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Revisiting Alasdair MacIntyre on Liberal Toleration

In some respects, Alasdair MacIntyre offers strong arguments in favor of political liberalism. At the same time, he offers critiques for both liberalism’s proponents and opponents.

Alasdair MacIntyre is renowned and reviled as a trenchant critic of liberalism. However, MacIntyre’s detractors and admirers have not always paid close attention to the subtleties of his criticism. These subtleties clarify MacIntyre’s distinctive voice and provide important provocations to contemporary critics and defenders of liberalism.

Drawing from my article in the Political Science Reviewer, in this essay I highlight MacIntyre’s positive treatment of liberal political institutions in his essay “Toleration and the Goods of Conflict,” and show how this bears on contemporary debates in American political thought and the tradition to which MacIntyre subscribes, Thomist Aristotelianism. While MacIntyre’s defense of liberal political institutions is—surprisingly—in some respects more liberal than John Locke, he offers criticisms against both contemporary American liberalism’s proponents and opponents. Moreover, MacIntyre’s treatment of liberal political institutions discloses a problem for post-Leonine Thomist Aristotelianism: its underdeveloped account of political form.

Tolerance as Integral to Rational Inquiry

In After Virtue, MacIntyre diagnosed modernity’s ethical and political conflicts as a problem brought about by the Enlightenment project’s rejection of Aristotelian practical reasoning. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre argued that rational inquiry about the human good is not the exercise of an autonomous rational agent, but is constituted by a tradition. MacIntyre finally defended Thomist Aristotelianism as the tradition with the best account of the human good, making the case for the intelligibility of the summum bonum. MacIntyre’s liberal critics attacked him for these views, and the charge of anti-pluralistic Catholic intolerance lay behind many attacks. Liberals judged that MacIntyre regarded conflict about ethics and politics—and therefore pluralism about ethics and politics—as an inherent problem.

However, MacIntyre does not think that conflict between different accounts of the human good is in itself a problem; it is irresolvable conflicts that pose the problem. He argues that conflicts—and therefore pluralism—are integral to furthering rational inquiry about the human good. Conflicting accounts of the human good provide a tradition with an opportunity for further revision, deepening its understanding of reality. It is because rational inquiry must proceed with a view to gaining a better understanding of the human good, and because conflicts provide that opportunity to gain a better understanding of the human good, that MacIntyre defends the toleration of opposing views. As Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo insightfully argues, MacIntyre’s account departs from other contemporary critics of liberalism in striving to “accommodate viewpoint diversity in the ethical life.”

What separates MacIntyre from liberalism is that liberals give up on shared rational inquiry about the human good, celebrating irresolvable conflict as the fact of pluralism. This situates MacIntyre’s social and political critique of liberalism. When rational agents cease to inquire about the good, those with power exploit the absence of deliberation to further their own interests. They seize control of modern social and political institutions, including the state, so that these institutions become obstacles for rational agents trying to achieve their good and the common good.

MacIntyre’s Backhanded Compliment to American Liberalism

The basic issue for MacIntyre is what sustains rational inquiry about the human good. Since this requires openness, discussion, and tolerance of opposing views, MacIntyre defends three controversial liberal institutions.

First, agreeing “with conclusions drawn from lines of thought initiated by Locke,” MacIntyre defends state neutrality. It is a fiction, he writes, but “an important fiction,” because we cannot trust the modern state to promote values. For MacIntyre, state promulgation of the good can be instrumentalized to ends that further the power of some over others; moreover, state promulgation of the good stultifies a rational agent’s own inquiry into the good. Defending state neutrality wards off these possibilities.

Second, MacIntyre defends the liberal separation of church and state. His principled position is that the state should not adopt a religion’s point of view on the human good. Their points of view must not align. “The corrupting integration of church and state,” he writes in his 2016 book Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, damages “the liberty to dissent.” MacIntyre has been a lifelong defender of the rational agent’s capacity to pursue and identify his own good. In his 1978 book Against the Self-Images of the Age, he denounced both Stalinism and the liberal managerial state’s attempts at social control, writing, “no body can know what an agent wants better than the man himself.” Not only does MacIntyre defend separation of Church and State on these secular grounds, but he also does so considering spiritual ends as well: “The principal harm that was done by the hegemony accorded to the Roman Catholic Church by regimes as different as those of Franco’s Spain and de Valera’s Ireland was after all to the Roman Catholic religion.”

Third, MacIntyre defends the permissive reading of American First Amendment jurisprudence. He rejects European restrictions on freedom of speech, such as Germany outlawing public denial of the Holocaust. The state simply must not intervene between protagonists of rival conceptions of the human good.

MacIntyre’s focus is on ethical inquiry, so we should be wary of reading too much political and legal philosophy into his thought. Nevertheless, his position is that our approach to ethical inquiry bears on political and legal philosophy. Out of a desire to preserve rational inquiry about the human good, MacIntyre raises the concern that the coercive apparatus of the institutions of the modern state interferes with rational inquiry about the human good. MacIntyre concludes that it is important to defend particular liberal political institutional arrangements that limit coercion, the paramount examples of which are American. We can then consider how his conclusions bear on American debates.

MacIntyrean Provocations in Debates over Liberalism

American political thought has seen an ongoing debate into the relationship between liberal institutions and the common good. One side wants a shared, public inquiry into the common good and an accompanying reorganization of liberal political institutions (even at the price of abandoning some of these institutions). The other wants to reinforce liberal political institutions effective at defending freedom—even at the price of dismissing shared, public inquiry into the common good.

MacIntyre’s simultaneous assault on liberalism and defense of liberal institutions provides an original intervention in this debate. In one respect, MacIntyre proposes strengthening the theses of each side. Although he defends shared public inquiry into “the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” MacIntyre pretends that [political power] “could ever be neutral.” Defending the fiction of state neutrality, he rejects using “public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality.”

This leads him to an expansive defense of the political institutions of late American liberalism. Since Locke eschewed state neutrality—to argue that the state should support institutions that promote the virtues that secure a natural rights society—MacIntyre is more Lockean than Locke. Like John Courtney Murray in We Hold These Truths, MacIntyre’s position seems to be that rejecting a state religion is best for Catholicism. But he goes beyond simply rejecting an established church: by rejecting any alignment between the views promulgated by the state and that of the church, MacIntyre’s position is compatible with the strict “wall of separation” interpretation of church-state relations developed in later American liberal jurisprudence. Finally, by not considering whether speech-acts can ever be objectively offensive, MacIntyre shows his commitment to expansive free speech inquiry into the human good is such that he would risk state jurisprudence “backing into relativism.”

In another respect, however, MacIntyre criticizes the arguments of each side. Against the friends of liberalism, MacIntyre shows that one can sustain a fervent criticism of liberal philosophy, criticize the political and social consequences of liberalism writ large, defend shared public inquiry into the common good and the Highest Good—and still preserve liberal institutions. MacIntyre challenges friends of liberalism to show why public inquiry into the common good must threaten liberal political institutions. Against liberalism’s critics, MacIntyre shows that a robust public commitment to discovering the common good and the Highest Good can still yield a defense of liberal institutions. MacIntyre thereby challenges those critics to moderate some of their provocations that attack liberal institutions: the conclusions do not necessarily follow from the premises. MacIntyre’s position is not far from those who seek non-liberal justifications—that is to say, justifications that are not arranged in terms of modern liberal individualism—for liberal institutions. His work sometimes points in that direction.

An Overlooked Path in Post-Leonine Thomism: MacIntyre and Weber, Kolnai or Maritain

When it comes to reading MacIntyre, however, we should strive to direct our inquiries not toward his work as such, but toward genuine philosophical problems and questions. MacIntyre’s work contributes to the tradition of Thomist Aristotelianism, and it aims to help that tradition solve genuine problems. Yet MacIntyre claims that the promise of Thomist Aristotelianism has not been realized, in part because of post-Leonine missteps. MacIntyre’s surprising defenses of liberal institutions expose that the genuine problem for post-Leonine Thomist Aristotelians has been a failure to discuss political form adequately, because Thomist Aristotelians end up relying on Max Weber’s account of modern political form..

We see the shape of this problem if we start with Thomas Pink’s recent integralist foray into political philosophy. Pink argues that we can derive an integralist state from revealed theology and metaphysics. This would provide “a more realistic view of how states actually function—including states that are secular,” making integralist politics relevant to Catholics as well as non-Catholics.

Pink sets up a confrontation between the Hobbesian theory of the state and the Scholastic theory of the state. However, his arguments recall Aurel Kolnai’s post-Leonine criticism of Thomists who profess a “purely and simply Aristotelian conception of the state.” Kolnai’s concern was that this conception of the state had a weak account of pluralism. For Kolnai, pluralism meant the spheres of social relations and activities within the body politic, including the Church. These given realities should be granted their autonomous forms of expression and organization neither through statist nor individualist projects, but through federalism.

The need for pluralism in post-Leonine political thought provoked two great challenges. The first was the challenge of Charles Maurras. Maurras argued that to give pluralism its due required giving up on republican statism and opting for the federalist political form—which, Maurras, argued, could only be achieved through a monarchy. But Maurras’s Thomist fellow-travelers were troubled by Maurras’s refusal to think theologically about politics, as well as his hostility to democratic political form.

This prepared the ground for the second great challenge: that of Jacques Maritain. Breaking from Maurras after 1926, Maritain provided a highly influential theological case for egalitarian democracy, challenging both integralist scholasticism and Maurrassisme. Kolnai, however, emphatically denied that Maritain had successfully recognized pluralism. For Kolnai, Maritain made a political theology of democracy that pushed egalitarian conformism at the expense of pluralism. By misunderstanding what power is, Maritain had put the mask of Christian democracy upon the old republican statism. This continued swallowing up the spiritual substance of Christ. Maritain had either been too optimistic about the democratic political form (Kolnai’s harsh assessment) or had been misinterpreted as exclusively focusing on democratic political form (Augusto del Noce’s charitable assessment).

Of course, optimists for a resurgence of Maritain’s Christian democracy can insist that someday, openness and discussion between moral agents will overcome power and force—Kolnai was wrong and Maritain was right. But by conceding that political institutions today remain loci of power and force, that they do not embody these principles, Christian democrats and liberals concede Max Weber’s iron cage: that the powerful, coercive bureaucracy of the liberal administrative state is the destiny of modern political institutions.

Importantly, MacIntyre also concedes Weber’s iron cage. He sees meaning as achievable for rational moral agents in practices and traditions of rational inquiry. But he concedes the inevitability of meaningless liberal power politics. MacIntyre leaves us with practices as a communicative ideal of rational inquiry. This does not suffice for optimism. For MacIntyre is one of the great post-Leonine pessimists: he concludes that to transform the liberal administrative state is, in the present, neither possible nor desirable.

In short, then, MacIntyre’s work exposes this genuine problem: Thomist Aristotelianism ends up in the same political posture as liberalism, a Weberian political posture. Acquiescing to the inevitability of the liberal administrative state and to politics as the realm of coercion, the best Thomists and liberals can do is to attempt to limit coercive political power. But this is, as MacIntyre’s work reminds us, a pessimistic conclusion: we are still acquiescing to a liberal administrative state, which continues to destroy pluralism and religious life.

Pink, and Adrian Vermeule, pose their challenge here. They refuse to acquiesce. Instead of simply trying to limit coercive political power, they discuss how to redirect power to better, non-liberal ends. However, by drawing attention to MacIntyre’s and post-Leonine Thomism’s concession to Weber, we show that Pink and Vermeule also operate under Weber’s shadow. Vermeule in particular holds that a non-liberal administrative state is possible and desirable, but a non-administrative state is neither possible nor desirable. Like MacIntyre, then, Vermeule concedes Weber’s iron cage.

For those who wish to reject the pessimistic acquiescence either to the liberal administrative state or to the administrative state, MacIntyre’s Thomist Aristotelianism points toward a question. That question is whether a non-Weberian stream for post-Leonine Thomism is possible and desirable. This stream would have to respond to Kolnai’s concern, providing a theory of the state and of power that could transform both the liberal and administrative components of the state toward a political form that defends pluralism. It would have to face down the Weberian-inflected charge of another great post-Leonine pessimist, Georges Bernanos, who rebuked this stream as “the heir of the ancient centralizing legists.” Nevertheless, this pessimism does not entail that the stream must remain dry. As Bernanos says: “Optimism is the false hope of cowards and imbeciles. True hope is despair overcome.”

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