Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Pursuit of Felicitas

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Pursuit of Felicitas

Article excerpt

In recent years, conservative Aristotelian-Thomists like Patrick Deneen and Alasdair MacIntyre have made the argument that a moral philosophy entailing a substantive account of human happiness or fulfillment is simply incompatible with the American liberal-democratic political order. They are convinced that America's foundational liberal philosophical principles are in their very DNA corrosive of the traditions and institutions necessary for the realization of final ends inherent in human nature.

While there may have been a time in our history when liberalism and eudaimonism could fruitfully coexist in the United States, they argue, that time has long passed. In the current "postliberal" era, liberalism's core commitments to "anthropological individualism" and the historicity of human "nature" have evolved to the point where they have rendered liberalism not only incompatible with eudaimonism but positively hostile to it.

While on balance I share many of these concerns, I think the liberal state deserves continued support for one simple reason: In my judgment, the full working out of the liberal principles that Deneen, MacIntyre, and I find so problematic has not yet progressed to the point where the liberal state has decisively mutated into a postliberal behemoth bent on imposing its liberal values on all its subjects. There are firewalls, institutional and philosophical, that continue to check the unfolding of this historical process, and Americans in particular continue to enjoy enormous freedom to pursue their final ends as they understand them.

This being the case, I think that what we need today is a shoring up of those firewalls-especially the philosophical ones. And that in turn requires regrounding the liberal state on principles other than those of the soul- and freedom-destroying liberal philosophical project.

The "liberal state" is a political institution that can take a variety of forms, but is essentially ordered around the institutions of limited government, individual rights, the consent of the governed, political equality, constitutionalism, and the rule of law. It is fundamentally ordered toward the freedom of the individual human being, and assumes that such individuals are naturally endowed with the capacity to govern themselves both individually and collectively.

It further assumes that between the state and the individual is, and should be, a robust array of institutions, including the family, civic organizations, and religious institutions. Finally, and crucially, it is indifferent to the ultimate goals and purposes of its citizens, provided that they respect the laws and limits necessary for its operation.

How can we reconceptualize the liberal state without relying on liberal philosophical principles? I would suggest that there are at least two ways.

First, the liberal state can be justified on the grounds that it provides the narrowly political public goods necessary for human flourishing and does so without treading on the reserved domains of the individual, family, or civil society. Human beings possess a distinctive purpose or nature (telos) that must be realized if they are to be fulfilled or happy. The human being is by nature ordered to realize his natural capacity to reason (that is, to be rational), to order his life according to the dictates of reason (that is, to live a life of virtue or moral excellence), and to associate with other human beings (that is, to live as a "political animal").

This being the case, the purpose of associating in political communities is to contribute to the fulfillment of their members' distinctively human nature-that is, to their full flourishing as rational, moral, and social animals-through education and through laws that prescribe certain actions and prohibit others. The common good of the political community is not merely the provision of the material necessities of life but the promotion of what Aristotle called the "good life" (the life of virtue). …

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