Saturday, November 05, 2005

Responding to David Jones' "Disagreement with Novak & other Whig Thomists"

David Jones has posted his "Disagreement with Novak & other Whig Thomists" (Oct. 21, 2005):

A friend asked the following question to me.

"Can you articulate in one short paragraph your core disagreement with the thinking of [Michael] Novak? I want your words, not a list of books I should read. Just a succinct expression of your disagreement."

My response was the following seven points.

1. The death of God for our times, for our culture, for us, is Liberalism.
2. Democracy is the not the best form of government.
3. Capitalism is not the best form of economics.
4. Novak does not adequately deal with the centrality of the nature-grace question, which directly impacts humanity and therefore our culture. He therefore uses a poor ontology (onto-logic) of the prudence required to deal with the political and economic practices and structures of modern-day society or man.
5. The War in Iraq is unjust. It did not meet the Just War criteria.
6. Big business destroys or lessens our humanity.
7. St. Thomas Aquinas is no Whig.

David's comments (or, rather, assertions) are very succinct indeed, although having "chewed on them" a little I think I'd prefer clarity and precision over ambiguity, even if it means for David to take some time to develop and "flesh out" his position in a series of posts.

Nevertheless, as he wishes for a response, what follows is a modified form of my email to him and one of our mutual friends, excerpted from prior correspondence and slightly revised (and posted in the comments to the post in question):

1) "The death of God for our times, for our culture, for us, is Liberalism"

To which one is compelled to ask: What kind of liberalism? What kind of liberty? As we know, the term itself can refer to a broad range of positions with often conflicting philosophies:

[T]he word liberalism is a wonderfully pliant term. It is used to label a range of philosophical and religious positions, many of which have little in common. Both the political theorist John Rawls and the economist Friedrich Von Hayek are commonly described as liberals. Yet, it is difficult to imagine two individuals whose views on many matters are more opposed to each other. . . . it makes little sense to ask whether a set of proposed practices are "liberal" or, for that matter, "conservative." Reasoned inquiry should ask whether an idea is reasonable and threfore true, or unreasonable and thus untrue.
-- Dr. Samuel Gregg [introduction, On Ordered Liberty].

Further reading on the ambiguities of the term "liberalism':

David / Schindler / AT's see liberalism as very much wedded to postmodernism [death of God, absence of meaning, nihilism] -- WT's contend for a liberalism rightly criticiqued by the Church, achieved in part by a recovery of the original vision of our founding fathers.

Here's one distinction: for philosophers like Alisdair MacIntyre (After Virtue -- another good book), David Schindler, etc., the Enlightenment is done and over with. As MacIntyre points out in Whose Justice, Which Rationality we're in a fragmented age of conflicting worldviews, even to address concepts like "Reason", "Truth," "Justice," et al. is to deal with clashing understandings and interpretations derived from conflicting traditions.

Postmodernism reigns supreme, so the battle is squarely that of postmodernism/nihilism/relativism vs. Christianity. Novak's attempt to even research and present the original vision of our founding fathers (On Two Wings) is an exercise in futility, because -- they would say -- who really cares at this point?

The WT's see the inclination toward postmodernism as stemming from the academies and intellectuals (remember in the questions at the end of On Two Wings (pp. 111-113) where Novak ponders how we got from there to here? -- the secular interpretation of America's founding challenged by Novak's research didn't happen out of nowhere. He speaks of the "Europeanization of American intellectual life" and a concerted effort in the late 40's and 50's to systematically secularize American life and the interpretation of our nation's founding.

Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind -- another must-read -- describes the decay of the universities during the latter twentieth century as the infection of relativism sets into academia. Camille Paglia (a militant feminist) is sometimes fun to read because despite her antipathy towards Christianity she stands clearly opposed to her colleagues obsession with European postmodernism (Derrida, Foucault, etc.) and the loss of even a basic knowledge of the bible.

Dr. Schindler maintains that this is not simply the universities' fault -- that America itself, the midwest, the 'red states', everybody -- is hopelessly infected by the malaise of liberalism / relativism. We're not so "religious" a nation as we appear. There is some truth to this, but I think they tend to go overboard in their criticism and are under-appreciative of the distinctly positive elements in American life or the liberal tradition upon which it is founded . . . yes, even here in New York. ;-) [Note: Michael Therrien's piece on neo-liberalism responds in part to Dr. Schindler's criticisms, as well as those of the Houston Catholic Worker].

"Democracy is not the best form of government."

In one of the final chapters of George Weigel's Soul of the World: Notes on the Future of Public Catholicism he discusses the transition of the Church's relationship with democracy from hostility to internal critique -- see my post presenting Weigel on this very topic, blogged some weeks ago.

My own response here to David would be "relative to what?" -- It's worth noting that in Ecclesia in America which was recently cited by David/Hand, JPII conveys his preference for democratic institutions. I would imagine that Pope Benedict harbors a similar preference. This is not to say that our present form of democracy is the most acceptable -- the Acton Institute published an excellent essay by Cardinal Pell in Markets & Morality (Vol. 7, No. 2) titled "Is there only secular democracy? Imagining other possibilities for the Third Millenium"; the article is not yet available online, but it's worth the read.

Fr. Neuhaus did a three part series a couple years back in First Things ("The Public Square" Oct.-Dec. 1999), in which he presented 10 propositions on Catholicism and democracy:

. . . A fourth proposition is this: Democracy is and always will be unsatisfactory. Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying that "democracy is the worst system of government known to man, except for all the others that have been tried." That is not everything that can be said for democracy, but it is a not unimportant thing to be said. For the Christian, and indeed for every human being who aspires to live in the truth, the only satisfactory order is the Kingdom of God promised in the eschatological consummation of history. All our politics, including democratic politics, is, at most, penultimate. The state functions in the sphere of the penultimate. The church points to and anticipates the ultimate, the Kingdom of God. Christians live in both spheres and therefore are, in the words of the second century Letter to Diognetus, "resident aliens" in any earthly city.

Although all are unsatisfactory, all orderings of the earthly city are not equal. Democracy is a relative good, but it is superior to other orders because: 1) it is the form of government that, under the conditions of modernity, best accommodates the Christian understanding of human dignity; 2) it best fosters and protects the exercise of basic human rights; 3) it provides an enlarged sphere for the exercise of personal responsibility and the pursuit of the common good; 4) in its economic dimension, it best accords with human creativity and approximate justice; and, most important, 5) it is institutionally open to the future, including the ultimate future that is the Kingdom of God. On the last point, there is a great advantage in a political system that is transparently conducted by, and held accountable to, distinctly ungodlike human beings who freely avail themselves of their freedom to air their discontents with the system. This is a valuable prophylactic against the temptation to deify democracy or mistake it for the Kingdom of God. [SOURCE]

I would personally agree with Neuhaus' take, which I think is a solidly Catholic take on democracy. I think that those who wish to establish something otherwise -- even an integration of Catholicism with the state or variations thereof -- do so in ignorance of the lessons of history. And I think any reasonable alternative must take into account the reality of a pluralistic culture: America's founding and model was born of that reality -- Catholics and Protestants and Jews and agnostics and atheists in close proximity, neighbors, friends -- like it or not, we're stuck with each other. How do we then live?

3. Capitalism is not the best form of economics.

Again, relative to what? -- I think at some point we should bring in distributism into the conversation, as that appears to be the proposal of Stephen Hand, Thomas Storck and friends. (David has posted some links on this subject already). But nevertheless, here we can ask the same question: "what kind of capitalism"? -- As we can see, both Novak and JPII qualify their endorsement, and -- the WT's would maintain -- they tend to cohere.

Schindler faults capitalism and Novak's take because the proposal that we ought to act out of "enlightened self interest" runs counter to communio theology, in that it does not adequately manifest Christian spirituality and self-sacrifice.

David Schindler: "There is a single basic spirituality for all Christians, and Mary is the model of that spirituality. . . . for Christians, economic life, like all other aspects of life, must be formed from within the liberation effected by God in Jesus Christ" -- exactly how does economic life manifest Christian liberation? [Heart of the World p. 92]

Novak maintains a recognition of legitimate self-interest in contrast to avarice; his understanding of economics, and how business ought to work, is derived from an appreciation of Adam Smith and Alexander Tocqueville; "self-interest rightly understood". Here's the difference:

Adam Smith:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from the regard of their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity [philanthropy] but to their self-love, and never talk to them of their own necessities but to their advantages."
Thus the baker bakes a good loaf of bread because that is the way to ensure profit. The good both of the product and of the other (the potential consumer) is thus intrumentalized in the baker's self-interest.

David Schinder in Heart of the World, on Adam Smith's "baker":

A baker trying to live out his Christianity in his life as a businessperson, to imbue the reality of his economic life with the Gospel - in a word, to live in the spirit of the "new" liberation theory and praxis indicated in Centesimus Annus - would thus attempt to order profit differently from the way suggested by Smith. He would seek first to make a loaf of bread that was intrinsically good - in terms of its taste and health-producing qualities and the like - and he would seek to do this from the beginning for the sake of being of service to others in society, of enhancing their health and well-being. To be sure, he would recognize profit as a necessary condition of his continuing ability to provide this service to others. He would recognize that he was realizing his own good in this service to others. But that is just the point: his legitimate concern for profit, and his own "self-interest," would be integrated from the beginning and all along the way into the intention of service.

[See further elaboration on this point by Kevin Miller and relevant citations from Heart of the World.

I'm still pondering with this critique of Novak, because while it makes sense on paper, I'm not sure Novak / Smith are entirely wrong in their observation and judgement of what occurs.

Common sense dictates that it is indeed, in the merchant's "self interest" to please his customers, to build a good, reliable product, to behave with integrity and honesty. Novak would argue that these are indeed moral virtues and worth lauding -- and that the practice of business insofar as it contributes to the cultivation of integrity, honesty, fairness -- is worth promoting. Schindler, I think, would likely say this is all very well and good, but in the end it is simply not enough -- because business as so conceived fails to embody a distinctly Christlike spirit of "other-centered love."

Putting it in personal terms . . . sometimes when I come home from work I give my friend Ali a call. He's the owner of a Pakistani-Indian restaurant, with whom I'm good friends. I've eaten there enough (dine-in and delivery) that he knows exactly what I like. Now, while Ali and I are good friends, in the preparation and fulfillment of my order I suspect he is acting in his own "self-interest", that is to say: in preparing the food and/or instructing his staff, I daresay his chief motivation would be: earning a profit = paying the bills = feeding his wife and son (who I often see at the restaurant).

For Ali to act with this motivation in mind -- I would not necessarily condemn this basic matter of interest as a bad thing.

Here's my point: can we say that the baker in Adam Smith's case is acting purely to his own advantage? Or that my friend Ali is acting purely for the sake of profit? -- I'm not going to deny the fact that there are those who are motivated by greed and an improper sense of self-love, as one can witness by the financial scandals we read about in the paper and tales of luxury and extravagance, but it is also the case that a merchant, in running his business, does so out of consideration not for the dollar alone but for the welfare of his family.

In response to Schindler's philosophical critique, I would have to ask whether this manner of "self-interest" and Schindler's Christlike selflessness (characterized by a desire to make "an intrinsically good" plate of food "in service to others") is truly an 'either/or' matter or possibly "both/and"? Are they mutually exclusive, or can one indeed act with legitimate self-interest?

Is it not the case that when we scrutinize the "self-interest" of the businessman we see a mixture of self-regard and concern for family? That making a profit is desired not for profit itself but for other ends in mind -- in the case of my friend Ali: paying the bills, making a living, raising his child, providing roof and shelter for his family. In this light Ali's "self interest" would have more in common with Schindler's "other-centered love" than Schindler himself suspects, and what appears at first glance.

4. Novak does not adequately deal with the centrality of the nature-grace question, which directly impacts humanity and therefore our culture. He therefore uses a poor ontology (onto-logic) of the prudence required to deal with the political and economic practices and structures of modern-day society or man.

Don't have time to unpack this now but again, I believe this is found in Schindler's Heart of the World. At the same time, I think David could do well to flesh this out in his own words (less-abstract) and make it his own argument, posting it to his blog in his own words.

5. The War in Iraq is unjust. It did not meet the Just War Criteria.

While David merely asserts but fails to substantiate his argument, I think we've debated this ad nauseum. Granted, certain parties see the neocon's support of the war as part and parcel of their "Americanism" and wilfull disobedience to Rome -- Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel, "cafetaria catholics" no better than the rest. Other parties disagree (and not just the 'neocons').

The difficulty here is that the just war debate and Iraq include their own range of authors and background reading -- for instance, the work of just war scholar James Turner Johnson (who is coming out with what appears to be an excellent book on this very topic), Weigel's Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (1987) is also a must-read (in my opinion); also required to really debate this intelligently is an extensive knowledge of foreign relations and U.S. - Iraqi - Middle East history, et al. . . . in other words, a body of material which, I think, does not bear directly upon the "Augustinian-Thomist / Whig - Thomist" debate. Unless David is prepared to make the claim that ressourcement theology entails a specific stand with respect to the foreign policy of the Bush administration, I think that given the scope of this blog the war in Iraq is of a lower priority than other issues.

However, "warblogger" that I am, one may find this topic discussed on my blog Just War?, as well as my compilation of sources (pro/con) on this subject.

Finally, that said, Novak wouldn't have been my first pick as exponent of the Catholic just war analysis of Iraq.

6. Big business destroys or lessens our humanity.

Given that these comments are made with relation to the person of Michael Novak, I wonder whether David here is implicitly agreeing with the Zwicks' characterization of Novak as an "Enron apologist"?

7. St. Thomas Aquinas is no Whig.

David states the obvious, and neither Michael Novak nor Lord Acton would maintain that Aquinas was literally a "Whig." Novak discusses this at length pp. 120-123 of On Two Wings what Acton meant by this:

"Aquinas is called the first Whig because of the centrality he gave to human liberty in nature and history. The human person, he thought, is the most beautiful creature in all creation, the only one created as an end in itself. In his or her liberty the person is made in the image of the Creator. Aquinas further saw that the political power arises from the consent of the governed. . . . he also taught the traditional vision of limited government, limited both by moral law and by constitutional devices such as the mixed regime, and that justice sometimes demands that a tyrant be deposed."

Novak goes on to discuss the canonist appropriation of Aquinas' thought in the development of the idea of natural right as presented in Brian Tierny's study The idea of Natural Right: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150 - 1625 -- for Tearney, to suggest that modern rights theories are derived entirely from Hobbes [and Enlightenment philosophers] ignore "the history of the concept of jus naturale before the seventeenth century."

I haven't read Tierny's book, nor have I (yet) read Rowland's Culture and Thomist Tradition after Vatican II -- which David recommends and is certainly on my reading list, after I purchase Kraynak -- but suffice to say the suggestion that Aquinas "was the first Whig" calls for further clarification. As David points out, I've dealt with this question in my post Aquinas: First Whig? (Religion and Liberty [blog] Sept. 21, 2005).