Monday, February 11, 2013

Liberalism Versus Communitarianism, Part 1: Secular Theodicy?

By Mike Dorf

Today I am scheduled to be on a panel at Boston University Law School discussing the excellent new book by BU LS Professors Jim Fleming and Linda McClain, Ordered Liberty.  The book defends liberalism against communitarian, civic republican and related criticisms.  In this post, I'll discuss what I plan to say in my remarks, which focus on the first three chapters of the book.  There (and in various places throughout the book), the authors address the following charge: Liberalism improperly elevates rights above responsibilities, and thus improperly elevates the individual above the group.

Fleming and McClain have each addressed such charges in their solo writings--especially in their respective books, Securing Constitutional Democracy (Fleming), and The Place of Families (McClain)--but teamed up they make a powerful combination.

The core of their response relies on a kind of intellectual jujitsu.  Communitarians often complain that liberalism relies on an unrealistic picture of the person as an "unencumbered self" who is isolated from others.    Not so, Fleming and McClain say.  In fact, quite to the contrary, liberals have much greater faith in people's ability to choose to act responsibly towards the community than do communitarians.  That's why liberals trust  individuals with substantially more autonomy to make responsible choices than communitarians do.

I should say that I am overall very sympathetic to liberalism as espoused by Fleming and McClain, although--to foreshadow my post for tomorrow--it's not clear to me how much of that sympathy stems from the fact that we share common values and thus would resolve concrete disputes similarly.

But that is not the point I intend to make during the panel--and which I make in a review essay that will later appear in the B.U. Law Review as part of the festivities.  During the panel and in the review essay, I will take issue with a claim made by  Fleming and McClain, as well as by some other liberal thinkers.  The claim is that one important reason why persons should have the rights they have is so that they may exercise their moral capacity to choose responsibly.  I argue in the paper that this claim parallels a claim made by religious thinkers who say that persons have free will in order to be able to choose to act morally.  In religion, this claim frequently appears as part of a theodicy--that is, an argument designed to respond to the problem of evil.  Evil exists, the argument goes, as a product of choices by human beings to do evil, and human beings must have that choice in order that they may be able to choose to do good.  Thus, God is not responsible for the bad things that happen in the world.

The argument is obviously fallacious in its original habitat because much of the problem of evil arises out of natural phenomena: disease, natural disasters, etc.  These evils are not the work of human beings exercising free will, and so the argument from free will does not get God off the hook for them.  There may be other, more persuasive, responses that religious persons can give to the problem of non-man-made evil, but I won't pursue them here because my main concern is with the "theodicean" claim when offered as a justification for political liberty, not when offered as a defense of God against the problem of evil.

Anyway, my core claim--which I develop at greater length in the full paper--is that the theodicean argument offers no reason, or at most a very slight reason, to affirm liberty in any given conflict between individual liberty and some collective goal offered as a justification to infringe liberty.  In a nutshell, Fleming and McClain are right that liberalism presupposes the capacity of persons to make responsible choices, but that capacity does not count as a justification for treating any putative liberty as shielded against being overridden if, on balance, the reasons for overriding the asserted right are strong enough to warrant overriding the right.

Finally, I should note that Fleming and McClain's book covers a lot of ground.  I have focused on one important theme here and in my review essay, but there are many others.  Tomorrow I'll have a few thoughts on how they address conflicts between liberty and equality.


Law Talk said...


I wonder if you push the theodicy argument a bit harder if it won't yield a response to your claim. The theologians who offer the free will defense don't usually conceptualize the good that God accomplishes through allowing sinful decisions in terms of the possibility of good decisions. In other words, the free will theodicy isn't focused on individual acts. Rather, the claim is that by allowing individuals to make choices freely they develop certain capacities, capacities that can only be developed through individual agency. This is why, for example, defenders of choice theodicies often refer to their argument as the soul making theodicy. By analogy, one might say that choice is necessary not because it allows for the making of responsible decisions per se, but because it allows for the development of certain capacities -- civic virtues -- that can only be developed through the exercise of agency. Now, one might believe that this argument in either its theological or political guise is mistaken. In other words, one might think that the exercise of agency is not in fact necessary to develop certain desireable character traits, but the argument doesn't strike me as obviously fallacious and would certainly provide a stronger reason for resisting encroachments on individual liberty than the version of the argument that you offer.

Finally, I think that you are wrong when you claim that the free will theodicy is obviously fallacious, at least for the reasons that you state. Theologians differentiate between different versions of the problem of evil, and the argument from free will is only directed toward the problem of human evil. The fact that an argument in response to objection A doesn't response to an entirely different objection B doesn't make it fallacious, only incomplete. Furthermore, if one subscribes to some version of a soul making theodicy, then one might claim that just as agency is necessary for the development of certain character traits, so too suffering in the face of natural evils is necessary to develop certain character traits. For what it is worth, I don't find this formulation of the argument entirely compelling, but I don't think it is fallacious for the reasons that you set forth.


Nate Oman

Michael C. Dorf said...

Nate: Thanks for this very thoughtful comment. In the full paper, I explore the soul making argument, or as I call it in the secular context, the character development argument. I acknowledge that this has some weight but not enough to do the work it is supposed to do.

With respect to the theological version, I meant only that the argument from free will is fallacious to the extent that it is intended as a complete response. Again, the full paper makes clear that there are versions of it that sell themselves as only responding to the problem of man-made evil. Still, in the next edit, I'll change "fallacious" to something like "incomplete."

For what it's worth, I find the character-building claims for natural disasters very unconvincing. Adversity can build character, but death cannot and natural disasters frequently kill many people, I suppose one can solve this problem by pointing to rewards in the hereafter, but that's a very different sort of argument. In any event, I have no doubt that thousands of years of attention to these matters by very clever people has produced a whole set of counter-arguments for every objection. But because my interest in this subject is by way of analogy, not for its own sake, I don't feel the need to delve too deeply.

Law Talk said...

Mike: I agree with you about the character building argument as a theodicy for natural disasters. I have never found it especially compelling. (And I say this as someone who is very much a believer.)

I am not sure, however, why you discount the character building argument so much in the political context. The best liberal responses to communitarian critiques, in my mind, seek to dispel the accusation of the desiccated liberal self. It seems to me that arguments that suggest that there is actually a liberal account of virtue and character are extremely useful here, and the idea that one could develop character best through the use of agency strikes me as pretty plausible. Obviously, a character building defense of liberal freedom can't be pushed too far. It certainly isn't going to justify an extreme version of liberalism like libertarianism. On the other hand, it seems like a useful argument that allows the liberal defender to (1) concede that liberal institutions allow individuals to engage in immoral actions, even when immorality is defined in rather thin political terms; and, (2) affirm that the inaction of the state in the face of such individual immorality needn't rest on on some conceptual disability that forbids liberals from making moral judgments.

Law Talk said...

I look forward to reading the written version, BTW. Tracing out the theological roots of secular political arguments is always a fun exercise in my book.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Hi Nate,

I'll send you the paper offline. I don't entirely discount the possibility that practicing responsibility is valuable, but I distinguish strategic instances from instances in which moral choice is the point.

Thanks again.

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