticisms excessive, Miller offers a spirited defense of American liberalism. Indeed, it is too spirited, because the institutional arrangements implicit in that defense are likely to destroy elements of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition to which Miller purportedly subscribes.

Miller would deny this. He would say that he is offering a qualified endorsement of liberalism, as reflected in his distinction between “philosophic” and “pragmatic” liberalism. By the former, he means a liberalism based on a political philosophy consisting of “grand philosophical principles,” whether articulated by Locke, Kant, Mill, or Rawls. By the latter, he means a liberalism that is justified not by reference to some masterwork of political theory but by “practical effects.”

Pragmatic liberalism sees the liberal political order as consisting of many political compromises, some fashioned in the past, others pursued in the present. Philosophic liberalism seems potentially oppressive to Miller, and he endorses pragmatic liberalism because it gives eudaimonists like him space to live with minimal government interference. He believes that other eudaimonists should affirm pragmatic liberalism as the best practical alternative in the United States, which he refers to as an “essentially liberal” polity.

The conceptual distinction between philosophic and pragmatic liberalism is clear enough. But does the distinction matter in the world of policy?

Miller thinks so. Assessing a controversy not wholly resolved, he tries to show that philosophic liberals are apt to forbid students from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, while the pragmatic liberal would permit its recitation, as long as no one is forced to participate.

Yet even if Miller is correct here, the usefulness of his distinction in other realms is less clear. Consider two other subjects of long-running policy debates: the growth of single-parent families in the United States and the great popularity of violent video games among American youths. For scholars like Miller, these developments are of fundamental importance because they involve the moral formation of youth, a topic central to Aristotle’s political theory.

To his credit, Deneen writes about a complex of issues relating to human sexuality and the family, including pornography, greater sexual promiscuity, and abortion. He sees certain developments as being linked, even though they can be examined discretely. Miller faults Deneen for overlooking the most plausible explanation for greater sexual promiscuity—namely, the development of “cheap reliable contraception.” Miller thinks it is fantastic for Deneen to suggest that the political philosophy of the American Founding (specifically, its “unsustainable liberalism”) could explain or illuminate this current social problem. For Miller, the matter is simple: reliable contraception has greatly diminished the costs for women to have sex outside marriage, and many women have behaved accordingly.

But Miller’s account is incomplete. Reading it, one might assume that all contraceptives developed or manufactured in the United States have been immediately available to anyone who wants them. But this is untrue, and the legal struggles over the regulation of contraceptives tell us much about American liberalism after 1945. Those struggles also tell us about the role that a new, freewheeling kind of judicial review has come to play in our political life. For anyone who embraces an Aristotelian-Thomistic eudaimonism, this is not a happy tale.

Having written about this matter elsewhere, I only wish to summarize a few points here. As the laws of different states show, regulations on contraceptives were widely used to promote the begetting of children within marriage, reduce the incidence of adultery, and discourage young persons from engaging in premarital sex.

The Supreme Court invalidated such regulations in a series of cases, beginning with Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), and continuing with Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) and Carey v. Population Services International (1977). The Court struck down these laws on the basis of a judicially invented “right to privacy,” which also figured prominently in Roe v. Wade (1973). Fair-minded observers, including liberals, see that Eisenstadt and Carey were decided not in accordance with constitutional principles, but the intellectually and morally dubious ideology of a new “lifestyle liberalism.”

Miller says nothing about these matters, and one would like to know why. Before they were invalidated by the Supreme Court, the regulations were long regarded by political leaders, state judges, and other public figures as valuable measures in helping to “make men moral.” In retrospect, we can still argue that these laws were part of an effective strategy to reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock child-bearing. Recall that in the early 1960s, when most states regulated contraceptives, roughly 6 percent of American children were born outside marriage. Today, that figure exceeds 40 percent.

Miller’s analysis of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011) is also troubling. Here the Court struck down a California statute that prohibited the direct sale or rental of violent video games to minors. Miller defends the Court’s ruling, but for curious reasons.

Above all, he worries about the possible abuse of legislative power if the law had been upheld. Allowing the government to prohibit this “appalling speech” might make it easier for the government to prohibit other speech—including religious speech—simply because a majority of citizens don’t like it. Miller also notes that there was no evidence that video-game violence leads to actual violence (a point contested in Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissenting opinion).

Miller’s anxiety about the future of religious freedom in the United States seems genuine, but one expects a fuller analysis of this case from a eudaimonist. Recalling Aristotle’s observations and insights about educating the young, we should ask why Miller’s analysis is so narrow. Why does he not take the statute on its own terms? Why is he only interested in whether the games lead to actual violence? Isn’t a eudaimonist supposed to be interested in the state of our souls and long-term capacity for virtue?

Miller grants that the law can sometimes be used to improve public morality, but stipulates that it must be a “reasonable” use of the law. His formulation is puzzling, especially when he declares that the video-game statute was “unreasonable” because legislatures might someday use another law to suppress religious speech. Miller’s worry about a possible abuse of power in the future cannot be dismissed, but his analysis of the case and defense of the ruling should not rest so heavily on one consideration.

These matters raise serious questions about the feasibility and coherence of Miller’s synthesis between “pragmatic liberalism” and an Aristotelian-Thomistic account of human flourishing. As presently conceived, his project fails because he is too partial to contemporary liberalism, and the “synthesis” reflects that bias. Accordingly, for anyone sympathetic to Miller’s project, I wish to propose three principles meant to promote its coherence.

First, even though eudaimonists may need to acknowledge that contemporary liberalism has won important policy battles, they should not take the next step and broadly affirm the principles of contemporary liberalism. They should not even characterize the American republic as “essentially liberal,” because that is misleading. As a matter of constitutional design, for example, the individualism and commercial side of American life are to be tempered by the authority of state legislatures to promote public health, safety, and morals.

Second, eudaimonists should be wary of any policy set by the Supreme Court relating to the begetting, rearing, and education of children. The Court’s decisions in these areas illustrate the impoverishment of contemporary liberal thought with respect to the moral formation of young persons. In the areas just listed, the Court has time and time again written contemporary liberal prejudices into law as it has overturned democratically enacted laws.

Third, in view of the second principle, eudaimonists should affirm civic engagement as a moral duty for themselves. In most of the Western world, liberal political principles give people the freedom to ignore politics, as was implied in Benjamin Constant’s famous essay of 1819, “The Liberty of the Moderns Compared with that of the Ancients.” But for anyone who identifies with the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, civic indifference or civic minimalism cannot be an option—at least not today.

Like Mario Cuomo, Miller is preoccupied by the existence of cultural and religious pluralism in the United States. That pluralism seems to have spawned doubts in both men about the universality of certain moral principles by which they live.

Perhaps because of such doubts, Miller seems to want to lead a fairly quiet existence, some distance away from the often contentious arguments about what public morality in our liberal democracy requires. Acting on this desire might make for a more tranquil life, but it could also be regarded as a betrayal of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, with the civic engagement implied by it. Hence the appellation: “the reluctant eudaimonist.”

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