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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Yet, MacIntyre's hasty dismissal of the modern nation-state fails to examine liberalism in its complexity. Similarly, Hauerwas sometimes willfully refuses to engage certain kinds of questions. In response to the question, "Do I support democracy?" he states, "I have to confess that I have not got the slightest idea, since I do not know what it means to call this society 'democratic.' Indeed, one of the troubling aspects about such a question is the assumption that how Christians answer it might matter."

STOUT WANTS TO PRESS this point further and insist, on the basis of Hegel's account of social rationality, that modernity itself provides at least part of the social substratum that makes even our criticisms of modernity possible. Against MacIntyre and Hauerwas, Stout urges that believers in local communities of virtue should be able to "identify with their community even as they express their alienation from it." They should "maintain their convictions while taking up their responsibility as citizens."

Building upon this, he concludes that MacIntyre and Hauerwas "actively foster alienation from public discussion"--despite the fact that they have a much greater appetite for public argument than most of their liberal critics. "Democracy and Tradition" does admit the importance of recovering the language and practice of virtue, but only through such distinctively American authors as Emerson and Dewey.

For Stout, this need not entail radical individualism. His vision of the "pluralism of modern democratic society" involves the "co-existence of multiple subcultures." But it is not at all clear how we are to understand the relation of local subcultures to the whole of American society, or what will keep the diversity from becoming a homogeneity.

Despite chapters on "The Emergence of Modern Democratic Culture" and "The Ideal of a Common Morality," Stout does not have much to say about the content of our public philosophy or about the constitutional, legal, and pedagogical structures needed to preserve our ethical inheritance. "Democracy and Tradition" is disappointingly slim on key questions concerning how and where virtue is to be cultivated and how it is to be defended against the many modern threats MacIntyre and Hauerwas so carefully enumerate.

In the end, Stout proffers an Emersonian vision of democratic excellence, but some of what he says on this score plays directly into the hands of his opponents. He rules out as irrational and psychologically debilitating certain conceptions of religious life. He takes aim at a doctrine central to traditional Christian theology, original sin, which he describes as a "blight." He explains, "Masochistic self-abasement is not a virtue at all by Emersonian lights, even when it goes misleadingly by the name of piety."

But for whom has masochistic self-abasement ever been a virtue? There is a long and decidedly premodern tradition of distinguishing true from false piety, humility from scrupulosity, and obedience from self-degradation. For that matter, if Stout wants to articulate the "ethical inheritance" of America, it is difficult to see how he can discard original sin, some version of which was affirmed not only by the Puritans who formed so much of American thought, but also by the authors of the Federalist Papers. Not so overtly as Rawls but nonetheless palpably, Stout wants to refashion Christianity to suit a certain strain of liberalism.

JEFFREY STOUT is surely right that there is more to be said on behalf of modernity than MacIntyre and Hauerwas allow. Unfortunately, in "Democracy and Tradition," he never gets around to saying it. Modern liberalism needs to be rescued from the radical individualists if it is to be philosophically defended from its critics. But Stout's attempt to construct a middle ground crumbles at the least touch back into the same old implacable divide--between the Panglossians who insist that liberalism's dissolution of tradition and virtue is exactly what makes modernity so wonderful, and the doomsayers who reply that liberalism's dissolution of tradition and virtue is exactly what makes modernity so despicable.

Thomas Hibbs is dean of the honors college at Baylor University.