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Stout and individual XII

April 20, 2016

To return to the first step, we must ask whether and in what way the position of the individual directs attention to the kind of people we have become and are becoming. The author draws attention to this question as early as the preface (DT, p. xi) and recalls it at regular intervals. Stout gives the question its most pointed wording when he asks: “Do we have reason to be happy with the kind of people we have become under the influence of modern ideas, practices and institutions” (DT, p. 118)? Elsewhere, in a discussion on the “dirty hands” problem, the question receives somewhat lengthier treatment:

I would defend this commitment [to avoiding emergency states and actions] as an apt expression of the importance we ought to attribute to human beings as unique, irreplaceable individuals with the capacity to love, exchange reasons, repent of wrongdoing, and suffer. As I see it, the issue is what kind of people we are going to be – a matter of self-definition and integrity (DT, p. 200).

Naturally, merely raising the question would amount to little, were the author neither ready to frame the question in new terms nor willing to propose an answer thereto. To both charges does Stout respond. As to the first, he recalls precisely what constitutes an analysis of the kinds of people produced by society: a character study. Therein, we draw attention to a person’s virtues and vices and, in a second step, attempt to relate these back to the person’s context and society. For neither term is insulated from the other. Recall that:

[C]haracter and society are reciprocally related; each has an effect on the other. We bear responsibility both for society’s current condition, which would have been otherwise if we had had different virtues and vices, and for its future condition, which will depend on what we make of ourselves today and tomorrow. If we find society in poor condition, we have reason to fear the effects of that society on us. We may be weakening – may indeed have already ruined – our own capacity as a people to reform (DT, p. 21).

In conducting a sociological inventory of character and society, we are faced with the need to relate two elements between which contemporary political philosophy has drawn few links of late: personal character and democratic society. Indeed, rather than in consonance, the two have more often seemed at odds insofar as considerations of character, virtue and vice owe more to traditionalist modes of inquiry and their talk of hierarchy and excellence. The latter represent just that from which more modern modes of inquiry, such as philosophy and democratic theory, have distanced themselves, to the point that its supporters sometimes depict democracy and democratic society as being strictly, essentially anti-traditional. So the story goes, democratic society is not the place to cultivate virtue but opens a space in which persons can exchange rights claims and counterclaims in aim of justice.

Yet, for Stout, traditionalist inquiry on character and virtue dovetails with that dominant in democratic society. As the author frames the issue:

Commitment to democracy does not entail the rejection of tradition. It requires jointly taking responsibility for the criticism and renewal of tradition and for the justice of our social and political arrangements […] The responsibility we share for the justice of our political arrangements inside of and outside of our religious communities not only concerns who gets to play what roles; it also concerns what the basic roles and character types are going to be […] [I]n our day, taking responsibility for the social roles and character types in our social system raises the question of how we might adjust all of our practices and institutions so as to give shape to selves […] (DT, pp. 152-153).

This twofold responsibility makes for a stark contrast with the more standard conceptions of democratic society to which we have alluded above. Whereas those conceptions focus on the second responsibility to the detriment or even the exclusion of the first, Stout sees in the first the means of testing and shoring up the second. In other words, taking a critical eye to the roles and character types within different discursive communities allows us either to retain, alter or discard the former, thereby extending new conceptions of justice within those communities. At the same time, critical work on roles and character types within communities grants us a clearer vision of, on one hand, the different possibilities for roles and character types within the broader society and, on the other, the ways in which practices and institutions might be adjusted so as to facilitate certain roles and character types as opposed to others. Within the grand laboratory of democracy, such alterations appear eminently plausible for the author.

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