Thursday, June 14, 2018
Like Rick, I have been enjoying the ongoing ferment about liberalism and the American founding/experiment/project. It's a fun time to listen to what people have to say on the question and hear different points of view. I don't have fixed views on the genealogical doubts that Rick raises (curious to hear from others on that front), though I am in agreement that the diagnostic program--still in its infancy--is an exciting one that offers a lot for the scholar of law or politics who is interested in it.
In the spirit of fostering that program, I wanted to note a point of contact between Phillip and his targets. Phillip says this in his piece:
One might accept this defense of our Founding principles yet still press an aspect of the “radical” Catholics’ third criticism — that American liberalism, whatever its original character, has produced a decadent and deplorable legal and moral culture. One might contend that even if the Founders accepted natural law, moral duties, and limits on rights, their account of freedom has proved to be too thin. It provides too much freedom for bourgeois, comfortable self-preservation, what moral theologian Servais Pinckaers calls “freedom for indifference,” and insufficient cultivation of “freedom for excellence.”
An honest assessment of America and our history must acknowledge that there is something to this criticism. The Founders held that the primary purpose of government is to secure natural rights. They believed that a just political order would preserve freedom for its citizens but that it would not command its citizens to use their freedom well.
I'd put the point perhaps slightly differently. It isn't so much that government "would not command its citizens to use their freedom well." It is that government, in at least ostensibly abjuring any interest in the substantive uses of freedom, would neglect this feature of freedom--its affective side--and would in consequence foster, never quite expressly but nevertheless relentlessly, a particular and quite non-neutral understanding of the point of the freedoms it protects. An understanding that would be internalized and entrenched over centuries, whatever the natural rights view defended by Phillip and the likes of Thomas West (whose book is very interesting) may have once looked like.
One might derive from this point of contact (if such it is) between Phillip and the "radicals" a specific research program focusing on different streams of intellectual history during the founding period (e.g., in the church-state context, but certainly not only there) with an eye specifically on the development of the idea of freedom in the subsequent decades and centuries. It may turn out both that the founding generation's ideas about the uses of freedom were quite varied (just as varied as ours are) and that there are reasons for the dominance of certain of these ideas and the recessiveness of others over the centuries.