Last November, Alasdair MacIntyre stirred controversy in a talk on human dignity, which he calls “a puzzling and possibly dangerous idea.” Predictably, the talk provoked a range of responses, but the most enthusiastic came from a group of political theorists that have emerged in recent years as harsh critics of political liberalism. In MacIntyre’s critique of “dignity,” they saw a justification for dismantling the liberal state.
MacIntyre argues that the modern appeal to dignity is dangerous. Appeals to dignity function, in the modern world, as a ground for rhetorical agreement among groups (whether atheists, Catholics, Jews, or vegans) who otherwise conceive of justice and morality in radically different ways. The modern notion of ‘dignity’ is supposed to substitute for any and all of these parochial perspectives, because differences in perspective undermine our ability to live together. The substitution covers over moral disagreement, sparing us from the difficult labor of grounding our culture and political order in reason, and in foundational moral truths that people from many backgrounds can recognize and respect.
The modern concept of dignity grounds negative obligations toward others, as for instance when we insist that slavery is incompatible with respect for others’ ‘dignity.’ However, it fails to recognize further positive obligations we have toward others, in terms of economic or political help. In the modern view, nothing is due to us merely as ‘human beings.’ Coming from that starting point, it is difficult to make sense of our communal obligations, and this leads in turn to fragmentation within the community. MacIntyre therefore counsels us to return to the classical view of dignitas, which sees each person as part of a human community whose ‘common good’ lies ultimately in knowledge and love of God. This substantive conception of the common good allows us to delineate our rights and duties toward each other in light of our social roles within the community—precisely as citizen, mother, father, and so forth.
MacIntyre’s thesis about human dignity has attracted the attention of certain thinkers who have been pushing a new political vision for conservatives. Whether described under the moniker ‘postliberal,’ ‘integralist,’ or ‘national conservative,’ this group echoes MacIntyre’s critique of modern individualism, and is eager to return to a more substantive, communitarian politics. As Sohrab Ahmari put it, these thinkers want to fight the battles of the culture war “with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen, underlines this critique of the modern order, decrying the evils of liberal democratic ideals, and calling for a return to the common good. Deneen is vague about proposed political alternatives, but has aligned himself with others who are less hesitant. Sohrab Ahmari, Gladden Pappin, and Chad Pecknold have argued that what is needed is a return to ‘cultural Christianity,’ where the State can again aim at “the expansion of Christianity with the assistance of temporal power.” How this happens is left tantalizingly vague. We hear, for instance, of laying “down structures that made [salvation] easier,” with gestures toward Hungary as an exemplar. Pecknold later proposed a return to blasphemy laws that criminalize profane use of Christ’s name, outlawing ‘critical race theory,’ mandating Christian prayer in schools, and having (state-sponsored) Christian processions on feast days. What is common to these and other thinkers is that they aim politically to undermine liberal institutions, especially weakening typical liberal protections against promoting specific religious ends.
These illiberals often appeal to the common good of society, implying that this takes priority over individual rights or freedoms. They recommend advancing their ‘cultural Christianity’ over the protests and objections of people with different moral or religious views. In fact, though, this betrays a misunderstanding of the classical account of the common good to which MacIntyre appeals. On a classical account of the common good, societal flourishing consists in nothing other than the ‘moral’ peace and harmony of all citizens. Such societal flourishing is not reducible to the flourishing of each individual member, and so does not license a move to an individualist or corporatist (depending how one looks at it) conception of the common good, as the greatest good for the greatest number. The consent of the individual citizens to the policies of the government is still relevant. The common good constitutively consists in the virtuous life of citizens, which in turn requires friendship, order, and a kind of moral harmony among them.
A state that imposes the moral or religious good upon its citizens, in the way envisioned by these ‘culture warriors,’ would undermine that. Charles de Koninck rails against the individualist claim that society is ordered merely for the preservation of individualist liberties but also against the temptation for collective action where “that which is owed to the common good becomes something owed to the singular good, to a singular which orders everything to self.” On these latter distortions of the common good, de Koninck argues, “legal justice is destroyed.” The state opposes itself as a power foreign to the individuals who compose it and ceases to have a common good which is truly common to the citizens.
One does not need to be a full-on classical liberal to recognize that liberal principles, even where they lack substantive justification, may preserve correct intuitions about morality and the common good. Even a classical politics of the common good held that there are—as in an ethics founded on virtue—absolute limits on the just use of coercive power by the government. The government cannot justly engage in torture, even in emergencies. It may not murder the innocent. Some of these absolute prohibitions apply to individuals too, but the state should, in fact, be more constrained than a private person.
Aquinas notes that judges cannot violate due process in court cases in order to impose a verdict, appealing to their private knowledge as individuals, of the accused’s guilt. Knowledge of the truth does not give one license to override public obligations of justice. The judge is therefore bound in justice to abide by, and base his judgment on, the evidence that was publicly introduced according to the norms of the court (ST II-II, q. 67, a. 2).
Rights can only be understood in light of the social nature of human beings, but it does not follow that there are no subjective rights, or that subjective rights wholly derive from the ends of the societies to which individuals belong. The natural law tradition instead came to understand subjective rights as ways of delineating distinct elements of the common good. While it is obvious that the common good includes the efficient and fair provision of public goods (e.g., health care), the common good primarily consists in goods that are not of that character. What the state primarily owes to citizens is public order and justice.
Justice has parts too. Persons are ‘owed their due’ in different ways according to their standing in society. Policemen are owed their due from the government in a distinct way, and families in another. Nevertheless, individuals are not wholly reducible to their social roles. Natural rights are consequent upon the relations of justice that hold between people regardless of their membership in any given society. Those natural rights are then a standard against which we can judge what constitutes an abuse of power by an official or a whole government: attempting to utilize their power so as to deny what is due to someone not merely by government fiat, but by nature itself and Nature’s Author.
It is obvious that there are just limits to rights, where, e.g., freedom of speech does not license advocating genocide of minorities. The natural law tradition is clear that rights imply correlative moral duties, such as the right to religious freedom implying a duty to seek the truth in matters of religion. These facts follow from the way in which rights are embedded in a theoretically-prior notion of the common good.
None of this, however, undermines the more important fact that all of these claims are grounded in a conception on which human nature, merely being a human being, is what accounts for these rights and obligations of both individuals and groups. Human rights are merely a species of those natural obligations which we—individually and collectively—owe one another as duties of justice, prior to and independent of any legal specification of those duties. Justice in our relations toward each other is constitutive of, not accidental to, societal flourishing.
In an age that has experienced the terrors of authoritarian and totalitarian governments, it would be foolish not to recognize the role played by legally codified human rights in preventing abuses of power. Liberal thinkers insist that citizens must be guaranteed a right to a fair trial, to appoint and hold their leaders accountable, to fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, and conscience, with rights to public protest and assembly without fear of punishment or imprisonment, to rule of law that applies equally to officials of all stripes and is applied consistently. We have discovered, in hindsight, that the common good requires that the individual be protected from the overreach of government in many of the ways that classical liberal political theory outlined above.
Illiberals claim that their approach respects human rights more effectively by protecting rights understood in light of communitarian necessities, as opposed to what they see as a ‘liberal’ project of privileging individual interests over the common good. But this is questionable on two counts. First, illiberals envision a Catholic minority enforcing a cultural agenda within a pluralistic society against their ‘enemies.’ The illiberals fight contra mundum. Their ‘enemies’ are not going to vote in favor of their policies (can we seriously envision most American Christians supporting reinvigorated blasphemy laws, let alone everyone else?) or sleepily allow illiberals to sneak activists onto the courts or into state administrative agencies.
Illiberals will therefore not include many of the rights listed above in their list of human rights in order to justify using governmental authority to promote a particular vision of the good despite opposition. This appears to require overriding the normal legislative or judicial checks on abuse of power. Further, many of those ‘liberal’ political rights which illiberals deny to be human rights are precisely those which ensure that governments serve and represent their people, rather than exercising tyrannical power over and against them. Undermining these protections ipso facto undermines the very conditions under which that governmental authority could be used in service of the common good.
Second, advocates of illiberalism regularly imply that a society that embraces liberal norms should be atheistic or secular, because its absolute prioritizing of human rights gives individuals a ‘right’ to reject God, moral truth, or the natural law. They consider it most important to protect the rights of all to the common good (a positive right), which in their view plainly necessitates the rejection of many negative rights. Relativizing away many freedoms is the only way that the true common good is promoted rather than a weak liberal substitute. Consequently, they reason, religious or moral views that are erroneous and contrary to the true good of human beings should be suppressed by state power—and those who hold and promulgate false religious or moral views should not be granted any ‘right’ to do so.
In making this case, illiberal thinkers fail to recognize that a healthy respect for rights can be part of a Christian ideal of the use of power. As Jacques Maritain once wrote, “an organization of liberties is unthinkable apart from the moral realities of justice and civil amity, which, on the natural and temporal plane, correspond to what the Gospel calls brotherly love on the spiritual and supernatural plane.” To order a society toward God is not the same as establishing a confessional state. Submitting the state to limitations on its power through a recognized, legal mechanism involving natural or ‘human rights,’ including a right to freedom of religious belief and practice, can be envisioned as a necessary element in the subordination of the state to a good which surpasses the good sought by the civil government. The peace at which we aim, as Christians, is a peace which transcends societal or political goods, and this ideal is what leads us to seek reconciliation with (rather than the elimination of) our political enemies—the erring have rights, even if error itself does not.
Illiberal thinkers have much to say about the great goods we could gain if the wheels of government power were employed in the service of particular lofty ideals. These appealing visions are a distraction from the more fundamental question: would that use of power be just? It is widely recognized today that giving second-class status to religious minorities, the suppression and prosecution of heresy/blasphemy as a civil crime, or widespread control of dissenting public speech, is unjust. Those protections that illiberals want to weaken or qualify, however, embody what many take to be obligations of justice and charity toward our fellow man (I think rightly and in keeping with Catholic teaching). Their arguments that communal flourishing is better achieved by ignoring those obligations in certain circumstances, if there are such obligations, would be nothing more than garden-variety consequentialism dressed up in the language of the common good.
It would be naïve in the extreme to fail to recognize, once certain measures are made legally permissible, that the same can and will be used against citizens of all stripes, including integralist Catholics. Employing liberal institutions to good ends can be difficult, and the effort forces us to ponder many prudential questions. We cannot expect perfectly to achieve that peace which God alone can give within the political institutions of a fallen world, but we owe it to our compatriots both to try to make the world a better place and to abide by fair terms of cooperation and justice in doing so. These aims are compatible in light of a Christian politics that aims to make friends of our enemies.
A political view that rejects this tends to portray all differences in terms of friend/enemy distinctions, which are insurmountable except by the use of power. This vision of political life is deeply in tension with Christian principles, even when its advocates promise to build the Kingdom of God on earth. We should accordingly qualify MacIntyre’s warning about modern dignity. What is needed is not the rejection of dignity, but rather its establishment on better foundations.