Posts tagged: integralism

Eastern Orthodoxy as Evidence for Catholic Integralism

I’m in the odd position of being a liberal and an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Eastern Orthodoxy is the least liberal of the strands of Christian thought, and indeed is the Christian Church friendliest to monarchy and a heavy mixing of church and state. In my attempts to engage Catholic integralism as both a Christian and a liberal, I have often reflected on what we might call Orthodox integralism, a view that the state should recognize the truth of the Christian faith as taught by the Orthodox Church, not the Catholic Church, and that the church and state should cooperate, but through national patriarchs rather than the Pope. It’s a different model of church-state governance than the integralist model, but it arguably predates the integralist model by several centuries. It was the Byzantine Emperors who called the original ecumenical councils, not the Roman Pontiffs. Popes in the first millennium seldom had the power they did after the schism and the subsequent Gregorian Reforms, which considerably increased papal power, as the Pope became the leader of an increasingly distinctive Latin Christendom without other historical patriarchal thrones as competing centers of ecclesiastical power. So if Christians really want to mix church and state again, there are different kinds of integration.

On top of this, I now think Catholics integralists must pay some respects to Orthodox integralism, not only because of the Orthodox model’s prominence in Church tradition, but because Catholics, including integralists, tend to think that the Orthodox have valid sacraments, especially a true Eucharist and valid confession. Orthodox priests are validly ordained, even if the orders are not “licit” because Orthodox priests are not in submission to the Pope (and indeed, tend to regard the Pope as a heresiarch). In contrast to Protestants, then, Catholics think the Orthodox have the means of grace.

Here’s a novel implication of the Catholic integralist position: when Orthodox mix church and state, they are capable of establishing a “graced” nation-state, even if the mixture of church and state is sub-optimal from a Catholic point of view. Remember that a key feature of integralism is that only a graced state can exercise the coercive power of the state in such a way as to help a society recognize the content of the natural moral law, which should help to stabilize such a regime based on an ongoing agreement about what the natural law requires.

This suggests that we can evaluate the integralist prediction that graced states more effectively coordinate (impose?) agreement on a Christian moral code than liberal states by looking at the history of Orthodox integralist regimes, the prime case being Russia, but also Greece, Romania, etc. Now, it is critical to remember that the Soviets ruthlessly oppressed and murdered Orthodox Christians for decades, so they are a Church still reemerging from one of the most monstrous captivities in the history of Christianity. But it is notable that people in Orthodox countries are often more socially conservative, and so more in line with natural law as integralists see it, than people in Roman Catholic countries, and in some ways prouder of it. Russia is an integralist state. It prioritizes the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin is a member and has used state funds to build tens of thousands of churches and monasteries and has supported a massive growth in the number of Orthodox seminaries and priests. Indeed, he is arguably one of the most successful integralist rulers in history. He is a bloody, murderous dictator, but so was Justinian and most of the Byzantine Emperors that Church tradition sometimes lauds.

So I think the Catholic integralist must say that the Russian state is a partially graced state. It is imperfectly graced because it is not in submission to the Pope, but it is graced because the Russian Orthodox Church has valid sacraments, and is united with the Russian state in a way that American Catholic integralists can only dream of.

This suggests to me that the “successes” of Orthodox states in maintaining traditional Christian moral views on social issues should be seen as partial evidence in favor of integralism. Orthodox integralist states are highly imperfect, but they are graced all the same, and so we can get a sense for how integralism might work by looking at those states.

Perhaps, then, Catholic integralists should look upon the Putin regime with some fondness, and even tout its religious successes.

Does this make Catholic integralism more or less plausible? I’ll let you decide.

Suppose I Wrote a Book on Integralism: What Should I Cover?

As I finish copyediting and page proofing for my next book, Trust in a Polarized Age, I’ve been thinking about my next big book project. I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring illiberal political perfectionism, the view that the ultimate duty of the state is to promote the good and the good life for citizens, but where the good life is described not as a life lived autonomously, but as one that participates in some kind of communal and/or religious value, like a relationship with God. Illiberal perfectionism includes all theocratic states, but also anti-liberal ideological states, like China.

The prime new form of illiberal perfectionism that people are talking about is Catholic Integralism, which I have blogged about quite a bit here. The view, in short, is a Catholic illiberal perfectionism, where the state, subordinated in some respects to the Catholic Church, organizes law and policy to help man attain eternal salvation. I’m no integralist, but I’m fascinated by it for reasons I’ve outlined, and I’ve found that many other non-integralists are as well. So I’ve put together a book proposal on integralism, and I’m wondering what sorts of subjects and arguments I should cover.

Right now the goal of the book is to critique integralism with a just the arguments approach. I’m not going to insult integralism or degrade it in any way. And I will do best to render their arguments as powerfully as I can. I also want to avoid focusing entirely on the practicality of integralism in, say, the United States. What I’m interested in is whether integralism is a political ideal and whether we ought to pursue that ideal when we can.

I also won’t focus on whether Catholicism is true, or whether Catholicism dogmatically required integralism (it doesn’t require integralism, but it does require some practices that are more consistent with integralist political theory than alternatives). I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, of a fairly theologically orthodox sort, so I don’t disagree with Catholics about all that much about the good life.

Given these restrictions, what I want to know is the following: is an integralist political regime the proper political ideal if Catholic Christianity, or something near enough, is true? In brief, must the state be Catholic?

My answer is that integralism is not the proper political ideal. I have a number of reasons for thinking so. But here is a brief summary of the arguments I find persuasive. Let me know if you find them of interest.

  1. Baptism and Religious Coercion: integralism faces an unresolvable tension between its commitment to protecting extensive religious freedom for the baptized and restricting the religious freedom of the baptized. They need to show that baptism generates an enforceable duty of fair play, but it probably can’t be done.
  2. Diversity and Instability: even if we could reach integralism, it is a feature of human nature to deeply disagree about ultimate matters, and an integralist regime will have to suppress that diversity in ways that either contravene natural law or undermine the stability of the regime.
  3. The Common Good: much of the drive towards integralism is that it is the best way to realize the true common good. I argue that the common good includes respect for the dignity of the person as a proper part, implying the existence of natural rights associated with that dignity. For this reason, the common good might have internal deontic principles incompatible with integralist coercion, so integralists can’t rely so heavily on the common good as the normative foundation of their view.
  4. Reciprocity: integralism states that what justifies political power is the state promoting the correct conception of the good. I argue that in doing so, integralism ignores the natural law of reciprocity, which requires that justifications for political power by reciprocal, ones that all can recognize as valid. The problem, in short, is that integralism violates the Golden Rule: integralists would not like to have other sectarian values imposed upon them, and so should not insist that others abide by theirs.
  5. Reaching Integralism: integralist regimes have existed in the past, and for long periods of time. So we know how integralism would look to some degree, and we can anticipate the kids of policies that would be required in order to get there. Or do we? Perhaps as integralists succeed in closing American society, their ability to figure out how to institutionalize integralism would degrade because closing down open societies can often reduce our knowledge about how to improve our social institutions. This isn’t a mere pragmatic point; it is a barrier faced by any attempt to realize integralism.

So, I know those are pretty vague, but do they sound of interest to people?

The Common Good Doesn’t Help Us Decide

Integralists and their fellow travelers continue to drive much online discussion in legal and political theory. They propose what many have proposed in the past, that social institutions be structured so as to promote the common good. They have a very specific conception of the common good, but most of the negative online responses to their proposal haven’t focused on their having the wrong conception of the common good, but on basing institutional structures on the common good of any variety.

There are two sources of skepticism. The most common objection is that there is no common good or we can’t know it, and so attempts to base institutions around the common good are really just masks for the will to power.

Another objection is pragmatic: power corrupts, and we shouldn’t empower political institutions in particular to promote the common good.

My preferred objection, advanced in Must Politics Be War?, is that, while we can know the common good, and in some cases think that political institutions could promote it, free, equal, and reasonable people disagree about what the common good is, and so imposing one view of the common good on others is likely to undermine the basis for social trust and respect for diverse persons in large-scale societies where people have come to trust each other.

But let’s suppose all these objections fail. Assume that there is a common good, we know what it is, we can overcome pragmatic objections, and that we should promote the true good even if some reasonable people are mistaken about it. Shouldn’t we then base society on the common good?

Perhaps. But a problem looms. The common good is supposed to be distinct from the aggregate good. It isn’t just the sum of the good of each person. This is how defenders of the common good avoid consequentialism and the perverse trade-offs that consequentialism allows. But that means there is some principle internal to the concept of the common good that forbids certain kinds of treatment of individual persons that would or could maximize the aggregate good.

In my view, those principles are grounded in the dignity of the person and the norms implicit in the kinds of relationships we want to have with other persons, in particular the moral relationships of love, friendship, and trust. These are what Jerry Gaus has called principle-grounded values. To be a good friend, and so to achieve the good of friendship, friends must be honest with one another. Honesty becomes a kind of deontic reason: if we value friendship, then we are prohibited from deceiving our friends, at least in the normal course of our friendship. So we can only get the teleological value if we follow the deontic principle.

I think the common good is itself a principle-grounded value. The common good is a kind of close social relation, and it is partly constituted by principles prohibiting treating others in certain ways even if doing so would result in more good. That means to fully specify the common good, we may have to articulate a series of rights claims. But we can’t appeal to the common good to ground those rights, since that would put the cart before the horse.

So I think the common good is not a master normative concept. It certainly has some of its own content, but we cannot fully specify the common good without reference to deontic constraints.

In Must Politics Be War? I argued that a principle of public justification captures the series of deontic reasons that we must be responsive to in order to maintain relations of social trust. But if we adopt a principle of public justification, then we must respect traditional liberal rights, because only liberal institutions can be publicly justified. I may be wrong about the details – I probably am! – but we must do that careful work before we can appeal to the common good. And so the common good doesn’t really help us to decide between liberal and non-liberal arrangements.

Assess Common Good Constitutionalism With One Question: What Happens to Dissenters?

One of the remarkable things about Adrian Vermeule is that when he speaks, people listen. They even when, perhaps especially when, he shocks the moral conscience of his reader by rejecting traditional liberal pieties about the purpose of government. I endorse most of those liberal pieties, but liberals cannot approach those who dissent with mockery and scorn, which I’m seeing all over Twitter. So here I’d like to try to provide a sober assessment of Vermeule’s alternative to conservative originalism, common good constitutionalism (CGC). [I’ve assessed integralism here and here and here and here and here and here.]

1. What is Common Good Constitutionalism? What Makes It Unique?

Common good constitutionalism holds, roughly, that the constitution of the United States should be read such that it permits and even requires the state to promote the values emphasized by Catholic social thought, though in the article Vermuele does not put it this way. CGC is a kind of supra-Catholic integralism [where integralism can be understood as the view that the state is to promote the common good as understood by the Catholic Church and in tandem with the Catholic Church]. CGC leaves the content of the common good a bit more open than integralism does, but CGC is clearly meant to pave the way for integralism.

CGC is simple. It combines a substantive Catholic conception of the common good, a political perfectionist principle that society should be organized so as to promote the common good, and a principle of constitutional interpretation. The interpretive principle is that the constitution should be reinterpreted so as to gradually conform the state to promote the common good, that is, to become a kind of perfectionist state.

Many on the left adopt a left-wing version of CGC, where the common good is given by, say, the moral system advanced by John Stuart Mill, which prizes autonomy and collective flourishing. There are plenty of left-wing CG constitutionalists; they just don’t think of themselves in this way. Where Vermeule is unique is in boldly claiming that Catholicism provides the best account of the common good.

2. What Happens to Dissenters Under Common Good Constitutionalism?

To assess CGC, we must first ask what happens to people who reasonably disagree with the account of the common good that Vermeule endorses. It is unclear how dissenters will be prevented from disrupting the common good constitution, though Vermeule does endorse some pretty dramatic means of establishing Catholic integralism. And you can see similar ideas in the piece. Vermeule wants to co-opt the power of the administrative state to serve the common good rather than limiting that power. So he is prepared to use rather heavy-handed means to establish the common good, which presumably required the suppression of dissenting voices where necessary to ensure that the state can successfully promote the common good. This includes, I think, considerable restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and most importantly on freedom of religion. Any religious or secular organization that has an opposing view of the common good, and is a genuine threat to state power must be monitored and controlled before it can metastasize.

Vermeule does not address the treatment of dissenters in the piece. But once we ask the question, we can challenge CGC with what I shall call the dissenter trilemma. 

3. The Dissenter Trilemma

Catholic integralist states were prepared to use severe legal means to preserve the common good, from fines and imprisonment, to execution, and even burning heretics alive. In a way, this is all rather cooly rational. The human good is on the line, perhaps even the eternal good, and so threats to the good must be contained however possible. To be fair to Vermeule, however, he would surely use the minimum amount of harm necessary to protect the common good, and he obviously thinks that there are some ways of protecting the common good that are intrinsically evil.

For this reason, I will assume that Vermeule adopts a limiting principle that forbids certain methods of securing the common good even if those methods were known to succeed. Vermeule will not permit the killing of the innocent to realize the common good, or any means that requires people to sin.

The dissenter trilemma arises when we ask what the limiting principle is. The first question is this: is the limiting principle is adequately just? That is, does the principle forbid means of realizing the common good that the vast majority of reflective persons agree are unjust? For instance, does the limiting principle permit burning heretics alive? It is our settled considered judgment that no one should be burned alive for any reason. Similarly, I think nearly everyone, including theologically orthodox Catholic intellectuals, will think that executing people for heresy is unjust.

The second question follows from the first: assuming the limiting principle is adequately just, what relationship does it bear to the common good? In particular, is the limiting principle an external constraint on the common good or a proper part of it?

This leaves us with three options.

A. The limiting principle is inadequately just.

B. The (adequately just) limiting principle is external to the common good – an independent moral principle that limits how the common good may be pursued.

C. The (adequately just) limiting principle is internal to the common good – the common good fails to be the common good when the principle is violated.

Here are the problems with each horn of the trilemma.

On (A). If the limiting principle permits extreme acts of violence like burning heretics alive, then CGC will violate very deep considered judgments about justice. It seems unjust to imprison or execute people who dissent from the common good, even if the dissenters may lead others into deep moral confusion. This is a severe demerit for CGC, and is probably sufficient reason all by itself to reject CGC. Perhaps a few integralists are willing to take extreme measures, but the vast majority of people who might adopt CGC will be unsympathetic, to put it mildly.

On (B). If the limiting principle is adequately just, but operates as a constraint on the common good, as a principle of respect for rights might, then we don’t really have CGC. We have a common good + rights constitutionalism. But the whole point of CGC is that the common good is the master normative concept for how the constitution should be interpreted and applied. If we include an additional principle, we’ve violated the spirit of CGC.

On (C). If the limiting principle is adequately just and does not constrain the common good, then it must be internal to the common good, specifically by helping to determine what counts as the common good. If that is correct, we don’t know what CGC comes to because the proper understanding of the common good involves an appeal to a deeper principle. My hunch is that the limiting principle must appeal to the dignity of the human person. For instance, a society does not realize the common good if it sacrifices the one for the many because the individual has God-given dignity. And indeed, I think this is how modern Catholic theologians often think about how the dignity of the person and the common good are related: respect for the dignity of the person is a proper part of the common good.

But now one wants to know whether the dignity of the person grounds other rights. Contra Vermeule, most Catholic theologians think the common good requires respect for a robust right of religious freedom, including for baptized persons. In that case, reading the constitution so as to allow for violations of religious freedom would mean that the constitution can no longer be understood as advancing the common good, because respecting the right of religious freedom is part of the common good.

And unhappily for Vermeule, we’re now engaged in a thoroughly modern rights discourse that he wants to supplant.

4. Resisting the Dissenter Trilemma and the Originalist’s Reply

The best way out of the dissenter trilemma, in my view, is to adopts a theory of rights that includes a right to, say, nutrition and basic healthcare, but not a right to choose one’s own religion or to be free from state interference if one fails to contribute to the common good in other respects. This will involve an appeal to a theory of personal virtue, but in Catholic social thought, you can’t formulate a complete theory of virtue for the individual without attending to the person’s social context and the good of the community as a whole. Unfortunately, that means the best way out of the dissenter trilemma is to formulate a theory of rights by appealing to … the common good.

But now we have a difficult circularity to resolve, and I don’t know how Vermeule can resolve it. That’s not to say there’s no resolution; I’m sure Catholic theologians have tons of stuff on how the common good and rights are compatible and flesh out each others’ ambiguities. But I don’t know the tradition well enough to guess where Vermeule would fall. But I suspect this will be tricky business for him because most Catholics who theorize on the matter think the dignity of the person entails rights that Vermeule rejects.

In light of all this, here’s how originalists should respond to Vermeule. Yes, the common good is important, but the dignity of the person is a proper part of the common good, and the dignity of the person grounds extensive rights against state interference. The goal of originalism is to read the constitution in such a way as to limit government to protect those extensive basic rights. In this way originalism is a kind of common good constitutionalism because it protects proper parts of the common good: basic natural rights.



Are Liberal Regimes as Coercive as Integralist Regimes?

A week or so ago, Dave Atenasio published a nice reply to my post arguing that integralist regimes will have a hard time generating requisite levels of stability without lots of coercion. The piece is well-done, so check it out, but I’d like to jump right to the heart of the matter. I concede freely what integralists often say, which is that liberal regimes are coercive. My claim is that liberal regimes are less coercive in allowing a wider range of opinion to flourish. And if there is a natural tendency in the free use of practical reason for people to disagree, integralist regimes will therefore have to employ more coercion to achieve coordination around their comprehensive doctrine than liberal regimes, which are at least somewhat neutral on these matters, and much more than integralist regimes.

Atenasio argues that it’s just not clear whether integralist regimes are more coercive than liberal regimes, and then he proceeds to outline various ways in which liberal regimes are coercive and points out that the coerciveness of both liberal and integralist regimes, even construed as ideal types, come in degrees, and are based on a range of factors, the variety and magnitude of which will make it difficult to show definitively that liberal regimes are less coercive.

I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that it is hard to determine which regimes and policies are more coercive than others. That’s a big point in my forthcoming book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, in Chapter 5. However, I don’t think we’re should be as skeptical as Atenasio believes. My argument begins with a ceteris paribus comparison between the two regime types following three restrictions on how the comparison should proceed.

First condition: I’m going to assume that liberal regimes and integralist regimes can have the same foreign policy and economic policy, within broad limits. So in comparing the two regimes, we can hold these policy classes constant. I know that integralist regimes will, on average, have a narrower band of economic policies, since liberal regimes can vary a lot in this regard, but let’s set that aside for the sake of argument.

So this means that the main comparison between the two regimes will be on social policy.

Second condition: we can hold lots of social policy constant because the degree of coerciveness of these policies are somewhat independent to what is essentially different between integralist and liberal regimes. First,  and most controversially, I think we can hold abortion policy constant because, while liberal regimes tend to permit abortion, and while integralist regimes would seek to end it, nothing about a liberal regime forbids it from adopting pro-life legislation (here I disagree with Rawls that reasonable people have to be at least somewhat pro-choice). There is no inherent instability in a pro-life liberal constitutional order, as long as it is not suffused with a pro-choice ethos. But I admit that if you’re pro-life, there’s a way in which integralist regimes will tend to be less coercive, because they almost always will forbid people from coercing the unborn into an early grave. So if liberal regimes must be pro-choice, then that is a point in the integralist’s favor.

But there are other forms of coercion that go in the other direction, since integralist regimes will embrace far more legal moralism and paternalism, and liberal orders will tend to eschew those practices, so that’s a clear way in which liberalism will be less coercive.

Third restriction: I’m going to hold the degree of pluralism in the populace constant as well. Perhaps integralist regimes will create more Catholics (though they may generate a backlash (which is how integralist regimes created the Reformation, imo: they were too violent and repressed too much disagreement). If so, then integralist regimes will become less coercive because the populace will agree with the policies of the integralist state. But liberal regimes will also not be very coercive if everyone is Catholic. But if everyone is not Catholic, then integralism will be much more coercive than liberalism, and that seems to me pretty clear.

That’s because of the big essential constitutional difference between an integralist regime and a liberal regime: the integralist regime basically has no first amendment. There is no robust right to freedom of speech, press, or religion in an integralist regime. Speech that promulgates heresy and apostasy must be restricted. Publications that promulgate heresy and apostasy must be restricted. And, obviously, the state will use coercion to promote adherence to Catholic belief and practice, even against Protestants and, maybe, Orthodox Christians, not to mention Jews, Muslims, and atheists. There are limits on such coercion, as people cannot be forced to become Catholics against their will. But, if you have been validly baptized, even as an infant, and you decide to speak what you know to be heresy or you apostasize, you’re to be held criminal liable in accord with your level of guilt. So an integralist state can imprison and perhaps even execute recalcitrant heretics.

I recognize that some will want to reject one or more of the three restrictions. But they all seem fair to me. And if they are, it seems clear that integralist regimes will be much more coercive than a regime with first amendment-like protections. Perhaps with enough time and force, the transition to integralism will produce such resolute Catholics that most people won’t even want first amendment rights. But that claim seems in tension with what we see even in heavily Catholic countries. You see lots of disagreement about all kinds of things.

Is Integralism Unreasonable? Yes. Should Integralists Care? Well …

Micah Schwartzman and Jocelyn Wilson’s recent article on the unreasonableness of integralism led to much integralist criticism on Twitter, and even criticism from non-integralist Catholic conservatives. It’s important to recognize that Schwartzman and Wilson expressly state that they’re not trying to engage integralists on their own terms, but to use integralism as the paradigmatic case of an unreasonable doctrine in the Rawlsian sense.

In this post, I want to address whether integralists should care if they’re reasonable. I think there are some ways in which they should care, but it takes some effort to demonstrate. Let’s begin by quickly reviewing the Rawlsian account of reasonableness and asking whether integralists satisfy it.

I. Reasonableness

Very roughly, a person is reasonable in Rawls’s sense when they meet two conditions: (1) They are prepared to propose reciprocal terms of social cooperation, ones that can be endorsed by different worldviews and perspectives, and (2) they recognize the fact of reasonable pluralism, meaning they believe that the free exercise of practical reason leads naturally to disagreement about many important matters. In traditional political liberalism, disagreement primarily concerns the good rather than justice (though I argue in Must Politics Be War? that dissensus about justice runs just as deep).

II. Integralists are Unreasonable

Integralists deny both conditions. They are not prepared to offer mutually endorseable legal and political proposals because their first goal is to prose true, authentically good forms of social cooperation. Second, integralists seem to deny that the free use practical reason leads to dissensus, but rather that sin leads to disagreement and that it can be limited if practical reason is exposed to God’s grace in an integralist regime. So, Schwartzman and Wilson are correct. The paper succeeds on its own term.

III. But They Probably Shouldn’t Care

Now, should integralists care whether they are reasonable in the Rawlsian sense? The most straightforward answer is no, they shouldn’t. Why? Because integralists have a different conception of the person than Rawlsians do. Rawlsians draw their conception of the person from liberal democratic practice, and expressly refuse to go outside of it for the purposes of political philosophy, but integralists are trying to determine whether liberal democracy is a good idea in the most ultimate sense, and they think not. So in one way, the Rawlsian approach to personhood is a total non-starter for integralists. The two conceptions of the persons we not developed to serve they same purpose. It’s not even obvious that their conceptions of the persons are conceptions of the same concept.

Moreover, Rawls’s conception of the person (really, his conception of the citizen) holds that we have two moral powers – to form and pursue a conception of the good, and to develop and act upon our sense of justice. But integralists arguably think that persons have one ultimate moral power – to pursue the good and spurn evil (as Aquinas says in ST IaIIae 94, 2). There’s no separate faculty for motivating just action. Just action is wholly subsumed under our pursuit of our good. Rawlsians, in contrast, have a complex story about how we reach congruence between our two fundamental moral drives (actually, they have two, maybe three stories).

In this way, Rawlsians have a kind of “two wills” or “two affections” theory of practical reason, which is actually not exclusively modern, but has antecedents in Anselm (for two wills) and Scotus (for two affections).

For Rawlsians, then, our sense of justice is a fundamental part of practical reasoning. We can take the perspective of justice, understood in terms of fairness or reciprocity, and reason and act from it, and then we can ask a separate question about whether the perspective of justice can be reconciled with the perspective of the good. That’s not going to make much sense for the integralist.

IV. Or Should They?

But let’s do something Rawlsians don’t want to do. Let’s ask whether a two wills theory is true. If one can defend a two wills theory on metaphysical grounds, that would engage integralists on their own terms. And then they’d need to care about reasonableness, especially if the arguments are made from within the framework of Catholic Christianity.

I’m working on two papers right now that do just that, but it’s hard work.

Are All States Confessional?

One common refrain I hear among anti-liberals, especially on the Christian right, is that all states are confessional states in the sense that they have deep dogmatic commitments whose sectarian character is either publicly recognized or, in the case of liberal states, concealed by dishonest rhetoric claiming liberal neutrality.

Much like the common refrain on the anti-liberal left that “everything is political,” I think the thesis that all states are confessional is either trivially true or substantive and false. Indeed, everything is political in the sense that life is full of conflict and disagreement with others about how to live well together. But that’s trivially true. On the other hand, if everything is political in the sense that everything involves, say, some kind of legal coercion, then the claim is substantive and false.

If all states are confessional in the sense that they have substantive moral commitments, say to the ideas of liberty and equality, then indeed all states are confessional, but that’s trivially true. No liberal denies it. But if all states are confessional in the sense that they have robust dogmatic commitments, then the claim is substantive and false. Liberal states have moral commitments, but they decline to take sides on a range of important matters, even if they end up taking a side on some issues. The idea is that liberal states are more neutral than confessional states, but not perfectly neutral. But then whoever claimed that liberal states are perfectly neutral? The liberal American state does not take a stand on which theological view is true, instead allowing different theologies to flourish. And in this sense it is more neutral than the classical confessional states. So here the claim that all states are confessional is substantive and false.

I think some who maintain that all states are confessional are essentially arguing that all politics is war, in that only one group or another can rule. And so some anti-liberals who say this are rationalizing actions that make politics war. If all politics is conquest, then the conquistadors can justify their actions. But if politics can establish a degree of moral peace – a peace based on a moral agreement between different perspectives – then the conquistador is exposed as having bad will. For he is prepared to dominate others to serve his political ends. Now, indeed, if politics is war, then such actions are justified. In a war, the game is to win. But if there is another way – the way of peace, which for the Christian is blessed (Matthew 5:9) – then conquest is domination. And, I think, sinful. This is not to say that those who maintain that all states are confessional are thereby sinning, rather that those who use this argument to justify violence sin thereby because the violence isn’t necessary.

Here’s another point I find of interest. Why do anti-liberals so often loudly and fiercely reject liberal neutralism? Some reject it because they think it false and pernicious, surely. But sometimes something else is going on. If liberal neutralism is feasible, then it is a morally compelling idealAnd I think many anti-liberals implicitly recognize this, which is why they often maintain that it is infeasible with such adamance.

I’ve argued that liberal neutralism can be understood in terms of a principle of public justification, and that public justification grounds our ability to establish moral relationships like trust in those with whom we disagree. If I’m right, those who maintain that politics is war undermine our ability to trust one another. This is a grave cost, one that love and respect for our political opponents prohibits us from paying.

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.

UPDATE: Vermuele has informed me that Catholic political theory has accepted a version of the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction for some time, but under the description of “thesis” and “hypothesis.”

So, looks like my claim in this post is actually super obvious.

*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.