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.
One way to think about the comparative rationality of atheism and theism is to treat atheism as the rational default. After all, atheism postulates no God, theism does, and so theism bears the burden of proofs, especially because God’s existence is extraordinary or random postulate.
That’s the wrong way to think about the rationality of theistic belief. Following Michael Rea’s important book, World Without Design, I think of atheism and theism more like frameworks or research projects for making philosophical judgments. Many of the arguments for both positions involve claims that the other side sees as non-starters, and whose premises ultimately suppose that atheism or theism is true. What’s more, the frameworks are sufficiently different that they don’t even affirm the same phenomena to be explained, such as the existence of libertarian free will. In this way, we might even see theism and atheism as distinct philosophical paradigms, rather than simple competing propositions.
Atheism and theism are therefore competing frameworks for explaining certain kinds of “big” phenomena, like existence, order, morality, freedom, and consciousness. Both postulate an ultimate ground for everything. Atheism tends to ground everything in particles and fields. Theism tends to ground everything in a single agent, usually a perfect agent.
For reasons Mike Huemer outlines, simplicity does not settle fundamental philosophical problems, and I think that extends to atheism and theism. Which view is simpler? Postulating a single perfect agent that grounds all kinds of phenomena? Or particles and fields? On the one hand, atheism usually says that there is one kind of thing (matter/energy), whereas theism has two kinds of thing (matter/energy and mentality). On the other hand, theism has one grounding object, whereas atheism has many grounding objects. So which is simpler? I think theism is, but it’s not obvious.
So then how do we assess the rationality of theism? We engage in model-based reasoning. List shared phenomena and determine whether they are better explained by theism or atheism. Then list the unshared phenomena, assess whether you affirm or reject them, and then determine whether they are better explained by theism or atheism.
To illustrate, here are some agreed upon phenomena: contingent existence, order in the universe, consciousness, empirical knowledge, suffering, religious experience.
And here are some (usually) disagreed upon phenomena: necessary existence, libertarian free will, objective moral facts, a priori knowledge, universals, objective life meaning.
Here’s my balance of evidence.
Agreed-upon phenomena favoring theism: contingent existence, order in the universe, consciousness, empirical knowledge.
Agreed-upon phenomena favoring atheism: suffering.
Agreed-upon phenomena that may break even: religious experience (some is consistent with theism, but the totality may be inconsistent with theism).
Disagreed-upon phenomena favoring theism: necessary existence, libertarian free will, objective moral facts, a priori knowledge, real universals, objective life meaning.
Disagreed-upon phenomena favoring atheism: ? [atheists belief in less stuff, so it’s perhaps not significant that this category is empty, but feel free to fill in the gaps]
For me, the theistic model explains more phenomena that theists and atheists agree upon. I admit that suffering favors atheism, but not so much that it overrides the explanatory power of the other factors, especially order in the universe. I think the probability of suffering on atheism is like 99.99%, and on theism, it is well under 50%. [The skeptical theist reply convinces me that suffering is not very improbable on theism, since we don’t know God’s reasons. Plus, if everyone goes to heaven, every life has infinite worth, so suffering is always an infinitely small portion of one’s life.] But I think the probability of order on theism is 99%, and order on atheism is something like 10^-10. [Those are the odds the cosmic fine-tuning argument gives us, and that’s being generous to atheism.]
I think I have good arguments that the disagreed upon phenomena are real, and I think it is clear that these phenomena make more sense on theism, but I understand that atheists will not be as moved by these arguments.
So from my epistemic point of view, theism is supremely rational as a modeling choice. It’s a way of looking at the world that makes a whole lot of phenomena seem natural, coherent, and unsurprising vis-a-vis the main intellectual alternative of atheism. I think theistic argumentation is sufficiently strong that atheists will have trouble assigning theism a very low probability, but I don’t think that atheism is an unreasonable view. It’s not something that has to be proven. It’s a modeling choice, and I get why people choose it.
But atheists should see theism as a modeling choice, and not treat theism as irrational because it is not subject to proof.
Part of the point of this blog is to make people with different perspectives more comprehensible to one another. That’s hard when it comes to abortion, so I tried to think up a case that would put each side in the other’s shoes. Here goes.
Imagine, as many of you believe, that one day we will have sentient artificial intelligence. Also imagine, as will certainly be true, that many people will deny that the AIs are sentient when they arrive and perhaps long after that. This will be understandable to some extent. It’s hard to determine whether AI are sentient since we don’t even know what brain states correlate with consciousness yet, so it’s hard to know if artificial neural networks will be conscious either. And even if we did learn what consciousness corresponds to in the brain, that may not bear on whether artificial neural networks can be conscious. The arguments for and against AI consciousness will end up being metaphysical in character and very hard to resolve. Good people on both sides of the debate will be honestly convinced that they are correct. And they will have serious philosophical arguments about the nature of persons and consciousness to back them up.
That’s kind of how the abortion debate is now, except the groups who believe in personhood are flipped. Today, progressives usually deny fetal personhood and conservatives usually affirm it. But in the future, progressives will affirm artificial personhood and conservatives will want to deny it.
So now let’s imagine a debate between a “pro-life” progressive who wants to protect artificial life, and a “pro-choice” conservative who wants to allow people to erase artificial life if it significantly hampers their freedom.
Imagine that the artificial intelligences can take a physical form, and appear human. Also imagine that, for whatever reason, they often follow humans around, innocently, but in ways that prove to be burdensome. Every once in a while, the robots get in someone’s way, such as when they’re driving. And in a few cases, the threats they pose are deadly. So, some humans periodically decide to run the robots over, or break them just to end the burden and harassment. Sure, the robots sort of seem human, some of us reason, but they’re probably not, so there’s probably nothing wrong with running a few of them over and crushing them. They’re not persons.
Now imagine that, in time, pro-artificial-life progressives start to protest at the places where the robots frequently get run over. In some cases, they place blockades in the way, and in still other cases, they hire police to do likewise. And then imagine that this issue becomes political. Progressives start to care intensely about protecting artificial life, and conservatives become intensely committed to allowing people the freedom to run the robots down when it is necessary, and when the choice is a hard one.
Let’s also imagine some of the same kinds of debates arise. Let John be a pro-AI-life progressive, and Reba a pro-AI-choice conservative.
John: “I think these robots are alive. I think they have souls. And I think we shouldn’t kill them by the thousands, even when they pose real risks to people and even in cases where we really need to run them over. They’re people after all, just like us.”
Reba: “I’m not sure you appreciate how badly these robots harass and endanger people. Sure, they don’t mean to harass; they’re pretty innocent seeming. But they’re also burdensome, and you’re telling us that we have to tolerate their constant presence based solely on your weird religious theory that robots are sentient, when that’s just crazy. I mean, c’mon, they’re robots. Haven’t you read that important article by John Searle on the Chinese Room? Didn’t that refute things once and for all?” [Readers: if you think that’s silly, compare the use of Judith Thomson’s article defending abortion.]
John: “I didn’t share the base intuitions in the Searle article. And, come on, surely it is significant that the artificial neutral networks are functionally equivalent to ours.”
Reba: “But mental states aren’t the same as functional states! They’re just really good consciousness simulators! And you’re trying to tell people what to do with their lives, to pay severe social and physical costs, just to preserve these weird creatures that are kind of like humans, but really just resemble them?”
John: “Look, I know I’m not going to convince you that mental states supervene on functional states; and you’re never going to convince me that dualism is true. The arguments are hard, we’ve had them for centuries, and we didn’t get anywhere when we used to debate whether fetuses had souls before perfect contraception and artificial wombs made abortion disappear. But I’m still convinced, very convinced, that these robots are alive, that they’re just like us on the inside. And I have to do what I can, even vote for bad politicians, in order to save the robots from being destroyed.”
Reba: “The thing that frustrates me is that it seems like you just don’t care about humans very much, you just don’t respect our choices or our rights. Sometimes we need to get to the hospital, and sometimes we need to get home to attend to a family emergency. You’re talking about putting up roadblocks, big restrictions on our liberties, liberties without which we might suffer, and in some cases, die.”
John: “I know it’s a risk, but we will save robotic life!”
Reba: “I’m concerned your primary aim is to control people. You just don’t seem to care about our welfare.”
John: “I don’t want to control humans! I want to save AIs!”
Reba: “You just don’t get it, do you John? You need to trust humans, respect humans, believe humans.”
John: “You’re just not hearing me anymore. I know I’m putting restrictions on carbon-based people, and I hate that, but it is the only way to stop you from killing silicon-based people by the thousands. I mean, since 2100, pro-choice laws allowing carbon-based people to kill artificial life have led to the annihilation of 40 million robotic lives. That’s one of the great moral horrors of the twenty-second century!”
Reba: “Ugh, you’re so dramatic. I can’t believe you’d compare us running over assemblages of robotic parts to slavery or the Holocaust.”
John: “I’m never going to convince you. Maybe I’ll just shock people into listening by showing them big pictures of robots being torn apart, or movies of them screaming as they die.”
Reba: “That’s really offensive, putting people through all that. You might traumatize a victim, you know.”
John: “I have to convince someone, somehow. Maybe I’ll even have to vote for Barron Cyber-Trump III just to stop you.”
Many pro-AI progressives will be strongly tempted to get in the way of humans who feel the need to disassemble, disable, or destroy the robots that constantly harass and sometimes endanger them. And that will involve interfering with the liberty of humans, since keeping the robots alive is of the greatest moral importance. And many anti-AI conservatives will tend to prioritize the interests and worth of humans, and deny the personhood and value of AI. At some point, we’re going to have another big disagreement about who counts as a person, and when it comes to AI, progressive and conservative opinion is likely to reverse. But once you put yourself in this future mindset, you may find yourself a bit more sympathetic to how the other side sees things.
Maybe that helps. Maybe not. But it was worth a shot.