A Maverick Manifesto

Everyone these days agrees that our world is falling apart, though each party hastens to blame the other. In a world in which partisanship is both furious and all-pervasive, my approach to social and political issues is that of an unabashed maverick. During the last Administration, Bush-bashing went beyond all political measure, continuing even when he was a lame duck in every sense of the word; the new President, Barack Obama, has been accused of being both a fascist and a secret Muslim, and the movement to impeach him has already begun. Ideological lynch mobs against people like Larry Summers are common in the academy, and David Frum published an enemies list of fellow Conservatives, accusing them of treason for failure to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the same time, the cult of the personality – once of Bush, now of Obama – remains a conspicuous feature of our political life

The philosopher who attempts some distance from the passions of the moment to reflect on the roots of human social life is constantly running into ideological mine-fields: this one has been accused of anti-Semitism for emphasizing common human nature (the book so accused is [12]). To oppose both abortion and torture is to place oneself outside of both of the contending political tribes (on torture see [21]).  Such a philosopher will inevitably be a maverick, though one who tries to remain in dialogue with the members of the various herds he finds in the world around him.

Social and political philosophy is never value-neutral, as the cases of Plato, Locke, and Marx make clear. And if the practical implications of a philosophical work, for example my teacher John Searle’s Construction of Social Reality, are obscure, that fact is a problem for him.

Thought about philosophical issues should no longer, however, be dominated by the Left-Right continuum inherited from the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly. In an unfortunate development, Left unless otherwise specified has come to mean cultural Left – advocacy for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transpeople and women seeking abortions – rather than a defense of the poor and working class. The rural poor, especially if heterosexual white men, are neglected: people who otherwise abominate derogatory names for groups happily use such expressions as redneck, hillbilly, and poor white trash. (One such man prefers Appalachian American.) Meanwhile, the rich are well able to take care of themselves; there are even institutions in which willing intellectuals can sell themselves in accordance with a sort of inverted Marxism. Likewise, liberal and conservative were never proper antonyms. Virtually everybody these days is some sort of liberal (the alternative is holy war against ideological and cultural opponents). And the best sense of conservative is cautious, as in a conservative investment strategy. As such conservative is a relative term.

Both the ‘Left’ and the ‘Right’ halves of the American political spectrum are in a state of moral and intellectual collapse. The Left suffers from the simultaneous breakdown of Liberal Protestantism, defeated by its unwillingness to say that certain positions are not Christian; and of Marxism, defeated by the untrustworthiness of ‘laws’ of history, whether of the ‘progressive’ or the ‘reactionary’ sort. The Right rests on a forced alliance between cultural traditionalists and Libertarians – those who hate the federal government because it corrupts their communities, and those who hate it because it restrains their greed. While proponents of a new Tea Party have good reasons for distrusting the government, they have not the least idea how to shrink the government or what to do once it has shrunk. The assumption, that if Big Government would just go away, materially and morally supportive communities would somehow come forward, rests on nothing but a wish and a promise.

Then there the Corporatists, who have no interest in small government or cultural traditions except so far as they favor the interests of their clients.  To the extent that such people have a philosophy, it is a kind of inverted Marxism, The ruling ideas of the epoch are and ought to be the ideas of the ruling class — and those who think otherwise are truants, smart-alecks, or friends of terrorists, even if they are in other respects conservative. 

In this context, I have been developing a communitarian social and political philosophy based, first on our common humanity [9, 10, 11, 12, 16]; and second, on belief in a transcendent God, Who is able to place all of our institutions, practices, and movements under judgment [15]. My interest in the religious issues goes back to my early work on the ontological argument [for example 8], but has since turned to the question, how does God interact with ordinary human life? Though myself a (theologically moderate) Roman Catholic, I have been exploring the Calvinist roots of American culture, which continue to exert a subterranean influence on our minds and imaginations [4]. For, despite its harsh side, Calvinism presents a vision of our common humanity in the face of death and a transcendent God, which is a necessary element in any humanistic program.

While I take the religious dimension of this program seriously, I reject the attempt to turn a faith-community or political movement into a sort of coven, whose members talk only to one another, cut away common ground with outsiders, and egg one another on to more and more extreme positions. Groups that have attempted to bridge cultural and political divides, such as the Anglican Communion, break up noisily. Politically engaged Christians are now usually Democrats or Republicans first, and believers second. I do not appeal to religion to certify particular moral or political positions: as far as I can see no one, believer or otherwise, knows how much religion has affected his convictions. What is important is that God is the Supreme Judge, Who stands above our factional conflicts and upholds the dignity of every person.

The claims of common humanity begin with the right to live, obscured though it is by the explosion of other rights-claims [9; more briefly 10, 11; see also 2 and 6]. This means seamless garment pro-life ethics [5], including recognition of the right of all people to decent health care. It is frustrating to see trauma care held hostage to abortion, and only slightly less frustrating to see repugnance to abortion enlisted into a generalized attack on governmental support for health and welfare. Yet we must expect cultural conflict to bedevil the post-New Deal state, both in the domain of health care (for more reasons see [3]) and wherever else serious questions arise.

Though not the only offense against human life, abortion remains especially obnoxious, since it denies both the humanity of the unwanted and the bond between mother and child. Almost as important is the right to be free from torture, until just recently common ground among people of every persuasion. The ‘wet liberal’ (by which I understand a liberal by inheritance rather than conviction) Richard Rorty has said in the New Republic that we have nothing to say to torturers except that is not the way we do things here (on Rorty, see [13]). But then it turns out that we do.

Torture is in some ways a worse offense against human dignity than killing, since it is not content to eliminate a person who stands in our way, but keeps him alive more effectively to subject him to our will [see 21].

I also continue the traditional humanistic dislike of the deep and widening gap between rich and poor, both in our own society and in the world at large, though absolute equality may not be desirable or attainable. For such a division undermines our sense of common humanity, especially in a world in which the poor are constantly reminded both of the luxuries of the rich and the contempt in which the more fortunate hold them. Phenomena such as human trafficking, reproductive prostitution, and the market in human organs are the natural result of such a division. Reportedly, we are now building a new prison every week.

A belief in our common humanity is central to my outlook. And that we are all ‘of woman born’ is an anciently recognized bond of common humanity. Thus issues of sex and gender are at the center of our cultural conflicts [17]. Though I find the persecution of gays and lesbians abhorrent, heterosexuality – and especially heterosexual marriage – remains central to a way of life in which the differences among us, including differences of sex, are subordinate to our common humanity.

Yet one recurrent feature of human nature is the tendency to form mutually uncomprehending and often hostile groups [see 18]. The clash of dogmatically held perspectives, the more stridently held the weaker their rational basis, characterizes much contemporary discourse. There are people who refuse to believe that their adversaries care what they say they care about. Alison Jaggar refuses to acknowledge that pro-life people are in fact pro-life. And the breakdown of society into warring tribes, followed by authoritarian rule established by one of them, is very real.

We need at least to attempt to reason in ways that engage adversaries. For this purpose, we need two kinds of liberal education: education in an in-depth appreciation of one tradition, resulting in a richly and finely crafted version of a shared outlook; and education for dialogue with other outlooks [12, 13]. All parents instill ‘values’ into their children; those who let them reach maturity and make up their minds have taught them indifference. Before children have reached the age of critical reflection, the alternative to parental instruction is the rampant consumerism of the media, or propaganda for the outlook of the educational establishment.

People of all backgrounds need to learn to appreciate one another’s common humanity, and learn from one another. Academic freedom needs to be understood, not as the privilege of protected professionals, but as a way of facilitating dialogue among various points of view [1]. Training in dialogue is essential to civic education, though there will inevitably be (we may hope only a few) people with whom dialogue is impossible. The idea of a ‘canon’ is far too rigid, and confuses religious and secular education. But the Great Books of the Western tradition, supplemented by contemporary writings whose status as yet undecided, form a sound basis for such education for people in contemporary America. Exploration of at least one alien tradition in all its dimensions including the spiritual, and the study of at one foreign language, will make students aware of other ways of seeing the world, and help them both understand social outsiders and have a deeper appreciation of their own tradition. All of this may seem irrelevant, in a world in which many children receive only a custodial education. But negative egalitarianism about education is absurd; it is our task to see to it that as many citizens as possible have the equipment to understand our shared problems and evaluate proposed remedies

The hardest question, for all my positions, is why? Why should we value even the most unattractive members of the human species, and why should it bother us if the human race or some part of it dies out? Relativism does not provide a foundation for tolerance among rival outlooks [15]. If there were any doubt about this point, an encounter with Islam, which holds the Qu’ran is the Word of God and Mohammed only a ‘tube,’ should make the matter plain. For a relativist can say neither that Muslims are wrong, nor that they are right, nor that they are ‘really’ relativists after all.

One answer to the resulting questions is dogmatism and dishonesty, as when Martha Nussbaum builds her political program into her account of human capabilities (and is prepared to misrepresent the text to make Plato seem to fit). Another is the demand that one’s adversaries proceed under a veil of ignorance concerning their fundamental beliefs; less elegantly, believers are told to ‘sit down and shut up.’ Such political philosophies are, in the last resort, two more versions of the doctrine that might makes right.

A better answer is that all of us are created in the image of God. The most important challenge to this belief is the secular religion extrapolated from the theory of evolution, which implies that we are nothing more that brute animals. But as science as opposed to Myth, evolution describes but does not explain (for example why some ‘adaptive’ mutation occurs). So evolution does not explain why human beings happened, and thus poses no threat to the idea of human dignity [7, 20]. So, if we are to avoid the doctrine that might makes right, we should continue to adhere to the belief that we are created in the image of God. And on this basis we can develop a Communitarian social philosophy [19]. As far as practice is concerned, we are called, not to be successful, but to be faithful.

I welcome comments both from supporters and critics of this project.

Philip E. Devine
Professor of Philosophy
Providence College

For a vita with publications, see https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/vita/

For a photograph and statement of teaching goals, see http://www.providence.edu/Academics/Faculty/Humanities/Devine.htm

(All by Philip Devine except as otherwise noted)
1. “Academic Freedom in the Postmodern World.” Public Affairs Quarterly, 10, no. 3 (July 1996): 185-201.
2. “Abortion: A Communitarian Pro-life Perspective” and “Reply to Tooley and Jaggar” (both with Celia Wolf-Devine), in Michael Tooley et al. Abortion: Three Perspectives (Oxford: 2009).
3. “AIDS and the L-Word.” Public Affairs Quarterly. 5, no. 2 (April 1991): 137-147.
4. “Born to Die.” Semi-published.  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/born-to-die/
5. “Capital Punishment and the Sanctity of Life,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy (2000):: 249-53.
6. “’Conservative’ Views of Abortion,” Advances in Bioethics.  Vol. 2, New Essays on Abortion and Bioethics.ed. Rem B. Edwards (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1997): 151-202.
7. “Creation and Evolution,” Religious Studies, 32, no. 3 (summer 1996).
8. “Does St. Anselm Beg the Question?” Philosophy. 50 (July 1975): 255-260.
9. The Ethics of Homicide.  (Cornell, 1978; reprinted Notre Dame, 1990).
10. “Homicide,” International Encyclopedia of Ethics.(Wiley: forthcoming).
11. “Homicide: Criminal Versus Justifiable,”Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics. Ed. Ruth Chadwick (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998), vol. 2, pp. 587-9.;
12. Human Diversity and the Culture Wars.  (Praeger, 1996).
13.  The New Fuzziness:  Richard Rorty on Education.(semi-published).
14. Natural Law Ethics. (Greenwood, 2001).
15. “Relativism, Abortion, and Tolerance.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 48 (summer 1987): 131-38.
16. Relativism, Nihilism and God (Notre Dame, 1989)
17. Sex and Gender: A Spectrum of Views, with Celia Wolf-Devine. (Wadsworth, 2003)
18. Them: A Study in Excommunication. In progress. Prospectus available.  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/them-a-study-in-excommunication/
19. We (semi-published). https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/we-title/  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/we-preface  /https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/we-introduction/  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/we-chapter-1-2/  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/wechap-2  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/we-chapter-3//  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/we-chapter-4/  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/we-chap-5/   https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/we-chap-6/   https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/we-chapter-7/  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/we-chapter-8/   https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/we-chapter-9/   https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/we-chap-10/  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/we-chap-11-2/  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/we-chap-12/   https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/we-conclusion/  https://philipdevine.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/we-bibliography/
20. “What is Naturalism?” Philosophia Christi. 8, no. 1 (2006): 111-125.
21. What’s Wrong with Torture?” International Philosophical Quarterly, September 2009.


One Response to “A Maverick Manifesto”

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