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Fr. 348

June 19, 2013

If, to this point, we have spoken of opposed poles within political philosophy, it should be noted that these are merely ideal types which serve a heuristic role and do not constitute an absolute either/or. Neither Rawls’ nor MacIntyre’s position holds entirely to the ideal to which his respective position has been identified; this characterization is, however, helpful for making sense of their fundamental differences. Likewise, in political philosophy at large, the range of variation between these poles is near infinite, and the manner in which a given thinker articulates this variation allows for endless inflection and nuance of the most prominent theories within the field of political philosophy. It is with this in mind that we call attention to the work of Jeffrey Stout, a contemporary American political theorist. Notably, Stout’s account of political discussion, i.e. of selecting and assessing laws and policies, in Democracy and Tradition has the merit of splitting the difference between universal liberalism and relative communitarianism, between Rawls and MacIntyre, through inflecting the positions of both thinkers.

Against Rawls, Stout remarks that the common justificatory basis in the original position (and further developed as the ideal of public reason in the former’s Political Liberalism) is not itself an object of universal assent and therefore cannot ground social cooperation, for individuals might reasonably deem assent of this kind to be unattainable or epistemically dubious in a pluralist society. Moreover, as the basis for justification and the norms for giving and sharing reasons cannot be fixed in advance by a general consensus, it therefore falls to the individuals themselves to engage one another in political discussion comprising two complementary processes: first, the presentation of the individual’s or group’s reasons for holding certain beliefs and convictions, a presentation that appeals to the specific discursive and conceptual background of the audience to whom the party addresses this presentation; secondly, immanent criticism in which the individual or group critiques the position of another individual or group in proceeding from the specific discursive and conceptual resources of the latter to a position resembling the beliefs and convictions of the former1. In the end, this transformation of norms by parties engaged in mutual discourse guarantees a form of social cooperation within a politics of difference.

Against MacIntyre, Stout underscores the tendency of such views to distance skeptics further from contemporary liberal, democratic institutions. This thereby worsens the social malaise remarked in modern political societies and obscures the specifically democratic virtues and goods that such societies offer: respect, responsibility, civic duty and discursive excellence. For the traditions and communities of which MacIntyre speaks cannot be generalized and extended to society without either forcing the tenants of other traditions and communities to abandon these in the aim of adhering to the dominant or dissolving the larger democratic society itself into a scattered collection of traditions and communities standing in an adversarial relation to one another.

Accordingly, Stout’s position situates itself at the midway point between Rawls and MacIntyre in that it emphasizes, on one hand, the need for a model of discussion that makes sense of difference rather than dismissing it and, on the other, the need to retain those specifically democratic virtues and goods arising within a politically liberal system. Thus, the end result of Stout’s position can be characterized as a dialogically fluid community based on a politics of difference rather than one of universality. Yet, at this point, a Rawlsian might object: is there not already a community of this sort on Rawls’ own view in the notion of “civic friendship”? Indeed, if “[t]he public will to consult and to take everyone’s beliefs and interests into account lays the foundations for civic friendship and shapes the ethos of political culture” (A Theory of Justice, p. 417), the Rawlsian position could itself be held to posit a notion of community like that on Stout’s view. Furthermore, the Ralwsian could conceivably maintain that, insofar as Stout’s “pragmatic expressivism” trades in a certain transformability of the social discourse and its rules, this position faces its own challenges: as with any open, fundamentally undetermined system, what are those rules or standards of which we have need now?

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1 A historical precedent for this type of criticism might be found in “Of a Christian Common-wealth”, Part III of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, where Hobbes undertakes a criticism of ecclesiasticism from scripture itself. I owe this observation to Lukas Sosoe. It should also be noted that MacIntyre espouses a similar view as concerns criticism of one tradition by another.

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