The Magazine

Defending Modern Times

Jeffrey Stout takes on the critics of liberal democracy.

Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By THOMAS HIBBS
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Democracy and Tradition

by Jeffrey Stout

Princeton, 400 pp., $35

GEORGE ORWELL once quipped that T.S. Eliot had managed the unlikely feat of making modern life seem worse than it actually is. In "Democracy and Tradition," Jeffrey Stout attributes something similar to a pair of contemporary academics, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the theologian Stanley Hauerwas--both known for their unflinching criticisms of modern liberalism and their advocacy of virtue in local communities.

The argument is interesting. One knew MacIntyre and Hauerwas were influential, but who suspected that they made the republic tremble? In "Democracy and Tradition," Stout makes some reasonable criticisms of what he labels the "new traditionalism." But his alternative account of the public philosophy of American democracy--his attempt to articulate a high liberal "ethical inheritance" that might stand up against the dangerous assaults of MacIntyre and Hauerwas--is surprisingly thin. And what he does say ends up in some measure confirming the worst suspicions of the radical critics of modern liberalism.

The chief point of dispute is whether the recovery of virtue requires a commitment to a conception of tradition that is antithetical to democracy. Stout thinks the answer to that question depends on one's conception of virtue. Democracy in itself is not opposed to tradition or virtue, according to Stout, but only to certain forms of tradition and virtue. Instead of a return to premodern models, of the sort promoted by MacIntyre and Hauerwas, Stout pushes for conceptions of tradition and virtue compatible with our democratic commitment to "the freedom to decide important matters for ourselves."

Stout wants, in other words, to carve out a position between the advocates of premodern tradition and those who think that modern liberalism is to be celebrated precisely because it destroys all traditions and privatizes every good. Indeed, Stout lays part of the blame for the radicalism of MacIntyre and Hauerwas on the most popular defenders of modern liberalism. "The more Rawlsian our law schools and ethics centers become," Stout contends, "the more radically Hauerwasian our theology schools become." John Rawls may have hoped that works like his "Theory of Justice" would bring consensus, but they have instead produced an increasingly acrimonious divide between a complacent liberalism and a reactionary anti-liberalism.

Thus, when Stout suggests that we need narratives that aid us in finding our place in the current cultural landscape, narratives that do not paper over injustices and irrationalities in cultural and political life, he would certainly find support in MacIntyre and Hauerwas. When he argues that we need to consider the grounds for anger and despair, on the one hand, and for hope, on the other, he would again find agreement.

Stout's disagreement becomes pointed only when we consider that, for MacIntyre and Hauerwas, the liberalism of the modern nation-state--with its bureaucratic individualism, its instrumentalist rationality, and its utilitarian economics--does not provide a way to do any of this. Both see the modern nation-state as the great enemy, although they do so for slightly different reasons. Insisting that "the true history of the world . . . is not carried by the nation-state," Hauerwas, America's best-known pacifist theologian, worries that Christians court idolatry when they identify among their primary responsibilities the support of the secular state.

Meanwhile, the philosopher MacIntyre argues that "the modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services . . . and, on the other, as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one's life on its behalf." It is, he said, "like being asked to die for the telephone company."

STOUT RIGHTLY, if predictably, observes that these accounts of modernity are distortions, even straw men, designed to set up local communities of virtue as the only refuge from the corrosive forces of liberalism. The more interesting criticism in "Democracy and Tradition" is that this crude way of depicting modernity puts each thinker at odds with his own thought. MacIntyre has had much to say about the nature of rationality and reasonable debate; he insists that the best test of a position involves subjecting it to the best arguments from rival views, and this in turn requires that one possess a kind of imaginative sympathy with the position of one's interlocutor.