Instability and Diversity Under Integralism – Critique #1

In my last post, I distinguished between ideal and non-ideal theory in Catholic integralism, in part to lay the groundwork to criticize integralism. My aim is to do so judiciously. People are often so horrified by integralism that they dismiss it with derision and insult. I want to do better.

Here I want to develop a difficulty for integralist ideal theory, the account of how integralist institutions will work once in place, under favorable conditions. I will focus on whether integralist institutions will furnish political goods like political stability.

One problem for integralist stability is that John Rawls posed for all perfectionist regimes in Political Liberalism. Rawls claims out that the free exercise of practical reason tends to lead to deep disagreement about fundamental matters. He called this the “fact of reasonable pluralism,” which we can understand as a state of society with deep disagreement about matters of ultimate import among sincere, informed people of good will. Rawls also thought that deep diversity of belief was the natural consequence of the free use of practical reasoning.

Rawls thought reasonable pluralism resulted from what he called the “burdens of judgment” or factors that plague moral and political judgment that make such judgments difficult, and so subject to contestation. I think Rawls’s account of the burdens of judgment is too narrow, so in Must Politics Be War?, I also draw on Hayek’s theory of cognition to further explain the naturalness of deep disagreement. Many disagreements originate in the diverse, dispersed nature of information, information that bears on our practical application of moral principles, and even the formulation of those principles in the first place. So deep disagreement is both inevitable and non-culpable. Much disagreement is due to sin, but far from all.

Now, if Rawls and Hayek are correct, the integralist state will have to use a great deal of coercion to contain disagreement. If it does not, then people will develop deep convictions that are incompatible with integralism, which will lead them to attempt to undermine the integralist regime through active and/or passive resistance. To stop this, the integralist state will probably have to adopt measures along the lines of the Chinese state, such as massive coercion of the young through education, the suppression of competing doctrines like Protestantism and Islam, and massive, coordinated restrictions on information.

Before I continue, let me concede a point Vermeule often makes: liberal regimes themselves use propaganda and are massively coercive. I’m not denying that. But integralism requires more propaganda and more coercion than liberal regimes because liberal regimes just don’t have to be as persuasive as integralist regimes to stay stable. Liberal regimes, for instance, don’t require great uniformity in matters of faith. That’s part of the reason that liberal democratic regimes are as stable as they are, because they can accommodate reasonable pluralism more effectively. And that’s the reason integralist states have often used a great deal of control over speech, press, and religion.

Importantly, Rawls was not merely concerned with stability, but rather “stability for the right reasons” where a regime stabilizes itself without massive, Chinese-like controls. A just regime should somehow generate its own, unforced support. That’s surely a nice feature of a regime, since I think even integralists will concede that it is better to achieve stability freely than with large-scale social control. So integralist states might be stable in that they don’t collapse, but they preserve stability through less than morally ideal means.

So the difficulty for integralism is its capacity to sustain stability in morally appropriate ways even under favorable conditions, given the fact of reasonable pluralism.

Here I can imagine three kinds of responses.

  1. Embrace Violence: integralists can accept the fact of reasonable pluralism, but simply fight against it. Massive coercion is both feasible and justified.
  2. Identify Theological Sources of Stability: Thomas Pink has argued that integralist regimes will not only appeal to massive coercion, they will help fallen people to see the moral truth. A society that is built around grace-conferring institutions will more ably identify the natural law, and perhaps the natural law is intrinsically compelling once it is grasped by a relatively uncorrupted intellect. So perhaps once integralism is established, grace will help to stabilize it without massive coercion.
  3. Deny Reasonable Pluralism: maybe reasonable pluralism isn’t the natural result of the free exercise of practical reason. Perhaps, instead, reasonable pluralism is the product of liberal regimes, which decline to give people any guidance in deciding on how to live, save to suppress certain traditional religious approaches. After all, one might argue, liberal societies contain social forces that seem to exacerbate disagreement. An integralist regime will tend to contain it (perhaps because of factors 1 and 2).

Integralists will likely combine these three replies into a single strategy for answering the challenge of reasonable pluralism. But I’m skeptical of each reply. Here’s why.

First, violence is undesirable for lots of reasons, not merely that it harms people physically and psychologically but because it can frequently be used in ways that do not treat others with the respect that they are due as beings created in God’s image. Embracing massive coercion is therefore a great cost. The cost can be limited by insisting that integralist regimes aren’t that much more coercive than liberal regimes, but I think it is fairly clear that integralism depends on more uniformity of belief than liberalism. And I think one can push for a less coercive liberalism (as I have in Liberal Politics and Public Faith and Must Politics Be War?).

Second, it’s not clear that grace will help people to agree about the natural law because Christians have disagreed about all kinds of moral claims throughout Christian history. So exposure to grace does not seem to lead to a large amount of agreement. This is especially true in political matters, since sincere, informed Christians seem to have adopted just about every conceivable political view. I grant that there is a narrower range of disagreement among Roman Catholics, but political disagreements are still very broad. You have Catholic Marxists, anarchists, fascists, socialists, capitalists, and on and on. And indeed, the Reformation broke out on the Catholic integralist’s watch, so you might think too much imposes uniformity may only contain disagreement until it boils over.

Finally, my sense from the little bit of history I do know is that societies seem to look much more homogeneous from the outside than from the inside. We formulate vague pictures of regimes as agreeing on most things, but when you look into the actual history of political regimes, they contain all kinds of disputes, and many such disputes appear to be entirely sincere. Even integralist empires like the Byzantine Empire were subject to considerable disagreements of various kinds, though admittedly they seem to be narrower than our disagreements today.

But surely part of our disagreements are due to factors other than liberalism. For instance, greater levels of education lead more people to careful reflection on their values. And mass communication makes it possible for people to develop their own ideas at length and to disagree with others. Further, societies are much larger today than in the past, and more people may tend to mean more sources of disagreement.

So, in sum, integralist ideal theory faces the challenge of diversity of belief.

These challenges will arise in a different way in integralist non-ideal theory, but more on that in future posts.

Integralist Ideal Theory and Non-Ideal Theory

Political philosophers have been discussing the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory in earnest for about ten years. But they’ve tended to apply the debate to liberal and socialist theories of justice and legitimacy. What happens when we try to apply some of this literature to the new Catholic integralism?

There are lots of ways to distinguish between ideal and non-ideal theory. Here’s a rough and ready way to make the distinction for integralism. Integralist ideal theory is an account of how an integralist order will work once established, and when conditions are favorable, including people’s willingness to comply with the directives of integralist institutions (but not Rawlsian *full* compliance). Integralist non-ideal theory is an account of how to transition to an integralist order from current conditions, with actors with less inclination towards compliance.

Integralists can draw on historical integralist models for ideal theory to show how it might work today. At the very least, integralists can say that integralist regimes have existed, which is more than what can be said for most ideals in political philosophy. However, integralist non-ideal theory is more difficult because few societies have become integralist in recent memory (unless you count Russia, since Orthodoxy is pretty similar to Catholicism). In particular, no liberal democratic order has ever become integralist, and so we have little idea how to make the transition work. Vermeule has speculated, but the real theoretical work hasn’t yet begun.

Integralism supposes a strong distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory because the integralist ideal is pretty far from where we are. If your ideal is pretty close to where we are now, as it is in some forms of conservatism, the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction isn’t very important. But integralism, as its proponents know well, is not really a branch of conservatism.*

And, indeed, I think Vermuele’s exchange with Deneen in this discussion at Notre Dame shows that Vermeule is supposing a strong ideal/non-ideal theory distinction. When Deneen described integralists as “crazy,” Vermeule responded by asking whether it was crazy to think of integralism as an ideal (if I recall correctly).

Why does it matter that integralism involves a strong ideal/non-ideal theory distinction? Because it helps us to understand how to justify or refute integralism. The case for integralism will involve two broad parts. The first part is to show that integralism is an ideal, in terms of the good, justice, and its capacity to stabilize itself. The second part is to show that we can get to integralism from where we are, because if we can’t, that casts doubt on integralism as an ideal (radical socialists like G. A. Cohen can deny this connection between an ideal and its feasibility, but I think integralists cannot). We can also classify criticisms of integralism in terms of whether they target integralist ideal theory or integralist non-ideal theory. I think Deneen’s concerns, for instance, are primarily about integralist non-ideal theory.

But for now, my aim is simply to properly carve up the conceptual territory for assessing integralism. And I think my point here isn’t too controversial and will hopefully prove helpful for future discussion.


*Well, strictly speaking, I would say integralism is metaphysically conservative but epistemologically moderate; metaphysically conservative because of how integralism conceives of the place of humans in the cosmic order, its attitudes towards hierarchy, etc., but epistemologically moderate because it supposes we can identify a political ideal for us that it is pretty distant from our own circumstances, though not so distant that it would qualify as epistemologically radical, like libertarianism, or most radically, communism.